End of the Madhesi blockade: What it means for Nepal
The end of the Madhesi blockade without extracting a change in federal boundaries has demoralised the Tarai street. But Kathmandu will be making a mistake if it turns triumphant.
The Madhesi blockade at the Nepal-India border point of Birgunj – which Nepal had accused India of imposing even as Delhi pointed to the internal nature of the protests – ended on Friday afternoon. Trucks chugged along the Friendship Bridge after 135 days. There have been some efforts to block the border again, but it is unlikely to succeed. This phase – and this particular mode – of the Madhesi agitation may be its final lap.
The trajectory of an andolan
Here is a brief recap. Nepal’s Constitution was promulgated on September 20. Madhesis and Tharus, indigenous tribes of Nepal’s Tarai region, had been protesting in the run up the promulgation, and claimed the constitutional draft had eroded their political representation, compromised the architecture of inclusion, divided up their territory and carved out federal units which would deprive them of self rule, and institutionalised discriminatory citizenship provisions.
The government responded with force and killed over 40 protestors. The hill political elite went ahead with the statute. The Madhesi parties decided to change tactic – the protest shifted to the border and blocked supplies, generating pressure on Kathmandu. India only noted the Constitution and said its transporters, fearing insecurity, were unwilling to move in to Nepal. It urged the government to address the political problem.
Notably, as soon as the blockade was imposed by Madhesis, and India let its displeasure be known, the killings dipped.
The Nepal government called it an undeclared Indian blockade; it systematically raised the anti-Indian nationalism sentiment; it tried to cosy up to China and use it as an alternative source of supplies, but with little success. It also lobbied both internationally and with the Indian opposition against the government of India. The anti-Indianism was also a form of invitation to intervene; Nepal wanted India to let up the pressure and tell the Madhesis to give in. The evidence was not hard to find.
While Madhesis kept urging Kathmandu to come up with a political package and reach out to the Tarai, the Nepali establishment was keener on reaching out to Delhi. Eventually, the foreign minister of Nepal came to Delhi with a four point proposal – this included amending the Constitution to ensure constituencies were demarcated on the basis of population and provided for ‘proportional inclusion’ in state organs. It committed to clarifying provisions related to citizenship and creating a political mechanism that would revise federal boundaries in three months.
India saw potential in the roadmap and welcomed it when it was formalised as a cabinet resolution. The Ministry of External Affairs by then had got a bit wary of the internal political flak the government had received for mismanaging the Nepal relationship; it wanted to show that the policy had yielded results and moved ahead on regularising the state-to-state relationship.
The Madhesis initially rebuffed it, wanting an immediate deal on federal boundaries. Eventually, they agreed to the idea of a mechanism but wanted credible guarantees on the mandate and the constitutional validity of the mechanism. They also wanted amendments to reflect as closely as possible the text of the interim Constitution.
But the ruling parties, particularly the communist Unified Marxist-Lenin (UML), did not agree to the terms and conditions for the mechanism. It also pushed ahead with amendments which represented a dilution of the interim Constitution. The result was somewhat mixed.
On political representation in the lower house, population was now considered the main basis with geography as a secondary basis for constituency demarcation – this was positive. But there remain competing interpretations of what this would mean given that the weightage that would be given to population and geography was unclear. Each district would have one seat according to this amendment which again could work against the Tarai where 20 of the country’s 75 districts are home to half the country’s population. A related element of representation has not been addressed at all. The upper house will continue to have an equal number of representatives from each province – which again would lead to under representation of the Tarai units.
And finally, on affirmative action, an amendment reintroduced the principle of proportional inclusion – this was positive. But there remain 15 groups eligible for reservation benefits, which will dilute its essence and meaning for those who need it the most.
The biggest drawback of the amendment process was that it was not owned by Madhesis, and thus the Constitution could not widen its legitimacy
The blockade dilemma
It was in this backdrop that the movement was facing a dilemma.
The Madhesi parties had been veering towards a decision to end the blockade in the last few days for a variety of reasons. They had been under pressure from local constituents, fatigued after six months of protests. As a leader said, “Earlier, people used to come. Now we have to get people to the bridge.”
The form of protest seemed to have become ineffective – for a parallel supply chain through an illegal network, in which the Nepali state was complicit, had ensured supplies of fuel and other essentials to Kathmandu. All other border points were open and on an average, 1300-1500 trucks were moving to Nepal everyday even though the Kathmandu establishment continued to paint India as the villain imposing a blockade.
India too had been nudging the Madhesi leaders to rethink the strategy – for this neither seemed sustainable nor was it yielding the desired objectives. Prime minister K P Sharma Oli, who is scheduled to visit Delhi in the third week of February, and the Indian government were probably eager not to let this cast a shadow on the visit.
The government, the advocates of a review, could be given a limited period of time. If it did not revise federal boundaries, the movement would be restarted with vigour after using the interlude to prepare.
There were skeptics on this point of view. Some argued the withdrawal of the blockade without any tangible achievements on federalism would throw up questions about the efficacy of the instrument and expose vulnerabilities; others pointed to the difficulty in restarting the blockade again for the state would have learnt its lesson and would be better prepared this time around.
But the dominant mood was in favour of revising the form of the agitation, even as an understanding on creating a political mechanism on demarcation seemed likely. A meeting on Saturday was supposed to formalise the decision.
But there was a twist in the tale on Friday.
The blockade eventually ended because a nexus of local officials and businessmen from both sides, who had been resentful and had lost out on enormous legitimate revenues and illegitimate earnings, decided to take matters in their own hands. The traders got tents of protestors burnt, cleared the barriers, and trucks moved along. A little over 150 Madhesi protestors tried to block the path, but they were outnumbered.
It did not help from the Madhesi perspective that the rift within the Tarai parties had become so obvious in recent days. Rajendra Mahato -- a Morcha leader who has spent the most time in Birgunj leading the blockade -- suddenly turned against it. He argued that the town had suffered enough and if other border points could not be blocked, the Birgunj point should be opened. This sent conflicting signals to the ground. Other Morcha leaders felt that Mahato should have waited for the Saturday meeting and only then pushed his view in the public domain, and it was deeply opportunistic of someone who has led the blockade to suddenly disown the tactic - without a collective and considered decision of the front.
What matters however is the blockade has ended.
Kathmandu’s current establishment will be tempted to think that it has won, there is little else to do, and the problem was all an ‘Indian plot’. This is the understanding that has been internalised by many in the top echelons of the government – including the Prime Minister. If it adopts this route, it will attempt to revert to business as usual, enhance state repression in Tarai, do little to address the remaining political concerns of Madhesis, and focus on profiteering from the state like earlier governments.
But this could also be a moment for Kathmandu to introspect about what the last few months mean. At the end of this round of protests, there are five clear lessons.
For one, Madhesi discontent remains deep and widespread across castes and classes, urban and rural settings in eastern Tarai in particular; Tharus are relatively quiet because of state suppression but are deeply resentful as well and are preparing for an agitation. No andolan could last for six months without the popular support base of a substantial section of the population.
Secondly, a generation has got radicalised, and has begun seeing Kathmandu as the enemy. They feel little sense of ownership of Nepal’s institutions, symbols and this Constitution. Third, the issue has got internationalised – and the state will constantly have to face questions about its human rights record in the Tarai and the political alienation. Fourth, the state’s legitimacy has eroded in the Tarai, and is in fact absent from rural Madhes altogether except in its security avatar. And finally, given these underlying features, and the rise in radicalism, the movement could well assume more strident and violent forms, presenting a long term challenge to the state.
If these lessons are indeed drawn and internalised, and Kathmandu recognises that the end of the blockade is a comma and not necessarily a full stop in the struggle for rights, the ruling elite should use this as an opportunity to sincerely relook at the question of political representation, federal boundaries and citizenship and give Madhes a sense of ownership of the Constitution.
In specific terms, this means bringing in amendments on the question of representation in the upper house and citizenship (to also make it conform to principles of gender equality as well). It would also mean setting up a political mechanism – with the consent of the Madhesi parties, with specifics on the mandate and time frame, with a guarantee that it would meet the timeline and its recommendations would translate into an amendment - to determine federal boundaries in the Tarai.
This will be far more productive than triumphalism. Kathmandu’s media and civil society in particular have a role to play in nudging the government in this direction.
And it is precisely this message that India must keep giving to the Oli-led dispensation in Kathmandu.
There can be a debate about tactics and timing, but Delhi had a sound policy argument on Nepal which was rooted both in liberalism (its support for inclusion, minority and human rights) and realism (the security implications of troubles, including a secessionist movement right across an open border).
India must remember that the fundamental problem persists: That Madhesis still do not feel politically or constitutionally integrated within Nepal’s current mainstream structure. And it must keep reminding Kathmandu to address this, for as the last few months have shown, the problem can easily assume cross border ramifications. India has to engage with Nepal government, but this must be coupled with strong pressure.
As far as the fundamental battle is concerned, it has to be fought within. Madhesis are somewhat demoralised that the blockade ended without firm concessions by the government. But civil rights movements are generational projects. The Tarai parties need to get their act together, use this interlude to cement their unity, build coordination between their central and district structures, politically communicate with their constituents, and strive for broader unity – with groups representing other marginalised communities, especially Tharus and hill Janjatis; with Madhesi leaders of mainstream parties; with the more progressive civil society groups and elements of media in Kathmandu. Till there is a constitutional correction – which lays the ground for inclusive Nepali political structures and forces it to reflect the enormous social diversity of the country – the battle will continue in Nepal.