Pathos of collective humiliation in MadheshElections may come, elections may go, but the struggles of Madheshis will have to continue to establish themselves as ‘the People’.
The second general elections, scheduled for November 20 has begun to heat up the Kathmandu air. Sher Bahadur Deuba knows better than everyone else that no Maoist or Marxist vote will come to his candidates. He needs them to keep the communist side divided at the polls.
Pushpa Kamal Dahal knows that supporters of the Nepali Congress are extremely unlikely to vote for the Maoists, but he wants to prevent communal Khas-Arya votes from going to the party of the ethnonational supremo Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. Madhav Kumar Nepal and Upendra Yadav have no other intention of being in the desperate five-party alliance other than remaining in the ruling coalition and maintaining their perks and privileges for the elections.
Sharma Oli is anxious, but not fearful of the polls. He already has the entire conservative parties at his mercy. His own ethnonational base remains more or less intact. In addition, he has many fringe parties knocking on his door for moral support.
In all this melee of electoral calculation, the melancholia of Mahanth Thakur is most saddening. He spent his entire life in democratic politics, but his parent party—the Nepali Congress—is unwilling to share its base in Madhesh. Yadav comes from a communist background where the formal second-in-command of the party has to agree to be number four in the power hierarchy, leaving all three at the top for the lackeys of the supremo. It's understandable that he doesn't want to have a challenger from Madhesh in the same coalition.
Supremo Sharma Oli also may not be very enthusiastic about accommodating Thakur because both their political outfits share the same caste-base of Brahman-Baniya in Madhesh. Even if Sharma Oli agrees to admit Thakur in the ethnonational coalition of Khas-Arya supremacists, the electoral loss and gain will probably cancel out each other, leaving the monk of Madhesh in a political limbo.
The loneliness of Thakur captures the story of the failed Madhesh Uprising of 2015 like nothing else. Almost all his political companions have made peace with the status quo. The professionals of Madhesh have moved on with the meagre gains of the movement in their pockets. The middle class has lost all hopes of betterment. The masses have to face the consequences of a failed uprising as best as they can.
Thakur fights, falls, grovels, compromises, collects his wits, rises up, fights again, falls again, but never loses hope. But can the indefatigable soldier of Madheshi dignity succeed in saving the embers of the failed uprising for another day as the ethnonational regime keeps pouring sand and water upon its ashes? Some questions have no clear answers.
In the fortnight of forebears called Pitri Paksha, adherents of Hinduism make ritual offerings to all their long-past ancestors. Sometimes a mere Tarpan—offering of water sanctified with the stalk and leaves of the Kush reed—is considered to be enough.
The purpose of Pitri Paksha is to show symbolic gratitude towards those who made us what we are. But how does one offer Tarpan to a young boy of 14 who was shot dead by the security forces of the state on the suspicion of being one of the protestors demonstrating against a controversial constitution? It has been seven years since “The 9/11 in Madhesh” and motivators of the Third Madhesh Uprising have failed to find a collective mourner for the victims of the attack upon their life, liberty and dignity.
A day after the massacre, this newspaper reported in a matter-of-fact and completely detached manner: “At least five people, including a 14-year-old boy, died and scores others were injured when security forces opened fire at the supporters of Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha who were demonstrating against the proposed seven-state federal set-up in several Tarai districts on Friday.”
The tone, tenor and intent of the report was indicative of the coverage of police atrocities between August and September 2015 in the mainstream media when Madhesh mourned in grief while the rest of the country celebrated its victory of promulgating a statute of its desire by lighting lamps and igniting firecrackers. The triumph of “Us true Nepalis”, ethnically defined as pure HAMNSA (Hindu, Aryan, Male Nepali Speakers), over “them Madheshi aspiring Nepalis” was thus established through the combined effort of a vengeful state machinery and ethnonational civil society.
Most politicos of Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha realised that they had been roundly defeated when local elections were announced in 2017 without their consent. Yadav decided to go for whatever was available in the “take it or leave it” offer. Thakur chose to hold on to his position in the fond hope that something would come out of nothing, and constitutional amendments would be made to bring him on board. He had been mistaken before in his assessments; he erred once again and lost considerable political ground.
The first general elections after the promulgation of the statute proved that polls seldom resolve fundamental issues of political contestations. Two political parties—Nepali Congress and CPN-UML—that had changed sides between the ruling and opposition benches since the 1990s retained their dominant position. The Maoists managed to be in the third place. The two main Madhesh-based parties trailed in the fourth and fifth places. The hope of addressing Madheshi aspirations through constitutional amendments vaporised with the announcement of the final results.
Social scientist Albert O Hirschman argues convincingly that the defeated have to choose between “Exit, Voice and Loyalty”. It has been seven years since 2015 and most Madheshis have chosen the first option. The working class has been voting with their feet for ages, now even middle class Madheshis have joined the exodus. Many exist in the country outside the system.
The rewards may be meagre, but loyalty is the easiest way of making a living. Madheshi politicos preparing to participate in the forthcoming polls are doing so out of the compulsion of saving themselves. The voice of Madheshis has become so weak that it's barely audible anymore. For the media and civil society in Kathmandu, the rules of the game have become unchangeable. Now it's only the players that interest them.
Often it's deep-seated inferiority and intense anxiety about one's existence that give rise to chauvinistic and xenophobic attitudes. Harvard anthropologist Stanley J Tambiah described Sinhalese as a "majority with a minority complex'' way back in the 1980s because as soon as the dominant majority looked up to Tamil Nadu, it trembled in fear of its own minority Tamils.
The self-styled “thoroughbred Nepalis” harbour similar dread of Madheshis that look like Indians, talk like Indians, but ask to be treated as bona fide Nepalis. This is the constituency that President Bidya Devi Bhandari has been trying to please by delaying the authentication of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, re-endorsed by Parliament, even at the risk of violating the letter and spirit of the constitution.
The imagination of Nepal as a “nation-state” implies that homogeneity continues to be the foundational belief of the new-found Federal Democratic Republic. Modelled after the constitutions of the United States and France, most republican charters claim to be made of, by and for "We the People". Elections may come, elections may go, but the struggles of Madheshis will have to continue to establish themselves as “the People”.