Voices of Change
The Madheshis have developed a recognizable significance in Nepali politics.
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!