I grew up in “Pahad” and could be labeled a Pahadi, but in the aftermath of the recent upheavals in Terai, the extremely negative sentiments expressed against our fellow citizens in/from Madhes make me uncomfortable about my community. Members of the Pahadi community usually consider themselves to be unprejudiced and egalitarian, but they don’t realize that age old prejudices are still rampant today. In fact, the upsurge of stereotyping and insults against Madhesis is bringing back haunting memories from twenty, thirty years ago, making many of us wonder if and when we will get off this train headed in the wrong direction.
When I grew up, I had a unique opportunity to live along with Madhesis, and I know the inherent goodness of hardworking Madhesi people, like that of any good people. We had a house in Surkhet that we shared with two families from Janakpur. Even though our house had only five rooms, my family kept three rooms and rented the other two because the rent was extra help in paying bills. The two families renting in our rooms were barbers. The wives stayed at home doing household chores and taking care of kids while the husbands worked from dawn to dusk.
However, few people in my community saw my Madhesi tenants as hard workers. In fact, the Pahadi families looked for faults, sometimes even making up stories, and justified their looking down upon the Madhesi families. Our Pahadi neighbors and relatives often complained, “Why do you let these loud people stay in your house?” They would lash out derogatory statements, “Madhesiko ko sallah, pahadeko halla” [ Madhesis’ advice; Pahade’s noise] when they found my Madhesi tenants having conversations. In some cases, some people would even order them to stop talking. These are just few examples of how my neighbors were treated as second class citizens by my fellow Pahadi community. Most of the time my tenants would just stay inside their rooms barely engaging in conversations with others. Our Pahadi neighbors, however, talked as loudly as they wanted to, enjoying the outdoor cool air.
Every negative portrayal of the Madhesi families by my Pahadi community was unjust and offensive but the latter seems to believe that they were logically justified. For example, they called Maithili music and songs backward, irritating, and obnoxiously loud. A purely subjective judgement. To me, Maithili music sounded much more soothing than most Pahadi music but no one would have cared the innocent judgment of a young boy. The same was true of the criticism of their food but I was always delighted to eat meals cooked by my Madhesi tenants and even picked up the habit of eating spicier food early on. Maithili language in itself sounded much more polite than Nepali. Fascinated by the sweetness of the language, I even learned some words in Maithili. Since Maithili language also shares the same mother script, Devanagari, I was asked to write letters for my tenants to their homes and I happily used that opportunity to learn more Maithili.
I find it difficult to comprehend how prejudiced, bigoted, and insensitive my Pahadi community was (and some still are across the country) toward Madhesi people. The names they call(ed), the way they treat(ed), and the attitude they show(ed) are all shocking. Almost everyone missed the opportunity to learn about their culture and music, life and society, family and hardships. They failed to educate themselves, and to develop intercultural sensitivity. I remember the gifts Madhesi friends brought back when they returned from their home in Janakpur: thekua, bhushwa, malpuwa, and many more delicacies. In theory, we Nepalis pride ourselves as being a garden of different flowers (cultures) but in reality we are hostile toward other cultures, especially the Madhesi culture. In reality, I did not find a lot of cultural difference between us and our Madhesi tenants. We celebrated many common festivals like Dashain and Tihar. This reminds me of another unpleasant memory from childhood. On occasion of Tihar, my uncles would visit us for Tika. It was only after they left that my family would celebrate a separate evening Tika with my Madhesi tenants. When our neighbors and relatives found this, they would often ask my family, “Why do you do Tika with the dhotis?”
Years later, I joined high school, where I selected economics as one of my majors. At that time, it was hard to find Pahadi teachers willing to teach “tough” subjects outside Kathmandu valley, causing a vacancy for an economics teacher. After months of search in Kathmandu, the campus chief resorted to hiring a Madhesi Nepali scholar, a graduate of Patna University, to fill the position. Students in my class boycotted his class, complaining that he had a Madhesi accent and they didn’t understand him. The campus asked if a few students would volunteer to continue studying in the new teacher’s class while administration arranged alternative subjects for others. I volunteered along with one of my closest friends, it was an excellent class and we performed really well. Other students slowly realized that the teacher’s accent was only detrimental to their learning to the extent that they were prejudiced. With a little bit of patience, we could easily get used to his accent.
Later I went to Kathmandu for further studies where I made many Madhesi friends and worked with them. I generally found my Madhesi friends and colleagues far more welcoming and warmer than Pahadis. In 2010, as a part of a delegation from Surkhet’s educational leaders, I was invited to visit our President Dr. Ram Baran Yadav’s house. There, we were welcomed with laddus and water. This further added to my appreciation of Madhesi’s hospitality and respect — I do not think that the same would happen at a Pahadi leader’s residence.
After moving to the US, my relationship with Madhesis continues to grow deeper. Surprisingly even in Gainesville, a small university town in Florida, there is a wonderful Madhesi Nepali family who invite all Nepali students and their families (around one hundred of us!) to their beautiful home every summer and they offer us a lavish feast of delicious Nepali delicacies. Their house has been a “home away from home” for us Nepalis in my university. While at their house, we all feel bonded and proud as Nepalis.
Given so many positive experiences with Madhesi friends, neighbors, and colleagues of varying levels of education, I have often wondered where all the negativity toward them comes from. Does it come from conflict? No. There hasn’t even been much of “conflict” until very recent times. Our Madhesi neighbors and colleagues simply used to tolerate offense and insult, as well as systemic discrimination. Pahadis routinely repressed the Madhesi people’s rights in the political domain, as well as oppressing them socially and economically. The daily insults were unbearable in most places around the country.
Given the societal and statewide systematic discrimination against the Madhesis, should we be surprised that Pahadis are using the recent events as justifications for their attack against Madhesis? We see offensive memes getting rampant on the Internet: “Pothi base ghar bigrinchha: Madhesi base desh bigrinchha.” I am failing to find words to respond to this primitive worldview expressed to this day in our society. Isn’t it time we started some soul searching?
The purpose of writing this article was not to throw out a harangue at the Pahadis and to portray them as hypocrites and racists, but to reflect among my Pahadi communities that knowingly or unknowingly we have been doing wrong for many years.
We are at a juncture, where we are can move in the right direction of respecting all castes, creeds, and ethnicities. We are struggling but aiming to stand together. Even though we may have some last vestiges of that dominant mentality lurking in the Pahadi psyche, we also have others who are fighting against such remnants. So let us join hands to achieve the latter goal and commit to drop challenge at least one stereotype against the Madhesis.
About the Author:
Uttam Gaulee serves as Associate Program Director at Community College Futures Assembly, an independent think tank at University of Florida’s Institute of Higher Education.