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‘Hope in the nation is running down’: Madhes in Nepal still in ferment, 10 years on

The region, home to more than 51% of the population living in 17% of Nepal, still feels alienated as the government has failed to address its grievances.

world Updated: Mar 17, 2017 14:29 IST
Anil Giri
Anil Giri
Hindustan Times, Kathmandu
Madhesi Morcha,Prachanda,Nepal
Nepalese police clash with Madhesi minority protesters at Raibiraj, Saptari District, some 240 kms southeast of Kathmandu on March 6, 2017. At least three people died and a dozen were injured in clashes between police and minority protesters in Nepal Monday, officials said, the first incidence of violence since long-delayed elections were announced.(AFP Photo)

The Madhesi Morcha’s decision this week to sever ties with the ruling coalition led by Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” was evidence yet again of how the ferment in Nepal’s southern plains continues to impact national politics.

The Morcha, an alliance of seven parties, acted on March 15 after the government did not address its demands for amending the Constitution and putting off polls to local bodies within a seven-day deadline. The Morcha’s decision was expected but it raises key questions about its impact on polls to local government bodies scheduled for May 14 and the future course of Nepal’s polity.

The decade-long tumult in Madhes, which accounts for more than 51% of Nepal’s population living in 17% of the country’s territory, has resulted in the loss of around 200 lives.

A flare-up in Gaur town, where 25 people died in March 2007, was the turning point for the Madhesi movement that forced Kathmandu to realise the gravity of the issue.

But experts contend little has changed after a decade. There is a “deep sense of alienation” in Madhes, prominent activist and advocate Dipendra Jha told Hindustan Times.

“The youth in Madhes are desperate and their hope and ownership towards the nation is running down,” said Jha, who is involved in back-channel negotiations with the government.

“If the state is ready to accommodate the Madhesis by ensuring their participation in civil services, police, army and other state entities, it will water down the anger. Otherwise, it will be difficult to handle the situation before it is too late.”

Upendra Yadav, chairman of the Samajbadi Forum Nepal who was at the forefront during the first uprising in 2007, said: “The current achievements like federalism, identity and inclusiveness were established in national politics by the Madhes movement but we are still excluded from enjoying such rights.

Madhes in focus
The region, spread over the southern plains (Terai) of Nepal, has occupied a vital place in the country’s politics
12 mn The estimated population of Madhes, including many ethnic groups such as Tharus and Rajbanshis
LANGUAGES Hindi, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Maithali and Tharu
PRESENCE IN PARLIAMENT: Madhesi parties have 42 lawmakers in the 596-member House
ECONOMY: Called Nepal’s food basket, economy based on agriculture. As locals migrated to Middle East and Malaysia, remittances became vital. Madhes also has major industrial areas where many work in factories and manufacturing hubs
Ahead of the formation of the government led by PM Prachanda, the Madhesi Morcha, Nepali Congress and CPN (Maoist-Centre) signed an agreement last August that was aimed at amending the constitution and the holding of three-tier elections to local bodies, provincial governments, and central government
After Prachanda failed to garner the two-third votes in Parliament needed to amend the Constitution, the Madhesi Morcha stopped backing his government on March 15
The Madhesi Morcha is expected to announce fresh protests though Prachanda’s government may not fall because the premier has gained the support of other parties to shore up his position.

“So we have been seeing frequent fragmentations and unrest in the Terai since then,” Yadav said.

After the Gaur incident in 2007, Nepal held its first Constituent Assembly elections the following year and Madhesi parties emerged as the fourth largest political force. Several top leaders of mainstream parties such as the Nepali Congress, CPN-Maoist and CPN-UML quit and formed regional parties in Madhes.

Madhes waited for four years for its grievances to be addressed through the Constituent Assembly but the body was dissolved in 2012 without delivering a new constitution.

Nepal held the second election to the Constituent Assembly in 2013 and, once again, the Madhesis silently looked to major parties to accommodate their grievances as Madhes-based parties and leaders failed to get elected to the assembly.

But major parties, despite calls from India and other international stakeholders, did not address these grievances, and this resulted in the blockade of the border with India from September 2015. The five-month-long protest left 59 people dead but many Madhesis now feel such sacrifices were in vain.

After the killing of eight police officers in the western Tikapur city in August 2015 by thousands of members of the marginalised Tharu community, experts had warned that Madhes too was polarised and violence could spread if the grievances were not heard.

But Kathmandu did not heed the message from Tikapur and kept on sidelining Madhes.

Activists take part in a rally to support ethnic Madhesis and condemning killing protesters in Rajbiraj, during a demonstration in Kathmandu on March 9, 2017. (REUTERS)

“We are looking for space in key state organs by making the Constitution more Madhes-friendly and friendly to ethnic and linguistic minorities. So, our foremost condition is to amend the Constitution,” Yadav said.

While moderate forces such as the Madhesi Morcha have pushed demands such as the provision of citizenship and redrawing of federal boundaries, more radical elements such as CK Raut, a US-returned scientist now in police custody, have gained widespread support with calls of “Swaraj” (self-rule) for Madhes.

Raut was detained for allegedly making anti-national statements at some mass gatherings in the Terai region.

Experts fear Kathmandu’s failure to engage with moderate forces will only allow radical elements to take centre stage in the southern plains. The moderate forces also face opposition from Kathmandu’s elite, such as former premier KP Sharma Oli, who contend the Madhesi groups are backing an “Indian agenda”.

Rajesh Ahiraj, the first person to pursue a PhD on Madhesi politics, feels ethnic politics alone won’t work in the region. “Sooner or later, ethnic politics will no more work in Madhes and we are seriously lacking competent leadership in Madhes,” he said.

Prachanda’s coalition was installed after an agreement with Madhesi parties on accommodating their demands. But Madhesi leaders believe the government is now shifting the goal posts for amending the Constitution.

Madhesi leaders say Parachanda’s recent move to induct Rastriya Prajatantra Party leader Kamal Thapa, who is opposed to amending the statute, as deputy prime minister clearly shows the government is not taking the crisis in Madhes seriously.

“Had our agenda been accommodated, the country would have taken a peaceful path towards prosperity. If the state will try to impose elections (to local bodies on May 14) forcefully, we will oppose it and this will further complicate the issue. We will be forced to take another stage of stern action,” said Yadav.

All mainstream parties and lawmakers from Madhes have said in one voice that they will not allow the holding of the elections unless it is preceded by the constitution amendment process.

The ball is in Kathmandu’s court and its decision on accommodating the Madhes will determine the future course of Nepali politics, including the holding of elections, implementing the new Constitution, restoring stability and making Nepal a peaceful and stable South Asian nation.

First Published: Mar 17, 2017 14:17 IST