I am a Madhesi and a Pahadi

By Pratik Karki

At the beginning, I would like to apologise if my views are contrary to the readers’ deeply held beliefs, but I believe the situation is such that we have to be able to withstand opposing views, and try to find a consensus. This write up is a mash up of both my personal feelings, ideas and some analysis of the issues that have been raised at the present. Please feel free to disagree.

I. The Mosaic of Identity?

Who am I? Who are you? To most of us, this is an easy question to answer. For me, I am Pratik Karki. Yet, that name in itself is a window to my identity. Anyone who hears my name can presume that I am a ‘Nepali’ male. That may or may not be entirely true, but that is a valid presumption anyways. But then, what does being ‘Nepali’ mean anyway?

I was born in Janakpur, where my maternal grandparents had moved some 50 years ago, and all my government issued IDs point to me being a resident of Bengadawar VDC in Dhanusha, Nepal, where my paternal grandparents moved 50 years ago from the neighbouring district of Sindhuli. The reason for the move: there was an easily accessible High School in Bengadawar, while the same was not possible in the hills. Even 50 years ago, there were roads, schools and development in the Terai.  I have never known any other village, and when I go to the hills, I find it super difficult to climb the hills and it gets even worse, when I come down. You see, I am from the plains of Nepal. Yet, I am a ‘Pahade’ or a ‘Pahadiya’ depending upon the tone and mood of the speaker.

After some initial schooling in Janakpur and Kathmandu, I went to schools in Siraha, Biratnagar and then returned to Kathmandu after SLC. However, among these different schools, my experience in Siraha stands out for a couple of reasons. One was the small class size, and another was an unusually high number of smart students in it. My friends from that class are all brilliant professionals now. Many of them are doctors or engineers in Nepal as well as abroad, and I am always thankful for the memories I had there. They were all very good to me, in what was a difficult period of my life. I remember my friend Gaurab’s parents talking to me and calming me when I was crying at the park in Siraha. Those were good days with a lot of football, cricket, samosa chat and growing up.

Yet, I can never forget the initial few days at school, and the questions of identity it brought. My friends told me that I was a Nepali. I was dumbfounded. If I was a Nepali, what were they? Well, they were Nepali, but not ‘Nepali‘. That was the day I realised that the term ‘Nepali‘ is also used to denote a community and can be exclusionary in character.

I was lucky in that my friends were very nice to me. Yet, the common refrain ‘Saar ke Pahadiya” found its way to me, and even to people, who had been born in Siraha; whose parents had also been born in Siraha and spoke Maithili fluently. I could never fathom how dropping a catch in cricket had anything to do with my or anyone else’s ethnicity. It should simply have meant that I was very bad at that game (true). That reference to ethnicity hurt, and I responded, “Wait till you go to Kathmandu.” Even then, I knew that Kathmandu was probably the opposite, and felt some warmth (misguided: in hindsight) in that knowledge. At 14, I realised that it sucks to be an outsider, anywhere, and that the majority was probably going to be discriminatory in some way or the other.

That exposure in Siraha was a huge eye opener, as to how there are groups within our country, who have never felt equal to other communities within the country. While I was hurt at being discriminated, perhaps exclusion does breed exclusion. There are people in this country, who have probably never felt Nepali enough; both from the State and from their fellow citizens. This has a lot to do with what we consider to be a ‘Nepali‘ and what we consider not to be a ‘Nepali‘.

But, has this changed in the last 10 years, or are we still stuck in the pre-Interim Constitution era? Has there been any progress?

II. Winds of Change must blow in Kathmandu

The massive people’s movement which toppled the direct rule of the King had at its genesis – the problem of centralization of power and resources in Kathmandu. I was in Biratnagar during that movement, and I realised that the movement in Biratnagar while genuine, lacked the high level of passion that was present in Kathmandu. It made me realise that for the elite of this country, there is absolutely nothing beyond the four corners of the valley. If someone takes Kathmandu, or troubles Kathmandu, then there is going to be a response. Otherwise you could be dying somewhere and the State would probably not care.

People in Kathmandu are facing a severe shortage of fuel following obstruction and protests at borders by Madhesi parties, allegedly abetted by Indian authorities. This has forced the ruling parties in Kathmandu to engage in a dialogue with Madhesi parties.

Yet, is this entirely true? Deaths in Surkhet changed the responses of delineation, and yet the deaths in Madhesh did nothing to stir up the Kathmandu elite and the chameleon politicians. Yes, the deaths of the policemen provoked a lot of thinking and reaction, partly, because a high-ranking policeman was among them, and also because the state identifies more with its policemen than civilians. The State is perhaps, still exclusionary in its behaviour, even though, structurally, there have been definite changes.

III. The Loss of Community

Cities in the Terai have always had their share of mixed communities. Yet, after the Madhesh Andolan I & II in the past, there has been an effort to remove the ‘Pahade’ population by a certain section of the protestors. Maybe the Pahades are identified with the State, maybe their ‘topis’ are a reminder that they are oppressors, or maybe there is just an opportunistic motive to take over their properties at a cheaper price. Whatever be the reason, there has been a huge migration of ‘Pahade’ people to safer areas. Janakpur and Rajbiraj along with the interior districts of Siraha, Saptari and Dhanusha are good examples in this regard.

My grandfather was almost killed during that movement and our bank loaned tractor was burnt. He came home two nights later. His sole crime was that he was wearing a topi which he has been wearing all his life.

Yet, the loss of this community is never lamented. When one comes across a committee or list in Kathmandu, one strives to ensure that there is adequate representation of different communities and gender, and yet such yardsticks seem not to apply in Terai.

It seems that the answer of exclusion has been to create exclusionary zones.

I grew up as a Nepali, and the irony is that, I feel like I am writing as a Pahade. I am not, but there seems to be an erosion of identity, beyond surnames.

Nothing to count for experiences, class, caste and other indicators of social/cultural privilege.  And just like certain communities seem never to be treated as Nepalis despite the centuries of existence in this country, generations of hill migrants seem forever to be excluded from the definition of ‘bhumiputra‘.

IV. Privilege and Progress

I could list all of my grievances, but I do realise, I am speaking from a position of privilege. This country is unequivocally mine. I identify with the language, the nation builders, the heroes, the elite actors, the dress, customs and rituals. I have to accept that this is not the same for everyone.

Yet, most countries that emerged as a nation, have an identity; one that is appropriated by the majority/powerful community. You can see that all over South Asia: India (North Indian in contrast to so many other groups), Bhutan (homogenised identity of Dzongkha, Buddhism and GNH), Bangladesh (Islamist over other religious groups), Sri Lanka (Sinhala over Tamil/Muslim/Burghers), Pakistan (the dominant Punjabi identity), Afghanistan (the Pashto identity). You can also see it in developed countries of Europe, as well as in Latin America, Africa and the United States. There is usually a dominant language, culture and usually skin colour. The State of Nepal has espoused a Parbatiya elite culture for a long time, and one that has certainly alienated a lot of people, who do not fall under this majority domain.

Yet, I argue that the State of Nepal is different. You know why? Because it is willing to change, and it has in fact changed. The Nepal I grew up in is not the Nepal of today, and to argue otherwise would be to deny these changes. Dauru Suruwal is no longer the national dress, the topi is not mandatory for your citizenship ID, we have reservation in government jobs, police and the army, and everyone accepts that sole cultural domination can no longer be the way forward. It is time for hitherto underprivileged communities to also see and acknowledge the progress that has been made in Nepal. This progress in not enough, but we are definitely on the right track.

Some of these changes include:

  1. Secularism: Nepal is no longer a Hindu State, and is a secular State. That goes a huge way into ensuring that everyone feels a part of the State.
  2. Reservation: There are reservations in civil service, along with favourable provisions for promotion for a lot of different groups including madhesis, Dalits, Janajatis, women, people with disabilities, and people from backward regions. To actually get these changes without any large-scale opposition shows the progress that has been made by society as well. Because, these changes give me less opportunities than even an American educated madhesi citizen, and yet I accept it in the name of social justice. This is despite the fact that reservation once given cannot be taken back. Please look to India for an example of quota politics. In my personal opinion, not all madhesis (especially not the businesspersons, landlords and upper castes) require reservation and quotas, but yet this is accepted as necessary to undo years of discrimination.
  3. Mixed Electoral System: Not many countries use the mixed electoral system, given the possibility of a lack of clear majority. Yet, Nepal has had no qualms in using this system to ensure maximum representation. While most such systems require a threshold in proportional elections, even that has been done away with in the present constitution to ensure maximum possible representation.
  4. A more sensitive ‘elite’: Having grown up in the Terai, and having studied in India as well, I sometimes feel like calling the madhesi people selling pani puris as “bhaiya”. It is a term widely used in Terai to address one’s elder brother. But I know, that this could be taken in the wrong sense and always use “Dai”. I am not alone in this, and a huge portion of ‘Pahades’ have realised the need for sensitivity. And there are idiots in every town, city, and country who are not sensitive. But they are on the fringes, and racism is slowly on the decline.

I am certain that there are many other changes as well but I could only remember these from the top of my head. Yet, despite these advances, people are protesting and dying after the promulgation of the constitution. What are the issues being raised?

Constitution Burning - Dallas, Gandhi Park, Madhesi Community
Madhesis burning constitution in Gandhi Park, Dallas, USA the same it was promulgated. Source: Madhesi Community

V. Some of the Issues raised during the Madhesh Andolan

A. Citizenship: The Elephant in the Room

A country which has a very broad LGBT rights framework is discriminatory regarding the provision of citizenship on gender. The reason for this discrimination is the fear of being inundated by Indian citizens, given the roti-beti relationship of madhesi communities. The way our society works, we mostly take on the identity of our fathers. That is why my madhesi friends who have their maternal homes in Ranchi or Sitamarhi consider themselves Nepalis, despite having the opportunity to also claim Indian citizenship. Yet a persistently used statistic is that there are over 4 million people living in Nepal have been rendered stateless.  Is this claim true?

At the outset, I believe that we should have non discriminatory laws on citizenship; and the same should be provided either through mother or father. However, we need to either allow for dual citizenship, or if that is not allowed, then have a proper monitoring system of citizenship records. Now let us get back to the claim of 4 million Stateless citizens.  This is patently untrue.

After the promulgation of the Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2063, there was a grace period of 2 years, where it was very easy to get citizenships [See Section 4 of the Nepal Citizenship Act, 2063 and  Section 3 of the Nepal Citizenship Rules, 2063], and resulted in over 2 and a half million people getting citizenships. So, the continuing effect of Stateless people has definitely reduced to a great deal and has also resulted in a lot of Indian nationals getting citizenship certificates as well (I personally know and have heard of such people, and I am sure so have you, if you are from the Terai). However, this is not a one way street as a lot of Nepali nationals also have Indian documents, and is a result of lax monitoring by either State.

Even though the claim of 4 million Stateless people is not true, there is no place for discriminatory laws regarding citizenship in today’s era and must be changed.

B. Naturalised Citizens and Exclusion

Again, from a viewpoint of equality, this is a deeply troubling issue. Once you are a citizen, you should be able to enjoy all the rights that your fellow citizens enjoy. Yet, by creating different categories of citizens, the Constitution tells us that all citizens are not equal, especially when they have been naturalised. In practice, it is very difficult for naturalised citizens to reach these positions, but yet this kind of provision either in law or in practice seems to be prevalent everywhere. In Biao v Denmark, the European Court of Human Rights held that there was no discrimination in the rule which required Danish nationals to have been a citizen for 28 years to be able to bring their foreign spouses to the country (I believe even though the wording was neutral in that case, the effect was one of discrimination, yet the Court refused to put the rule as discriminatory).  Similarly, the case of Sonia Gandhi facing fierce protests and ultimately choosing not to become the Prime Minister of India is well known. Naturalised citizens can also not become the President of the United States and it is much easier to lose naturalised citizenship in the United States.

While I personally think there should be no discrimination between citizens (you are either a citizen or not a citizen), one has to acknowledge that there can be different equally valid viewpoints in this regard, and countries around the world seem to have certain restrictions regarding naturalised citizens.

C. Automatic acquisition of citizenship to women married to Nepali men

A lot of Nepali people marry across the border given the close ties of kinship. Given that wives mostly go to their husband’s homes, this should be a no brainer. Not doing so would lead to lots of issues. The relevant constitutional text on this says:

Article 11 (6): If a foreign woman married to a Nepali citizen so wishes, she may acquire naturalized citizenship of Nepal as provided for in Federal law.

The Federal Law in question is the relevant Nepal Citizenship Act, 2063, which already provides for such an application as per Section 5 (1). Thus, in practice, nothing has changed, and on submission of an application any woman married to a Nepali man can get immediate naturalised citizenship.

D. Representation in the National Assembly, based on population

The relevant constitutional text is:

Article 86: Constitution of National Assembly and terms of members:

(1) National Assembly shall be a permanent house.

(2) There shall be fifty-nine members in the National Assembly as follows:-

(a) Fifty six members elected from an Electoral College comprising members of Provincial Assembly and chairpersons and vice-chairpersons of Village councils and Mayors and Deputy Mayors of Municipal councils, with different weights of votes for each, with eight members from each province, including at least three women, one Dalit, one person with disability or minority;

(b) Three members, including at least one woman, to be nominated by the President on the recommendation of Government of Nepal.

Second Chambers are usually present in a divided society to ensure that all regions get equal representation. That is why, it is different from the lower house. Of course, it can also be one based entirely on population, but in a federal structure, it is necessary to see each units as being equal, and by providing them equal seats at the National Assembly, this can be achieved. In all federal bicameral states membership of the second chamber is based on representation of the states or regions. The representation of territorial units is one of the classic functions of a second chamber. This model was developed in the United States, where every State is given two seats in the Senate, irrespective of population. This ensures that the interest of smaller States are not overwhelmed by the interests of the States which have a much larger population. This is followed in countries such as Australia, Canada and South Africa. Thus, the best possible solution would be to ensure that the elections to the lower house is based on population, with at least 1 representative per district, and the upper house based on the number of States. This will ensure that all laws and amendments etc will have the backing of both the majority of the people’s representatives as well as the representatives of the State.

This requirement of a minimum population can be seen in the 31st amendment to the Constitution of India, which ensured that States with a population of under six million would not have to follow the same formula for seat allocation. This is the same formula used behind giving at least one electoral constituency to each district so as to ensure that the hilly and Himalayan districts are not left without any directly elected representatives.

E. Constituency Delineation Commission

While there have been talks of reducing the period of constituency delineation commission to 10 years, instead of the period present in Article 286 of the current Constitution, this raises some interesting questions. Having it change every 10 years would perhaps be the most accurate estimate of the changes in society. However, there is also a counter argument for stability. This can be seen in the 87th amendment to the Indian Constitution, which puts off any further delineation (delimitation, as used in the Indian context) till 2026 AD. However, this should not be a major issue for the 3 major parties and should be accommodated to ten years as per the demands of the protestors.

F. Proportional Inclusion in Article 42

The relevant constitutional text is

Article 42. Right to social justice:

  1. Socially backward women, Dalits, Adibasi, Janajati, Adibasi Janajati, Madhesi, Tharu, minority groups, persons with disability, marginalized groups, Muslim, backward classes, gender and sexually minority groups, youths, peasants, laborers, the oppressed and the citizens of backward regions, and economically poor Khas Arya shall have the right to employment in state structures on the basis of the principle of inclusion.

Given that the term “proportional inclusion” is used 5 times in the constitution: namely the Preamble, Article 38 (Right of Women), Article 40 (Right of Dalits), Article 50 (Directive Principles) and Article 285 (Formation of Government Service), this should also be included in Article 42, as per the demands of the protestors, and the same has been agreed by the 3 major parties as well.

G. Issue of Kanchanpur, Kailali, Sunsari, Jhapa and Morang in Madhesh

Given the promise of the Maoist of different ethnic provinces, the madhesis are the only ones with a distinct province of their own.  However, they want to include these districts as well in those provinces, given the large number of madhesis in these districts, and the resources provided in these districts. There are of course conspiracy theories given the importance of rivers to India, and the possibility of any future arrangements in this regard, along with the large number of non Madhesis in these districts, who do not want to be a part of Madhesh province.

As per the census of 2011, the number of people as per mother tongue in the Terai is as follows:

S.N Language Absolute Numbers
1 Nepali 3,494,710
2 Maithili 3,004,245
3 Bhojpuri 1,542,333
4 Tharu 1,479,129
5 Bajjika 791,737
6 Urdu 671,851
7 Avadhi 500,607
8 Magar 255,955
9 Tamang 196,173
10 Rajbanshi 121,215
11 Newar 92,693
12 Gurung 56,088
13 Santhali 49,476
14 Hindi 46,933
15 Urau 33,357

This shows, how there are a lot of communities other than those identified as madhesi communities in Terai/Madhesh, and how they might have legitimate expectations to be in a different province. In addition, the need to have a border crossing with India is a relevant factor, given the necessity of trade and transit and the current strategy of the UMDF of blocking the customs offices. I think a reasonable way would be to create a Federal Commission to decide on these contentious districts, keeping mind the legitimate expectations of all different communities. Another reasonable way could be to have a district based referendum.

However, with regards to the districts of Kailali and Kanchanpur, it would perhaps be prudent to have some sort of province/special autonomous regions giving regard and recognition to the Tharus living in those regions as well.

People of Terai rejected the constitution by raising black flags, wearing black and participating in Black Day procession.

H. Why continue the protest then?/ Why has it not ended?

Sometimes, it is not what you say, but how you say it, that can change things.

I believe that the Madhesh issue is as much about dignity, as it is about rights. The response of the State has been callous at best. Without getting into the India debate, the major 3 parties could definitely have tried to address the situation in Terai. They have the organisational strength, prior presence and as elected representatives the duty and responsibility to address the concerns, explain the constitutional provisions and keep calm and peace. They failed miserably in their duty. However the leaders of the Terai movement are not entirely free of blame either.

They have conflated the State with a single community and have actually issued calls for violence against that community, along with issuing bounties of 50 lakhs for the future martyrs of the movement. While that might achieve short term goals, it can only lead to future disaster. Yet despite that, the State and its actors have a bigger onus, and in that they have failed miserably.

Neither the Prime Minister nor the relevant Ministers have had the courage to visit Terai or give a televised address regarding those issues. The push for a ‘Deepawali’ while people were dying in the Terai only inflamed those passions, and nothing has been attempted since to calm the atmosphere in Terai.

I. What Next?

Social media has been one of the biggest game changers of our  times. A quick glance at posts on facebook and twitter shows the dramatically high level of polarisation between the two communities: Madhesis and non-Madhesis. This has to end because  there is no option but to co-exist. As young citizens, we need to understand the importance of patience and avoid hate speech. We need to form coalitions, and realise that these battles will never end, and each milestone will only lead us to further progress. Please remember that for every idiots on social media, there are a lot of others trying to bring about sensitivity. This sensitivity works both ways, and communal harmony can be maintained only if maturity is shown from all sides.

Feelings of alienation can also lead to calls for ‘Swatantra Madhesh’, and it is not difficult to understand the allure of such a concept. At present, Dr. C.K. Raut is silent, but I am sure he will have used this time to further his ideas regarding secession. He is a smart man, and I am sure he has conviction in his beliefs. Yet, secession cannot be the answer, simply because Swatantra Madhesh is bound to have people from other communities as well, and even then we will have to co-exist.

I started out with my personal reflections, simply to point out that our society is in many ways discriminatory, and that majorities often use their advantage to discriminate against minorities. However my personal journey is also one of reflection, and I hope all of us can use this period to be reflective, rather than reactive. Let us see beyond the veil of surname and ethnicity and be reasonable. Most importantly, as citizens of this country, let us look for constructive dialogues to end this current impasse and also to change ourselves as individuals and to change our societies as well.

The English translation of the Constitution of Nepal (for those interested in the text) can be accessed here.

(Pratik Karki is a teacher and practicing lawyer, based in Kathmandu)