Once regarded as Nepal's food bowl, the fertile Terai plains along the border with India were hit on Saturday by a two-day shutdown as the Tharus, an indigenous community who claim descent from the Buddha, began protesting against the government's quota policy that allegedly clubs them with people of Indian origin.
The Tharus, who were among the first residents of the southern lowlands but were evicted from their own land by migrants and reduced to landless slaves, have called the closure that will affect over two dozen districts in southern Nepal to oppose the new state reservation policy that they say lumps them with Madhesis.
"We have to unite against the conspiracy by the hill people, Madhesis, Hindus and Brahmins," said Raj Kumar Lekhi, chief of the Tharu Kalyankarini Sabha that has called the strike.
"The government is trying to bulldoze over Tharus and other indigenous communities to hand over their rights to Madhesis," he added.
The protest is targeted against the ordinance issued by the government of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda that paves the way for the reservation of 45 percent seats in seven state and public sectors, including the bureaucracy and security forces, for disadvantaged communities.
The Madhesis have a sizeable allotment, which is being opposed by the Tharus, who say Nepal has no "Madhes" or middle state, as claimed by the Madhesis.
"Nepal has only mountains, hills and the Terai," Lekhi said. "Madhes or Madhya Desh is an Indian concept that can't be implemented in Kathmandu."
Protesters early morning shut down the East-West highway that is the lifeline of Nepal and connect it with India.
Markets remained mostly closed in the Terai districts and transport come to a standstill. In Udaypur district, protesters torched a vehicle that was carrying patients.
The Tharus are demanding proportional representation on the basis of population.
According to the census, Tharus comprise 1.6 million of Nepal's nearly 29 million population. However, Lekhi says the census excluded a large numbers of Tharus, whose total number is around 3 million.
Though Nepal has abolished slavery, thousands of Tharu families, including children, still work as serfs. They are also regarded as untouchables.