Voices of Change

The Mad­heshis have de­vel­oped a rec­og­niz­able sig­nif­i­cance in Nepali pol­i­tics.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Al­mas Jawaid The writer is an HR pro­fes­sional and a free­lance con­trib­u­tor. She writes on so­cial and cul­tural is­sues.

Med­heshi lead­ers ac­cuse the Nepalese gov­ern­ment of treat­ing them as out­siders.

The peo­ple of Mad­hesh are of In­dian ori­gin living in the South­ern Terai plains of Nepal. They are cul­tur­ally and eth­ni­cally con­cen­trated along the Indo-Nepal bor­der. The Mad­heshi pop­u­la­tion ac­counts for one-third of the Nepali pop­u­la­tion and com­prises dif­fer­ent castes: Dal­its, Ra­jputs, Brahuns, Jana­jatis and Mus­lims. Sim­i­larly, Tharus, Dhi­mals, Satars, Ra­jban­shis and quite a few other mi­nori­ties are the in­dige­nous groups that live in the in­ner and outer Terai re­gion.

The Terai is ge­o­graph­i­cally and cul­tur­ally dis­tinct from the pop­u­la­tion of hill ori­gin (gen­er­ally Pa­hadis). Due to its strate­gic lo­ca­tion, most agrobased in­dus­tries are lo­cated here. Eco­nom­i­cally, the Terai is the most fer­tile and re­source-rich re­gion in Nepal and con­trib­utes some 70% of agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion to the econ­omy. The re­gion is also rich in forestry.

Nepal has rec­og­nized Mad­hesh as a sep­a­rate unit through dif­fer­ent leg­is­la­tions. A surge in iden­tity pol­i­tics in Nepal has caused eth­nic and re­gional ac­tivism. Iden­tity groups such as in­dige­nous na­tion­al­i­ties, Dal­its, Mad­heshis and Mus­lims have all mo­bi­lized to dif­fer­ent ex­tents, de­mand­ing fed­eral re­struc­tur­ing of the state, based on eth­nic iden­tity. Any di­vi­sion of Mad­hesh is likely to weaken Mad­heshi sol­i­dar­ity and em­pow­er­ment. The Mad­heshis de­mand that the whole re­gion from east to west should form a sin­gle Mad­hesh Pradesh. How­ever, the Pres­i­dent of the Nepali Congress is not in favour of eth­nic-based fed­er­al­ism be­cause it will ruin Nepal’s po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic sta­bil­ity.

Since pro­mul­ga­tion of the in­terim Con­sti­tu­tion of Nepal in 2007, the ma­jor con­stituents un­der­mined the gen­uine de­mands of the Mad­heshi com­mu­nity and the in­dige­nous na­tion­al­i­ties. This is the im­me­di­ate cause that sparked the fire in the eastern Terai and led to the Mad­heshi up­ris­ing, fol­lowed by the armed in­sur­gency by the Com­mu­nist Party of Nepal-Maoist (CPN-M). The Mad­heshis have at­tained an in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal iden­tity ever since and have voiced their eth­nic de­mands to end ex­ploita­tion and eco­nomic dis­crim­i­na­tion against them.

For cen­turies, the Mad­heshi have been dis­crim­i­nated against and treated as na­tion­als of an­other state. In the past, the iden­tity card or ‘Ra­hadani‘ was com­pul­sory for the Mad­heshis to en­ter the Kathmandu val­ley. Nev­er­the­less, the long-term his­tory of the trou­bled po­lit­i­cal up­ris­ing lies in the fail­ure of the ma­jor­ity. Con­flicts be­tween dif­fer­ent eth­nic, re­li­gious, lin­gual and cul­tural groups are the main rea­son be­hind the fail­ure of so­cial and eco­nomic change in Nepal.

As a small out­fit, the Mad­heshi Jana Ad­hikar Fo­rum (MJF) started a po­lit­i­cal ad­vo­cacy move­ment, de­mand­ing in­de­pen­dence of Mad­hesh from uni­fied Nepal with eth­nic self­de­ter­mi­na­tion rights. The im­pact of the Mad­heshi up­ris­ing was im­mensely ef­fec­tive in the con­text of achiev­ing fed­er­al­ism and in­cre­ment of elec­toral con­stituen­cies in favour of Terai to­wards more in­clu­sive democ­racy. Af­ter a rapid rise of pop­u­lar­ity through this peace­ful move­ment, the MJF reg­is­tered as a po­lit­i­cal party.

Mad­heshi lead­ers ac­cuse the Nepalese gov­ern­ment of treat­ing them as out­siders and not as part of Nepal due to their In­dian roots. More than 40 per­cent of the Mad­heshis still do not have cit­i­zen­ship or vot­ing rights and only 15 per­cent of the 330 Nepalese par­lia­men­tar­i­ans are Mad­heshis. The Mad­heshi revo­lu­tion has raised the is­sues of iden­tity, fed­er­al­ism and ac­cess and own­er­ship over nat­u­ral re­sources. All th­ese fac­tors need to be ad­dressed in the new con­sti­tu­tion. The Mad­heshi

move­ments and their suc­cess in the 2008 elec­tions have im­proved their bar­gain­ing po­si­tion and some had even se­cured min­istries.

In a bid to gain the at­ten­tion of the gov­ern­ment, the pro-Terai po­lit­i­cal party, the Mad­heshi Peo­ple’s Rights Fo­rum (MPRF), also known as MJF, launched demon­stra­tions to de­mand greater au­ton­omy and more rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the gov­ern­ment. Their de­mands also in­clude cit­i­zen­ship for the Mad­heshi pop­u­la­tion.

Last year, a coali­tion was formed among six Mad­heshi par­ties and the op­po­si­tion party UCPN-Maoist to push their agenda of de­mand­ing iden­tity-based fed­er­al­ism. The pur­pose of the coali­tion was to press the rul­ing par­ties - Nepali Congress and CPN-UML - to em­brace the peo­ple’s as­pi­ra­tions for change man­i­fested through the Mad­heshi move­ment in the past and in­cor­po­rate a fed­eral and demo­cratic repub­lic sys­tem in the new con­sti­tu­tion. Un­til

More than 40 per­cent of the Mad­heshis still do not have cit­i­zen­ship or vot­ing rights and only 15 per­cent of the 330 Nepalese par­lia­men­tar­i­ans are Mad­heshis.

now, rifts within and among ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties have slowed down the con­sti­tu­tion-mak­ing process.

The Maoist and Mad­heshi par­ties dif­fer on var­i­ous is­sues, a case in point when Mad­heshis pro­pelled mass en­try of their youth into the Army, whereas a sec­tion of the Maoists re­fused to ac­cept the idea. The op­po­si­tion coali­tion was mainly to op­pose the po­si­tions taken by the rul­ing Nepali Congress and the CPNUML on is­sues re­lated to con­sti­tu­tion writ­ing.

The op­po­si­tion coali­tion wanted the de­ci­sion to be a con­sen­sus, whereas a self-as­sured rul­ing coali­tion was con­vinced that it could over­ride this veto by a two-thirds ma­jor­ity to achieve its pre­ferred out­come. But all of this was too far from re­al­ity as on Jan­uary 22, scuf­fles broke out amidst the con­sti­tu­tion draft­ing process, led by the Nepali Congress. The Maoist op­po­si­tion ac­cused the rul­ing coali­tion of try­ing to push through their pro­pos­als with­out con­sen­sus. As a re­sult, Nepal once again has plunged deeper into cri­sis, fail­ing to meet a self-im­posed dead­line.

De­bate has also been brew­ing in the Terai that the Mad­heshis have failed to take any con­crete de­ci­sion about their fu­ture be­cause of In­dia’s sup­port for the lib­eral demo­cratic par­ties op­posed to eth­nic-based fed­er­al­ism. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil has shown sup­port for an in­clu­sive con­sti­tu­tion with the broad­est pos­si­ble sup­port.

Nepal is vul­ner­a­ble to both In­dia and China. Terai is not only im­por­tant for In­dia, but also for Nepal. Huge in­vest­ments in in­fra­struc­ture are con­cen­trated in Mad­hesh. Put dif­fer­ently, the re­sources of the en­tire na­tion are in Terai! If it were sep­a­rated, the rest of hilly Nepal would be land­locked, first by In­dia, and then by in­de­pen­dent Terai.

A top pri­or­ity for the Mad­heshi lead­er­ship is recog­ni­tion of the in­de­pen­dent state of Mad­hesh with an au­ton­o­mous gov­er­nance mech­a­nism and eq­ui­table power shar­ing. The Mad­heshis de­mand Hindi as the lan­guage of com­mu­ni­ca­tion, but this should not be at the cost of the mother tongues such as Maithili, Bho­jpuri, etc. There­fore, greater lan­guage rights could help level a very un­equal play­ing field. Ad­di­tion­ally, dif­fer­ent rights, for ex­am­ple, grant­ing cer­tain groups pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to nat­u­ral re­sources or po­lit­i­cal lead­er­ship po­si­tions, are bound to alien­ate many. The ten­sions ac­com­pa­ny­ing the trans­for­ma­tion are prob­a­bly just about to start!

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