At a time when Nepal should be celebrating its most awaited Constitution, people in the southern plains (known as Madhesis) who constitute almost half the population, are revolting against it. The Constitution, aimed at establishing lasting peace, has instead triggered fresh conflicts as it is being shunned by the marginalized communities such as Madhesis, Tharus, Janajatis, Dalits and women. The Government of Nepal has mobilised the Army as well as the Armed Police Force and has declared a curfew in several parts of the southern plains as the conflict has escalated and resulted in the tragic death of more than 40 people. A last ditch effort by the Indian Prime Minister’s special envoy S. Jaishankar failed to convince Nepal’s major political parties to take measures to pacify the situation.
Madhes and Madhesis
Madhes refers to the low-lying land in Nepal bordering India. It consists of about a quarter of the country’s total land area, stretching horizontally for about 885 km from the Mahakali River in the west to the Mechi River in the east, with a width varying from four to 52 km. It also includes the lower reaches of the Himalayas, known as the Siwalik range, with its valleys in certain areas in the north (the inner Madhes). The Madhes region, alternately called the Terai, is now home to half the country’s population, although the Madhesis residing in the region are only one third of the total population.
The American scholar Fredrick H. Gaige projects the importance of Madhes thus: it contains 87 per cent of forest resources and generates 75 per cent of land revenue, 93 per cent of excise duty and 70 per cent of customs duty. In effect, Madhes generates about 77 per cent of the public revenue of the state.
Yet, the Madhesis are under-represented in all areas of national life. They are inadequately represented in state organs — they occupy less than 12 per cent of the posts in the judiciary, executive, legislature, political parties, industry and civil society, and less than five per cent in international organizations and multilateral donor agencies. Their representation is negligible in the security forces, particularly in the army, which does not have a single senior Madhesi officer.
The region is subjected to economic discrimination as well. Madhes is the backbone of the national economy, containing more than 60 per cent of agricultural land and contributing over two thirds of the GDP. However, the development of Madhes has been ignored for decades.
National projects are devised in such a manner that the region hardly benefits from them. For example, the East-West highway, a vital transport artery, does not connect even one Madhes district headquarter directly. These districts are linked to the highway through poorly built feeder roads.
The emphasis on a single language in clear disregard of the languages spoken in the region has also contributed to Madhesis’s marginalization in some ways.
Citizenship Rights have been one of the major issues of concern for the Madhesis. The 1964 Citizenship Act and the 1990 Constitution imposed stringent criteria based on descent, which sought to disregard the claims of citizenship of the Madhesi people through naturalization.
Ironically, local officials often demand land ownership titles before granting citizenship even though without citizenship it is not possible to obtain land ownership titles. A government commission in 1994 reported that almost 3.5 million Madhesis have not yet obtained citizenship certificates.
Those without citizenship cannot apply for government jobs, register births or marriages, get a passport, compete in elections, register a business, obtain bank loans or access government social benefits.
History of the Madhes Movement
The discrimination and exploitation of the Madhesis and the fight against it is not new. In 1951, Vedanand Jha had established the ‘Terai Congress’ with the following objectives: the establishment of an autonomous Terai state, recognition of Hindi language and adequate representation of Madhesis in the Civil Service. Similarly, Raghunath Thakur established the ‘Madhesi Mukti Aandolan’ in 1956 to fight against the discrimination and exploitation of the Madhesis. As the state turned a deaf ear to such demands, many Madhesi leaders tried to use force to make their voices heard. In 1961, Durga Nanda Jha even attempted to assassinate King Mahendra, whose nationalism agenda alienated the Madhesis from the state. He exploded a bomb targeting Mahendra’s car during the latter’s visit to Janaki Temple in Janakpur.
During the 1960s, the Madhesis formed the ‘Terai Liberation Front’ to wage an armed struggle as they saw their land being grabbed by people from the hills even while they could not register the land they tilled in their name due to lack of citizenship certificates. The state suppressed the insurgency by killing top leaders such as Ramji Mishra, Raghunath Raya Yadav and Satyadev Mani Tripathi.
In order to spread their influence in Madhes, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) included the problems of Madhes in their agenda with the slogan of ‘Autonomy through Federalism’. It attracted many Madhesis in their ‘People’s War’. Surprisingly, however, the Maoists compromised upon the issue of Federalism when they joined the Peace Process by signing the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006. Since then, Federalism has emerged as a key demand of all Madhesi groups. Armed outfits also emerged and Maoist-Madhesi tensions escalated in the region with some cases of serious violence. Only after strong protests in the region twice (in 2007 and in 2008) demanding federalism, inclusion and proportionate representation, that the mainstream political parties incorporated these in the Interim Constitution and agreed to attend to these issues while finalizing the constitution. However, they have now failed to fulfil the promises made to the Madhesis; hence the current round of agitation for more than 40 days now.
The Present Crisis
The present crisis in Madhes erupted when the top leaders of the major political parties represented in the CA – the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (Democratic) – signed the 16-point agreement and agreed to federate the country into eight provinces and promulgate a constitution. The state Assemblies of the respective provinces were authorized to resolve the issue of designating names by a two-thirds majority. At the same time, the leaders of major political parties agreed to form a Federal Commission that would have six months to delineate the boundaries of the federal provinces. But as a result of the outcry from the Madhesi parties, the major political parties agreed to demarcate the boundaries of the federal provinces.
Initially, six provinces were proposed; but later, the number was increased to seven. Yet, such proposals have failed to calm the Tharus and the Madhesis. Rather, they only instigated violent protests around the country and the only Madhesi party that had supported the 16-point agreement, the MJF-D, had to reverse its stance. Unfazed by such opposition, Nepal’s top leadership chose to move ahead with the constitution making process by ignoring the disgruntled forces. The promulgation of the Constitution on September 20 further inflamed the Madhesis and Tharus and their agitation has gathered further momentum since then. The voices for a separate Madhes are now getting stronger by the day and gaining a firm hold among the youth. If the Government of Nepal does not make a sincere effort to reach out to the people and the discontented parties and address their genuine demands and resolve the problem amicably, it may lead to disastrous consequences. The implementation of the Constitution can be possible only by generating a consensus to accommodate dissent rather than by shutting out differences through majoritarian bullying.
The major demands that are being raised by the Madhesis that have not been accommodated in the new Constitution are:
- Group the 20 districts of Madhes in two federal provinces. The present federal structure separates five Madhes districts (Kanchanpur, Kailali, Sunsari, Jhapa and Morang) from Madhesh provinces and merges them with other proposed neighbouring provinces.
- Delineate electoral constituencies based on population, geography and special characteristics which were accepted by the Interim Constitution after the Madhesh Movement of 2008.
- Incorporate the right to participate in state structures on the basis of principles of proportional inclusion, which was accepted by the Interim Constitution. Similarly, seats in the national assembly should be allocated on a proportional basis. Since Madhes has 51 per cent of the population, out of the proposed 165 electoral constituencies being proposed for direct elections, 83 should be allocated to the provinces in the Madhes region.
- Interim Constitution had provided for re-demarcation of electoral constituencies every 10 years, as per the census; the new constitution has increased it to 20 years. The Madhesi parties do not approve of this change.
- Citizenship should be passed on through the name of the mother as well. There should be no discrimination based on citizenship acquired by descent or naturalisation. The new Constitution states that only citizens by descent will be entitled to hold the posts of President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, Chairperson of National Assembly, Head of Province, Chief Minister, Speaker of Provincial Assembly and Chief of Security Bodies.
The Indian Angle
India was initially hesitant to openly speak for the Madhesis due to unsubstantiated allegations levelled by Kathmandu elites that it has had an invisible hand in influencing the politics of Madhes. However, the fact remains that most Madhesi leaders criticize India for not doing enough for them despite the cross border linguistic and cultural linkages. And they accuse India of always trying to please the Kathmandu elite to serve its own national interest and ignoring the interests of the Madhesis. They point out that there are not too many India-funded developmental projects in Madhes and those few which were implemented there were never completed on time. They cite the example of the postal highway— which is a long pending project— to prove their point. There is also an opinion that India discriminates against the Madhesis while recruiting soldiers from Nepal for the much touted Gorkha regiments.
India’s expression of displeasure at the promulgation of the Constitution is being interpreted differently by the Madhesis. They argue that India was forced to behave like this for fear of the spill-over effect of the ongoing instability on the bordering provinces of India. There was also the feeling of betrayal or having been taken for a ride by the Kathmandu leadership who promised India a consensus-based constitution but ended up producing a majoritarian document ignoring the aspirations of a substantial number of the people of Nepal.
Aware of the tense situation prevailing in the region and its future cross-border implications, India had reportedly asked the top leaders of Nepal to accommodate all the groups and only then promulgate the Constitution even if it were to delay the process by a week or two. However, the top three leaders (Sushil Koirala, K.P. Oli and Pushpa Kamal Dahal) were in a desperate rush to get the Constitution promulgated, disregarding the advice from India to take along all the segments of Nepal’s population. With the deteriorating law and order situation and its effect on the border areas in India, especially at a time when elections are on the anvil in Bihar, India was finally forced to break its silence. Prime Minister Modi dispatched his most-trusted diplomat as his special envoy to resolve the crisis. Unfortunately, it was too late.
It goes without saying that an unstable and turbulent Nepal is not in India’s interest. Therefore, India has been trying its best to facilitate and bring the government and discontented groups to the table and resolve the outstanding issues amicably.
Being a guarantor to the Peace Process, India has a right and a moral duty to involve itself in the process of change taking shape in Nepal. However, it has to tread cautiously and get the genuine rights for the historically marginalized groups recognized in the constitution. India, which has had direct or indirect influence on all the major political transitions in Nepal ought not to hesitate to get engaged with the process. Historically speaking, all the major political parties have garnered Indian support time and again to achieve their goals.
Long running instability and violation of human rights in Madhes is bound to attract international attention and interference. With the rising domestic violence in its backyard, India may also witness a domino effect in its bordering regions. Given its major investments and stakes in Nepal, India can ill afford to let the situation deteriorate especially when it has a long and open border with Nepal.
The present tension is between the state and the marginalized groups – not between Pahadis and Madhesis, as many analysts are projecting it. Ironically, the Kathmandu elites wrongly portray it as a tussle between India and Nepal. India has only raised its genuine security concerns as the entire Madhes region, along its border with Nepal, is witnessing unprecedented turmoil. The Madhesis are demanding implementation of the terms of previous agreements between their leadership and the power elite in Kathmandu. Unfortunately, the top leaders in Kathmandu have not shown enough sincerity and concern to thrash out the issues with the Madhesi leadership. Rather, they are falsely projecting it as Madhesi jingoism encouraged by India.
The only way to resolve the crisis is to acknowledge Madhesis as genuine citizens of Nepal, whose respect and dignity can be protected by a clear recognition of their rights in the new constitution. Any attempt to narrowly define Nepali nationalism and turn it into an exclusionary identity will lead to unnecessary chaos and confrontation, which the people of Nepal do not deserve. The spirit of Jana Andolan II must guide Nepalese leaders to recognize the genuine demands of the marginalized groups and put an end to the ongoing crisis.
[This article originally appeared in Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) and has been republished here for our readers with the permission of the author.]
The featured image is courtesy of Kanchan Jha (@kanchan_jha).