Ex-Kamalaris pose for a photo ahead of the Maghi festival, which they celebrate with much fanfare.
NEPALGUNJ, Jan 14: Maghi is considered the greatest festival of the Tharu community. However, Sita Tharu of Baijapur would never feel good when the festival would approach near in the past. Instead, she would feel extremely sad. It was not a festival for girls like her. Rather it was the time when Tharu families would make a deal with their landlords to send their daughters to their homes as Kamlaris (bonded labors). Tharu girls would either have to continue working at the same house, or change the owner as per the decision of their families.
“It still sends shivers down my spine when I recall those days. I'd have a feeling that I was not a human but some cattle that would be forced to live at someone else's house,” said Tharu. “And treating Kamalaris with kindness was a rare practice. Becoming a Kamalari at anyone's house means you have to be ready for anything, any level of suffering,” she added.
Maghi, which is marked on the first day of the month of Magh is also celebrated as the new year by Tharus. They believe that they bid goodbye to winter with the arrival of the date. They make merriment, eat and drink quite lavishly for days.
“As a kid, I have memories of having fun during the festival, but later, when we became little older, we came to know our story was different. We were very poor people and had to make compromises,” Tharu said. “Being sent to someone else's house as a bonded labor was very painful,” she added.
Tharu stayed as a Kamlari at her landlord's house for five years. Later, the government banned this tradition freeing all Kamlaris and Kamaiyas (male bonded laborers) in 2006. Despite the ban, the practice was not instantly abolished. Due to the interest of both sides, landlords and Tharu families, girls and boys continued to serve the rich people just as before. Even though the government had promised several things for the resettlement and dignified life of the freed laborers, little was delivered in this regard. This left the poor people in a dilemma forcing many to take refuge at the houses of the same owners again.
“Only a few Tharus could really free themselves then. Even later, it took huge deal of time and effort to tread on your own path,” Tharu reports.
Maghi, these days, does not bring any kind of pain, however. Irrespective of how the ex-Kamalaris and Kamaiyas are doing, one thing is pretty sure that they have no worries at least during the festival.
“After the government banned this tradition, we did not have to face the bitter situation. Even if it's not your turn, another family member would otherwise be ready to get into the house of the landlord as laborer and that would affect the whole family,” Chaudhari reminisced.
Now, the festival is purely a festival for all Tharus. They celebrate it with full zeal and happiness.
“I had many sisters. And we used to sob like a child thinking of the day to go to the landlord's house right after Maghi. This is the story of many Tharus. But now, Maghi has become a real festival for us too,” Tharu sounds elated.
After being a 'free' person in 2006, Tharu has been actively involved in promoting the rights of the people like her. She leads ex-Kamalaris in Banke as they voice for their proper settlement.
Manisha Tharu is another ex-Kamalari turned leader. She has a similar story as that of Sita. When she goes down memory lane, there is little that brings smile on her face. Her days were miserable at the landlord's house, and Maghi was not a real festival for her, too.
“Maghi would instead bring tears to the eyes of people like us. Though that was our greatest festival, we would not be privileged to take it that way. Life was extremely hard under others' control,” she remarked.
Manisha has seven years of experience of living as a Kamalari at her landlord's house. “In those seven years, I understood how hard life could be,” she notes.
“Irrespective of your age and health, you needed to wake up before dawn and sleep at late night. The whole day, very hard work,” she reminisced. “We would indeed be treated as bonded people, though some landlord's would be relatively kinder,” she added.
Manisha reported that the situation of Tharus has gradually changed. The new generation - most of them - is educated. “During such occasions or get together, we rather discuss our future plans, businesses, and education instead of which landlord to work for,” she said.
According to the Freed Kamalari Development Forum, there are around 13,000 ex-Kamalaris in Banke, Bardiya, Kailali, Kanchanpur and Dang districts. Vice president of the Forum, Dil Kumari Tharu says Maghi celebrations then and now are different for ex-Kamalaries. “Now, they are free and confident about celebrating Maghi and their lives,” she said.