A decade has passed since the first Madhes Movement. It has been an eventful decade for Madhesis who took to the streets, not once, not twice but thrice to demand equal rights and be recognized as equal citizens of Nepal. The progress towards creating an egalitarian society has been slow but efforts have not gone in vain.
Gains from Madhes Movements
The gains from Madhes movements are more psychological than political but important nonetheless. In this article, I enumerate four of them.
The sense of dignity and pride Madhesis feel post Madhes movements can not be overstated. Before Madhes movement, Nepalis of hill origin were quick to call any dark skinned person in Nepal with one of many derogatory words such as ‘Biharis’, ‘dhotis’, ‘Indians’ and more. Madhesis were humiliated of their own identity. Consequently, many Madhesis tried their best to hide it, be submissive, or occasionally got in trouble for questioning such treatment. To gain an idea of what it was to grow up as a young Madhesi in Kathmandu, read the article, “To be young and Madhesi in Kathmandu” by Preeti Karna.
After the first movement, it was almost as if Madhesis came out of the closet for the first time. They were proud to call themselves Madhesis and own their identity. It became fashionable to say, “Garv se kahu, hum dhartiputra chhi, bideshi bhagauda nai chhi.” This proverb in Maithili means proudly say that you are the native resident of this land, not an emigrant chased away by a foreigner. There is subtle history in that statement since Bahuns and Chhetris escaped to Nepal after losing battles to expansionists in their native lands which is part of India today. The irony is that when Khas Bahuns gained control of much of Nepali territory, they then called native Madhesis as emigrants.
One of the biggest achievements of Madhes movements is that Madhesis got a renewed sense of dignity and pride in their own identity. This psychological strength could be the foundation for political gains in the future.
2. Awakening About Our Rights
Madhesis, of all ages and gender, became aware of their fundamental rights and freedoms. My mom did not know that the Earth is round (I still love her) but she knew why Madhesis took to the streets last year. She argued that Nepalis should not kill each other for just a few districts, what difference does it make what state it lies in. She is extremely kind and a sworn pacifist but politically aware about our struggle. In 2015 and 2016, I visited several villages in Madhes and was struck by how an awakening about their rights has swept throughout Madhes. The national media, mostly based in Kathmandu maintained silence and deliberately attempted to undermine popular voices of the Madhes movement last year. However, in towns such as Birgunj and Janakpur, tens of thousands of people took to the streets almost every day for several months during peaceful political demonstrations. The media and political elites can hallucinate itself but their propaganda cannot dilute the awakening that has swept minds of every child, youth, woman, and man in Madhes.
Madhesis and Tharus wanted autonomous federal states and we have gotten federal states. Their boundaries are not what had been agreed upon hence the struggle.
3. Faith in Struggle
After the first Madhes movement, we got not only dignity and pride but also 22 point agreement. This agreement between the Government of Nepal and Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) was significant. Unfortunately, most of it was not implemented. As a result, a year later, the second Madhes movement happened and it gave us the 8 point agreement. This was also not implemented. The third Madhes movement compelled the government to pass an amendment to the constitution. While this did not address all of our demands, it instilled hope that if our rights cannot be guaranteed through implementation of past agreements, we always have the option of taking to the streets. While the street struggle is the most disruptive and a failure of democracy in some sense, a political analyst Tula Narayan Sah believes it is the only way Madhesis have ever gained any rights.
4. Affirmative Action Guaranteed in the Constitution
The constitution had its deficiencies, mainly in rendering women as unequal to men through discriminatory citizenship clauses. However, it had positives too in terms of seeking to “create an egalitarian society on the basis of the principle of proportional inclusion and participation, to ensure equitable economy, prosperity and social justice”. It is ironic however that the Supreme Court itself violated this spirit during its nomination of justices for high courts. It was violated several months earlier too during selection of ambassadors, a majority of whom were from dominant group – Khas Arya. Overlooking these violations, it was still a significant achievement to enshrine the principle of proportional inclusion in the constitution, one of the key demands of Madhes movements.
The road to creating an egalitarian society where all citizens in Nepal, irrespective of caste, color, geographical region, or ethnicity have access to same opportunities for social and economic progress is long and arduous. We need to stay determined towards this goal. It may be easy to be cynical because the progress is slow but we need to remember that glaciers move slowly but they do. We need to be thankful for the gains we have made and work towards creating a Nepali society where we can all thrive and strive for social and economic prosperity of the entire nation instead of any particular geographical region.