The Karjahi Movement

Long forgotten stories of the Tharu women of Dang who fought for, and won, land rights 44 years ago

Tharu women from Karjahi, Dang who led a peasants’ revolt against the abuses of local landlords in 1980. The landlords had started intimidating peasants and vandalised their property with police help following the national land tenure reform of 1979, compelling these women to take action. ALL PHOTOS: Nepal Picture Library

The mustard fields along the road were in riotous golden bloom as we sped past on a motorcycle to the village of Karjahi in Dang district. It was a crisp autumn afternoon six years ago, and I was riding pillion behind Laudhan Chaudhary with the wind in my face. 

I was researching the history of feminism in Nepal for the Feminist Memory Project of Nepal Picture Library when I first came across the Karjahi Movement, a struggle for land rights led by Tharu women of this valley in the Inner Tarai of western Nepal. 

Laudhan had driven all the way down to Ghorahi to pick me up, and we finally pulled up in the densely packed Tharu settlement of Karjahi. A 15-year-old girl was bathing at a public tap. She was completely at ease with herself in a thin, water-soaked petticoat tied around her waist, her hands folded over her breasts.

Nearby, a group of teenage boys were boisterously playing cards. Off to one side, a young man was engrossed in a book. He was Laudhan’s eldest son, preparing for his overseer exam.

Laudhan left his bike in the yard of his small red mud-plastered house with cow dung patties drying along the walls. As soon as she saw that a guest had arrived, Laudhan’s wife Ashma got busy in the kitchen. 

Ashma is a familiar name among the women of Karjahi. She was nearly nominated to be a member of the federal parliament in Kathmandu. 

“Her name was proposed, but she wasn’t nominated by the party,” another woman helping in the kitchen explained, slicing okra with a dull, patinaed chulesi. 

Laudhan and Ashma had invited to their home other women involved in the Karjahi Movement for land rights to talk about their struggle back in 1980.

Tharu women from Karjahi


Tharu peasants in Dang were up in arms against jamindar landowners at the time. Leading the women was Patharkali Chaudhary, and there she was 44 years later, clad in a blue sari, sitting on a stool recalling the evening that a dozen policemen came to arrest her.

“I got up from my bed,” she said, leaping up from her stool to demonstrate. She shouted at the police, “Get out of my way, if you are real men” and rushed into her niece Ashma’s room. 

The police did not dare enter, but shouted from the courtyard: “Open the door, or we’re going to shoot.” Patharkali and her niece were also best friends, and they refused to be intimidated. Instead, she shouted back, “Hey you government dogs, shoot this poor woman in the chest if you dare. Otherwise drop your guns now.”  

Patharkali picked up a heavy stick and told Ashma to set their two enormous dogs, Nangi and Uduwa, on the police. The snarling dogs ran outside, barking and chased away the police and landowners from the courtyard. Patharkali swung her stick, hitting two nearest policemen and breaking the finger of one of them who had destroyed her plough.

“It was at that time that the police gave me the nickname Indira Gandhi because I was supposed to be as fearless as the Indian prime minister,” Patharkali recalls, smiling. “Imagine how much braver I would have been if I had studied more. I would have put those thieves in their right place.” 

Dozens of police came to the house every day for the next week, and every time, Patharkali chased them away. She had not eaten for several days, but nothing could weaken her resolve.

However, police arrested Patharkali’s brother, Thaggu Chaudhary, and she remembers going to the station in Fachakpur to visit him in jail every week. The policeman whom she had beaten, were overheard telling the others: “That’s Indira Gandhi. Let her in.” 

Even though the police all used her nickname, Patharkali herself did not even know at the time who Indira Gandhi was. 

“I would threaten to stab and kill them for breaking our plough, no wonder they gave me that name,” she says. “We fought for our rights, and because we fought we got our land back.”


Ashma Chaudhary
Ashma ChaudharyAsma Chaudhary/Nepal Picture Library

Patharkali’s niece Ashma remembers that at first the Tharu peasants were afraid of the jamindar who owned the land they tilled. 

The Tharu worked in the fields all year as sharecroppers but after giving away the harvest there was not enough to feed their families. The farmers knew the importance of land, and valued the soil that gave them sustenance. 

During the Karjahi Movement, Tharu women including Patharkali and Ashma took part in a protest march to Bijauri, 29km away from where the jamindar families lived. 

Clashes between police and Tharu farmers continued for weeks in Karjahi. The police would come at night and ransack their homes, fling cooked food into the courtyard and steal the best utensils. 

In one raid, police arrested Ashma’s uncle Premlal Chaudhary and her brother Ram Prasad Chaudhary. The next day, Ashma went to the police station in Sukuwari village and shouted, “Why did you arrest my elderly uncle who is living his last days?”

The jamindar would call policemen ‘sir’, but Ashma had the audacity to shout curses at them. She smiles as she recalls her boldness. 

“Premlal Uncle and Ramprasad Bhai were handcuffed in the police station,” says Ashma, recalling how the women including Patharkali, Keula, Shanti, Shyamkala, Suskala and Lakshmi (pictured) all yelled at the policemen: “Will you let our people go or will you fight us?” 

And for good measure, Ashma shouted: “Release my uncle or I will come in and kill you with my bare hands.” 

The next day there was mediation between the women of Karjahi with the Chief District Officer (CDO) of Dang. The police admitted to stealing household items and food from the Tharu homes. Ashma complained that he had been arrested without a warrant and beaten up. The police were finally found to have been at fault. The officers apologised and agreed to release their relatives.

“I was a 25-year-old woman and the police let my uncle go because I threatened them,” says Ashma, now 69. “Later, the police were heard complaining that they had to deal with very powerful women.” 

Ashma is convinced that it was their resistance that allowed the Tharu in Dang to finally get to till their own land. 

“If I had to do it all over again, I would,” she says, “I’m still strong. If I have to fight again, I will fight.”

Tharu women from karjahi


Nanachi could tell if someone was from a Pahadi hill caste just by smelling them. Or, to be more exact, not smelling them.   

“We who plough the soil and grow crops, we smell of sweat,” Nanachi explains. “Our bodies all have that odour. Those who do not work on the land do not smell. And those of us who till the soil can also shed blood for our land.”

Netralal Paudyal, a Communist leader from Dang, used to tell the farmers of the village to rise up against feudalism. This also inspired the women of Karjahi to fight injustice. But the landowners and the state apparatus were too powerful and some had started losing hope. 

So, Nanachi started writing and singing songs to build solidarity and give the struggle a boost. Keula Chaudhary played the madal, Indira Chaudhary danced. They sang as they guarded the village from sentry posts for months. The song they sang was:

कहा रे उठी जागी किसान दाजु भाइ

जबसम्म रहल दि सामन्तीले दुख दिइ

उठ जनता उठ जिमिन्दार के विरोध गर्न उठ

Where did you stand up, farmer brothers,

When they started giving you pain? 

Rise up, people, resist the landlords.

Nirmala, Sita Kumari, Keula 

Sitakumari Chaudhary

Nirmala Chaudhary still remembers the third day of Karjahi Movement when Nirmala and other women were wounded in attacks by the jamindar’s supporters. Nirmala and some of her friends rushed to the nearby villages to plead for help. Nirmala was carrying her child on her back. Sakhi, Belkeshari and Nirmala called upon other women to join the defence.

In Karjahi, three or four households belonged to the jamindar. They reached one landowner’s house and recovered all the ploughs and spades that had been stolen from them, and returned home.

Nirmala went to the home of one jamindar Ran Bahadur Pachai in Khirite village, climbed up the stairs, grabbed the jamindar’s shot gun, loaded the bullet and fired it. The inhabitants of the landlord’s household all fled. 

“We knew there was going to be a battle as the jamindar’s forces regrouped,” recalls Sita Kumari Chaudhary, another protester. “We were ready, all of us women fighters. The landlords were shocked that we women were ready to resist. We had no fear at all. We were fighting for our existence.”

In the melee that followed, Keula Chaudhary wrested a rifle off the hands of a policeman who was assaulting her and hit him across the face.

Keula Chaudhary
Keula Chaudhary

Not the marrying kind

The memories of struggle from more than four decades ago are still fresh in the minds of the women of Karjahi. As they recalled incidents and anecdotes, the women would complete each other’s sentences. And the alcohol helped.

Laudhan’s wife Ashma brought raksi in steel cups and passed them around to the women. They downed the rice spirit in a single gulp. Then, it was Ashma’s turn to continue her story.

Ashma was not interested in marrying, and everyone in the village was asking “Why are you not married yet?”

Laudhan is the son of Ashma’s maternal uncle. But when the queries about marriage became too insistent and unbearable, Laudhan finally gave up and said, “All right, then, I will marry my cousin.” The uncle’s son and aunt’s daughter therefore became husband and wife.

Laudhan and Ashma, like all couples, sometimes have arguments. When that happens, Ashma usually tells her husband, “You are my little brother, behave yourself and listen to me.” And that is how they settle their differences. 

And unlike other couples, Ashma never had to show Laudhan special respect. “This is the secret of most marriages where women are younger and men are older,” she said.

On the other hand, Patharkali (aka Indira Gandhi) got married after her sick mother pressured her into it. But the relationship did not last. Patharkali returned to her maternal home after a year.

“I broke a policeman’s arm,” Patharkali says, “do you think I would stand for an abusive husband? There was no way he could be married to a woman like me. It just wouldn’t last.” 

She felt like a servant in her in-law’s home. And after she left her husband, Patharkali has been in control of her own destiny, a free bird. Nepali women have risen up against injustice and oppression throughout history, but their contribution is less well documented. The stories and experiences of the rebel women of Karjahi are chronicled in the book The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project with pictures.

The women who rose up in the Karjahi Movement do not identify themselves as feminists. They prefer the term ‘existentialist’. They say, “We are existentialists. We fought for our own existence, and the existence of our soil.” 

There are women in Kathmandu who are international feminists, and one of them when asked about her work replied, “Google me.” 

But the Tharu women of Dang and other women struggling anonymously every day for their rights are the real feminists of this land. They are not interested in fame or publicity, that is not why they are fighting.

Their stories are undocumented and unheard, and you cannot find them in a Google search.   

Nisha Rai is a journalist interested in Gender Equality & Social Inclusion, Federalism and Health & Education. She was formerly with BBC Media Action.

The Public Life of Women: A Feminist Memory Project

In English and Nepali Nepal Picture Library, 2023

558 pages

Rs1,200 (Nepal);  INR1,500 (South Asia);  

$35 (Rest of the World)

ISBN 9789937141123

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