Even as moderate Madhesi parties wage a movement to seek revision in Nepal’s new constitution, the country is witnessing a nascent separatist movement in the Tarai.
The free Madhes campaign is led by CK Raut, who was arrested by the Nepali government and charged with treason in 2014. He was acquitted by a Special Court and lives in the Tarai town of Rajbiraj, under close state surveillance.
In Delhi on a private visit, he spoke exclusively to the Hindustan Times on his personal trajectory, why he seeks a free Tarai, expectations from India, and if such a campaign can be successful in 21st century South Asia.
Q. Why do you want an independent Madhes?
A. This is not a matter of only Nepal or Madhes. Wherever there is colonial rule in the world, the only solution is complete freedom from the colonising force and that is why we have selected this method. No other means, be it federalism or anything else, can provide a solution for colonial rule.
Q. What makes you say Tarai is a colony of Nepal?
A. There are several reasons. One, look at the army. Ninety five percent of the army present in the Madhes hails from outside Madhes, ie from pahad, hills. Even in India, during colonial rule, only 3 to 5% of the armed forces were from Britain. The Tarai is heavily colonised by the pahadi invading force.
Two, in colonisation, people from ruling class migrate and settle there. In 1951, people from ruling class constituted 6% in Tarai but today, it is 36%. This is one- sided migration. Three, even up to 1958, Madhesis required a visa to enter Kathmandu, which proves that we had a separate existence until then.
Fourth, in colonial rule, the colonial power goes to colonised land and exploits resources and brings it back. In Madhes, pahadi ruling class came to Madhes, exploited land, forest and rivers, raised revenues and took it back to the original place. Three-fourths of the revenue is collected from Tarai, but only 10% of the budget is spent on Tarai. There is cash flow from the Tarai to the hills. And fifth, the colonisers impose their language and culture in colonised territory. And in the Madhes, they have imposed the Nepali language and Nepali dress. This is all evidence for colonisation.
Democracy and violence
Q. Even if you are right historically, with democracy, isn’t there a possibility of accommodating Madhesis within the ruling structures of Nepal? In the last 10 years, there has been a Madhesi president and vice-president; there were over 200 Madhesis in the legislature; there is increased representation in bureaucracy. Should this process of integration and inclusion not be supported?
A. For democracy, you need freedom of choice. But that is not possible without liberation. On inclusion, it is not just a matter of numbers or proportion. During British rule, Indians outnumbered British in administration or bureaucracy but the British ruled India. The issue is the quality of inclusion. A small group of the ruling class can have the final say. It does not matter if a Madhesi could become president or vice-president; they could not practice their due rights granted by the constitution. They could barely rise above being second class citizens.
Q. There are other problems with a secessionist movement. The first is it will invite repression. And the second it is not feasible. South Asia’s map has not been redrawn since 1971 and will not happen now. Isn’t this a futile cause?
A. In today’s world, human rights have been established. There is well established international law. We can say that in this era of international order, there is a good mechanism for waging a peaceful revolution and asking for liberation. And there are already proper mechanisms like referendum that can liberate a land.
And second, it is not impossible at all. For example, 70 years ago, only 51 countries were registered in UN and now we have 193. In the past 25 years, more than 30 countries have got independence. It is not impossible.
Q. So is your immediate demand a referendum?
A. Yes. We want a referendum in the Tarai on the question of whether Tarai wants to be independent from Nepal or not.
Q. And what if the majority of the people in Tarai say they want to be a part of Nepal. Will you accept it?
A. Yes, I will accept it.
Q. Whenever you raise such an issue, it is inevitable that elements will pick up the gun. Peaceful movements are seen as ineffective for a cause like this. Don’t you think your demand will lead to violence and counter violence?
A. I am fully committed to non violence for both reasons of principle and pragmatism. The world is more united against violence than ever. There is no place for it. Second, even if you achieve independence with violent means, you cannot keep it for a long time. We have seen that with the Tamils in Sri Lanka and even the Maoists in Nepal.
People doubt the effectiveness of non violence, but research shows that with non violence, success rate is 70% while it is only 10% for violent movements. The third reason is that wherever there is violence, that society is most affected. We don’t want Madhes to be affected like Sudan and African countries.
Q. Where did the Tamils go wrong in your assessment?
A. The whole problem was the violent means. That was a complete mistake. That is why despite hundreds of thousands of Tamils being killed, the international community could not take any significant measures.
The Tarai’s internal dynamic
Q. The Tarai itself is so diverse. There are multiple castes within Madhesis; there are Tharus; there are Muslims. What makes you think they all want to live together, but separately from Nepal?
A. These are artificially created divisions by the Nepali state so that the ruling class can appear strong. But we are well connected by our language, culture, history and aspirations. The most effective uniting factor is that we are all discriminated and tortured by the Nepali state.
Q. But this is a negative conception of nationalism. You want to build nationalism based on only a common enemy ie the Nepali state? What is the positive thing that binds you?
A. This is just one aspect of nationalism - a common mental aspiration or expression. Madhesis also share other aspects like history, culture, language, economic structures.
Q. But even there, one could argue that history as the Dalit sees it, as the Tharu sees it, as an upper caste Madhesis, as a Muslim sees it is different. One could argue that there is no common language either. How would you respond to that?
A. As I said, those differences are created and projected by the Nepali ruling class. Look at language – you can go from Jhapa to Kanchanpur, and speak in one language, which is Hindi. But the ruling class people taught us that Hindi is not our language, and we must not speak it. You can see the conspiracy right there.
Q. You mentioned that divisions are a creation of Kathmandu. But caste is not a product of Kathmandu’s politics. The fact that women in Madhes are treated unequally is not because of Kathmandu. Aren’t these the real problems in Tarai?
A. The caste question is not unique to Madhes. It has been a feature in the Indian subcontinent. Once we have control, we can handle it. The whole control is out of our hands. As long as that key does not come in our hand, we cannot solve anything. That key is freedom. Once we have it, we can take decisions and form a strategy.
Q. As you said earlier, over one-third of the population in Tarai includes people of hill origin. They would, one can assume, strongly oppose any secessionist movement. How will you deal with that?
A. We are not against any community. This is the end of colonial rule for everyone living in the Tarai, and not just one community or the other. Two, even in the US it was the British immigrants who participated in the struggle for independence. In India, AO Hume or Annie Besant supported the nationalists.
We would urge people of hill origin to join the movement. And finally, when the Tarai is colonised, when it is deprived of its share of resources and budget, the pahadis living there also suffer. So it is for their rights too.
Constitution and the Madhes andolan
Q. How do you see the current constitution?
A. The ruling class has done its best job for preserving its agenda and benefits. It is not surprising at all. It is not for Madhesis at all. All articles have been written to exploit Madhesis.
Q. There is a movement underway to revise those aspects of the constitution which Madhes sees as discriminatory. Do you have views on that?
A. We have already done enough movements in the past with the same agenda. That has proven futile. This time, it is coming out of sheer frustration, rather than any definite agenda. The Madhesi parties have not been very consistent in demanding how many federal provinces should be in Tarai. The demands have been wavering.
Q. How do you assess the role of the moderate Madhesi parties?
A. I will say that basically they understand there won’t be any achievement except building their party base. Their effort must be appreciated for keeping the movement alive for five months, and preventing any major ethnic clashes and violence during this time.
Q. Do you think that the movement will bring about change the structure of the Nepali constitution and state?
The ruling class has been clear about it - that they do not want to give rights. We are not clear. The problem is with us. Our Madhesi leaders are not clear. They are just busy strengthening their party base. This movement will prolong till the next elections, and everything will be forgotten. The issue will get lost. The movement will end. There will be normal political procedure. Kathmandu has already been victorious. They have not even consulted the Madhesi parties during the recent amendment process.
The politics of sedition
Q. If Kathmandu wins, then what happens? Does your movement become stronger?
A. Yes, yes. If we have can have a referendum right now, it will show that majority of Madhesis already want independence. There is only one way left now.
Q. If there is no referendum and independence is not granted, what happens then?
A. We should not be seeking independence as being granted from them. We should be holding elections, forming our own legislature, and government. It is under our own control. When we are prepared, we should form the government and seek recognition from international community. It is a question of our preparedness.
Q. But that will be sedition and the Nepali state will crack down?
A. That is why we are doing this through peaceful means. If hundreds of thousands of people rise, then the state cannot crack down and charge treason against all of them.
Q. You were arrested last year on sedition. What are that experience like?
A. It was a great experience. I am proud of the time in jail. It gave me a lot of confidence in myself and my way. It also showed the power of non violence. There are many armed groups in existence but the state did not go after them, but us because they know power lies in non violence.
Q. You don’t think asking for independence is sedition?
A. Not at all – because sovereignty lies with the people and it is the people who should decide whether Madhes or any region should be independent or not.
Q. Where are you getting support from? Such a movement cannot run on air. There has to be financing, organisation.
A. From the people, the general mass of Madhes. Once they understand why we need independence, they are ready to sacrifice everything because nothing is more valuable than freedom.
Q. How do you see India’s role at the current moment and what is your expectation from Delhi?
A. India has a unique role about Madhesis. It has a great responsibility to ensure that Madhesis are not prosecuted. India has played a positive role. Because of the open border and other affinities, India cannot close its eyes at all. If the region becomes violent, it will affect India. During the current movement itself, thousands of Madhesis sought refuge in India. And if the violence increases, that number will significantly increase. If Madhes does not become independent in the next 15 years, there may be hundreds of thousands of Madhesi refugees in India.
Q. But India values its state to state relationship with Nepal; it is committed to Nepal’s unity and territorial integrity.
Why should India take a stand in favour of a break up of a friendly state? It has not done so anywhere in the region.
A. The last five months has proved that Madhesis will not get any rights within Nepal. It has also proved that Nepal is not in the hands of India. It is in the best interests of India to support a free Madhes because that will lead to a friendly, stable and peaceful neighbour which is Madhes rather than having a violent trodden, communist region that is Nepal.
Q. You were among the most successful Madhesi professionals in Nepal – you studied on a scholarship in Japan, and then did a PhD from Cambridge, and you were working in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Most people would like to move from Rajbiraj to Boston, you came back when you could be earning thousands of dollars. Why?
A. I used to make that kind of money. The thing is that once you satiate material desires and pass all those levels of human needs, then you start looking beyond personal and familial needs. Once I became what people call successful, I started looking beyond myself – to my society and when I looked beyond, I saw poor Madhesi people and the problems they were facing.
And because I was at the top of the ladder, I felt it is my responsibility as well to solve those problems. I had worked for two years in the US, and planned to stay for ten years there. But I went on a tour from Mechhi to Mahakali across the Tarai and during that tour, I saw many pitiful scenes of Madhes. People far from my home looked at me with pitiful eyes, hoping I would give a solution. That journey forced me to decide that I must return from the US immediately and do whatever I can on this very land.
Q. Was there a particular moment when you decided you would fight for Madhesi freedom? What was the trigger?
A. Prior to the Hrithik Roshan scandal in December 2000, I used to consider myself a true Nepali. That incident turned me into a Madhesi. For an alleged anti-Nepali remark from Hrithik Roshan, riots were triggered across Nepal and Madhesis were targeted. (Roshan denied making such comments). I was an engineering student in Kathmandu and was staying there during my winter vacation.
I observed it first hand; saw Madhesis severely beaten. Houses of Madhesis were burnt. I was a victim from my own close friends. That incident actually forced me to look at myself and search for my identity and nationality. I was questioned that I was not a Nepali when I considered myself someone ready to die for Nepal.
I was not very open about it because I also had a spiritual inclination. I was always in a dilemma – whether to pursue spiritualism or fight for identity, dignity and rights. I went on a spiritual tour across India and I realized there is no way to run away from one’s own identity. That forced me to fight for my identity and nationality. That was the turning point of my life. Then I became an advocate for independence.