Even as the Indian foreign policy establishment has been busy with the Sri Lankan elections and the NSA level talks with Pakistan, trouble has broken out right across the open border in Nepal. Protests for a particular form of federal demarcation have turned violent in the western district of Kailali, and several people have been killed – among them 6 policemen and 3 civilians. Unofficial reports put the figure at over 20. If the higher figures turn out to be correct, the state has not faced this scale of violence ever since the civil war ended in 2006.
The killings come in the wake of prolonged agitation in the plains, and deepening polarisation in the Nepali society and polity. The government has, on Monday evening, decided to deploy the army to aid civilian authorities in affected districts.
Nepal is in the final lap of writing its Constitution through an elected Constituent Assembly (CA). The primary political issue which has polarised society is the nature of federalism. After the devastating earthquake of April 25, Nepal’s bigger political parties -- Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and the Maoists along with a smaller party from the plains -- came together to forge a deal. They decided Nepal would have a parliamentary system; a bicameral house; a mixed election model with both First Past the Post and proportional representation systems. It would also have eight federal states – but the boundaries and names of the states were to be determined by a federal commission.
The deal immediately triggered a backlash from two constituencies. The Madhesis of the plains -- who share close ethnic, familial, linguistic ties with people across the border in Bihar -- have felt politically excluded in the hill-dominated political structure of Nepal. They were at the forefront of demanding federalism in Nepal and saw the deal as a way of postponing and subverting the federal project.
The Janjatis, hill ethnic groups, also sought immediate demarcation. Nepal’s Supreme Court said that the interim constitution had envisaged that the CA would determine federal boundaries and directed the political leadership to go by this directive.
The Government of India too believed that it was important to take in to confidence as many stakeholders as possible, and not let problems fester for the future. When Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ and Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba visited New Delhi, Indian leaders and officials advised them to have a constitution with federal demarcation.
Nepal’s top leaders agreed and carved out six federal states, but this triggered a fresh set of protests. For close to ten days, the plains of Nepal next to the Indian border have witnessed a strike.
Three far eastern districts of the Tarai (Morang, Sunsari and Jhapa which border West Bengal and Bihar) were merged with the hills into one province – this was primarily done because an influential leader, KP Oli, came from the region. Madhesi political groups which had sought a plains-only province in the eastern Tarai objected to the demarcation and took to the streets. The oldest Tarai party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the CA. Two far western districts (Kailali and Kanchanpur, which border Uttarakhand) were merged with the western hills into another province -- this was done at the behest of another influential leader, Sher Bahadur Deuba. Tharus, an ethnic group of the Tarai, who have ethnic and kinship links with Tharus on the Indian side, also objected to this demarcation. They demanded a Tharu plains-only province in the western Tarai. There were also protests in the mid-western hills of Nepal, which wanted to be carved out as a separate province.
The big three, as NC, UML and Maoists are known in Nepal, agreed to revise the federal deal. They added a seventh province – but that only addressed the demands of the people of the western hills, without taking into account Tharu and Madhesi grievances. Let alone bringing the dissenters on board, this alienated the only Madhesi party which had earlier signed up to the six state deal. The Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (Democratic) also walked out of negotiations.
The polarisation was now deep, driven largely by ethnicity. On one side were hill castes which dominated the ruling parties, and on the other were marginalised social groups which felt excluded from the constitutional process.
The Tharu movement in the west and Madhesi movement in the east continued to escalate. Kathmandu’s political leadership, however, was smug that that it could not gain popular traction and was reluctant to address the aspirations of the dissenting constituencies. PM Sushil Koirala issued an appeal for talks, but this seemed more formalistic than substantive because the CA process was continuing on the side. Madhesi parties said that unless the constitutional process was stopped for now, and past agreements implemented, the movement would continue.
It is in this context that violence broke out in Kailali on Monday. The district is considered the heart of the Tharu ‘homeland’ with over 40% of the citizens belonging to the ethnic group. For days, large demonstrations had been taking place. Details of Monday’s event are sketchy, but at least 6 policemen and some protestors have been killed. The government immediately deployed the army to aid civilian authorities in troubled districts of Kailali, Sarlahi and Rautahat.
There are two possibilities now
The government and Kathmandu’s political leadership can choose to dig their heels in. There is understandable anger over the killings of policemen – which cannot but be condemned in the strongest possible terms. The state may use this to unleash retaliation, which can only lead to more violence and deepen the ethnic polarisation. The parties could also choose to postpone the federal project and rush through the Constitution. This carries enormous risks and could sow the seeds of a long term conflict.
The second -- more desirable possibility – is that the state wakes up to the anger in the plains. An independent investigation is essential to hold accountable those who unleashed the violence; the state has to enforce order. But at the same time, PM Koirala must set up a negotiation team; reach out to dissenting groups; and the parties, along with the CA chair, must put on hold the constitution-writing process for now.
Kathmandu‘s smugness that protests can be managed is partly responsible for the crisis today. It is time to drop the arrogance, and widen the consultations to bring on board Madhesi and Tharu groups in the constitution writing process. India can help by advising Kathmandu to be restrained and encouraging the leadership to tackle the roots of the violence.