Nepali nationality has not been well defined even after 250 yearsLast week marked the 10th anniversary of the first Madhes movement, a three-week long mass demonstration in the plains that, together with the second uprising, contributed to establishing Nepal as a federal democratic republic.
Last week marked the 10th anniversary of the first Madhes movement, a three-week long mass demonstration in the plains that, together with the second uprising, contributed to establishing Nepal as a federal democratic republic. After that, the country witnessed one other Madhes movement around the time of the constitution’s promulgation in 2015. Though the first two popular uprisings institutionalised federalism, proportional representation and inclusion in the country, the regional Madhesi parties and the people who championed these agendas have not taken ownership of the constitution, arguing that the charter still falls short of meeting their demands. Mukul Humagain, Roshan Sedhai and Shashwat Acharya spoke with CK Lal, a political analyst and a prolific columnist in Nepali and English, about the contribution of the first Madhes uprising in shaping post Jana-andolan II politics, the recently-tabled amendment bill, radicalism in the Madhes, internal democracy in Nepali political parties and India’s role in Nepal.
Can we start with a brief review of the last decade in Nepali politics, particularly the gains and setbacks in the Madhes movement?
We can call it a decade of upheaval. There were many revolutionary changes. In the international arena, there has been a slow shift from democracy to authoritarian tendencies and cultural renaissance, as seen from the rise of Narendra Modi and Donald Trump. In Nepal, we went from monarchy to republicanism and slowly from civic nationalism to
cultural nationalism, commonly referred to as ‘Mahendriya ratrabad’. There was also a rise in awareness among Janajatis to seek their identity and an awakening among Dalits that they would not get their rights merely by asking but by asserting themselves. The fight for women’s rights also shifted from NGOisation to politicisation. Madhes obviously could not remain unaffected by such momentous changes in domestic and international politics. The suffocation and dissatisfaction in the plains with the status-quo manifested itself in the three Madhes movements.
The Madhesi social elites had aligned themselves with the Gorkhali empire. They had submitted themselves to the Khas-Arya community and accepted that they were subordinate. That relationship broke down. There was a widespread political awakening among the so-called backward community in the Madhes that despite having the numbers, which is what supposedly counts in a democracy, they were left behind. This compelled the Madhesi so-called forward community to rise against the regime in order to safeguard its leadership position.
This awakening is an accomplishment of the last decade. The costs are obvious. Over a hundred people were killed; thousands are facing (fair and fake) charges; countless others have been displaced. Those with means have gone to Malaysia and West Asia; those with lesser means have gone to different places in India. On the one hand, there is fear of the regime’s whims; on the other, there is a feeling of fearlessness in that things cannot go downhill from here.
To what extent has the constitution been able to address the spirit of the Madhes movements?
It has not even incorporated the agreement that the government head reached with the agitating forces under the aegis of the Indian ambassador, let alone the spirit of the movements. It is a regressive constitution; it is neo-Panchayat through and through.
What about the amendment bill that has recently been tabled?
The agitating side did not seek an amendment but a rewrite. The promise of an amendment was made by the side that wrote the constitution during its promulgation itself. One amendment has already been passed and the second one has been tabled. It was not a product of deliberations with the Madhesi and the Janajati forces. It was a unilateral decision aimed at safeguarding the Madhesi vote bank. While the amendment will not resolve the problems in the Madhes, it will be one step forward. Resolving the problem will require major changes in the constitution, which is almost tantamount to a rewrite. The challenge now is that the ruling parties will not let go of their constituencies; they will not forgo four votes in order to win two in the Madhes. So it is a complicated mess at the moment.
How in your opinion can the country extricate itself from this mess? Is federal delineation the major bone of contention, as is commonly argued?
There are a few other issues that are tied to federal delineation, such as the composition of the Upper House and the autonomy of the provinces. The reason federal demarcation has become a major contention is that federalism is a newly introduced concept. In 1950, parliamentary democracy was a newly-established concept. In 1990, it was multi-party democracy. In 2006-08, the new ideas were republicanism, with federal provinces based on dignity and identity, proportionate representation and population-based constituencies. There has been regression on all these fronts. But if we are to redress them all, then this constitution will have to be scrapped the way previous constitutions have been. Given the domestic and international scenario, the agitating parties do not have the strength to scrap the constitution. So the only option for them for now is to compromise. What is certain though is that this constitution will not last long. Even if the agitating forces accept it now, new actors who seek changes will emerge, as the core issue remains. So the current amendment will lead to a thaw, but it will not resolve the underlying issue.
What is the underlying issue?
Underdevelopment, poverty, administrative mismanagement, a weak and extractive economy, increasing smuggling, and so on are symptoms, not the underlying disease, as is generally claimed. The main issue is that Nepali nationality has not been well defined even after 250 years. Traditional nationality is what a king defines. Political nationality comes about when a group of people happens to inhabit a certain geographic area. Cultural nationality is independent of geography; no matter where one lives, a Japanese is a Japanese, a Chinese is a Chinese and a Gorkhali is a Gorkhali. We have seen the shortcomings of these three types. The fourth type—civic nationality, which is based on rights and obligations and established by a constitution—is the best one to unite people who do not know each other.
We squandered a great opportunity to establish such nationality when the first Constitution Assembly (CA) dissolved. One group felt threatened that the erosion of cultural nationality will break their monopoly on the country’s resources, such as the ability to ‘sell’ passports, citizenship, quotas, appointments, and so on. So frightened were they that radically different forces such as the NC, the UML and the Maoists came together to orchestrate the 16-point conspiracy.
They blame foreign interference which, for a country like Nepal, is a constant. It was there during Prithvi Narayan Shah, Jang Bahadur, Mahendra, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and will be there even if Mahanta Thakur rules the country tomorrow. The main issue is internal.
If the mainstream Madhesi forces currently lack the strength to address the underlying issue, how fertile is the ground in the Tarai for radical forces?
CK Raut’s mass meeting last week drew people in the thousands, whereas the Madhesi Morcha’s attracted hardly a few hundred. Radicalism has its own charm, which we witnessed during the Maoist war. Eventually, the Maoists started practising mainstream politics of the kind the NC, the UML and the RPP do, but at one point they captured a huge portion of the country’s territory. The weak are attracted to the glamour of radicalism in the hope of some magical emancipation. Such glamour exists in the Madhes, particularly among the youth. Even the generation born after 1990, which did not live through the Panchayat era, is now already in their mid-20s. They hardly see a face of their own in state organs. They see the humiliation faced by even the elites of their kind at the hands of ordinary Khas-Arya. This causes massive discontent and resentment, particularly among the school-going ones who have forgotten Maithali and do not know Hindi. They have only studied Nepali but the humiliation that speaking it causes has infuriated them. They question why they should sacrifice themselves for the country. So glamour and humiliation are two factors that fuel radicalism.
But examples from around the world show that unless radicalism is propped up by external forces, it will not go far. It will either dissipate or can be quashed. We have not seen organised external support for radicalism in the Madhes yet, of the kind that the Maoists received.
The moderate Madhesi forces cannot alone counter the radical ones now. But because the state has virtually unlimited resources—it can buy loyalty, dispense patronage, promote, co-opt, include, etc—if the moderate Madhesi forces work together with the Pahadi forces, they can counter radicalism. The moderate Madhesi leaders know that if they do not cooperate with the Pahadi parties, radical forces will sweep them away.
A big population of the Madhesi youth is out of the country. It presents an opportunity for the state to utilise this period to establish stable and moderate politics and attract the youth to such politics. The state squandered a big opportunity to do so while writing the constitution.
How responsible do you consider the moderate Madhesi parties themselves for squandering the opportunity, given that they have been part of the government multiple times?
All over the world, when a society is about to become free from slavery, it desires to get close to the regime, as doing so would make it more acceptable. Elections in Nepal can be won with money and the help of security forces, which can be accessed if one is in the government. So it is natural for Madhesi parties to want to be part of the government. What Hindu society also has, which other slave societies lack, is casteism. There is a strong feeling that one’s family and caste are everything. It is said about Indians that they do not cast their votes, but vote their caste. It is almost the same in the Madhes. It exists in the hills also, but to a smaller extent because of the various wars that people from the hills have participated in. The Madhesis have not fought a war since the Sugauli Treaty. So the force of caste and tradition is strong. Another factor is that the Madhes movements did not produce new leaders. All the leaders cut their teeth on politics before these movements, which means they carry the customs and habits of their previous political associations.
The major parties were able to sell that they would address the issues of the Madhes before the elections to the second CA. Their manifestos are more radical than those of the Madhes-based parties. Even considering the possibility that the elections were fair, the choices for the voters were between the parties in government and those that might or might not be part of the government. You would generally trust a billionaire who promises you some money more than a pauper who promises you the same thing. So it was the major parties that deceived the Madhesi people by asking for votes with one manifesto but delivering something else while writing the constitution.
So on this particular score, the Madhesi parties cannot be blamed. What they and the Maoists can be blamed for is their inability to push their agenda during the first CA. The second CA, in fact, is not even a CA since the constitution was promulgated by issuing party whips. It is a constitution promulgated essentially by a parliament.
The Madhesi parties are viewed critically for the lack of internal democracy. How fair is such a criticism?
In a presidential form of government, it is necessary for a party to be democratic because the one who is nominated becomes the ‘elected monarch’. In a parliamentary system, the politics that forms the government is democratic, but the parties themselves are run by strong leaders. For example, in the NC, who could be a more dictatorial party leader than Bisheshwar Prasad Koirala or Girija Prasad Koirala? A strong leader is necessary to attract or co-opt the downtrodden population. This distinction between the two forms of government has not become a public discourse in Nepal. All people do is read some western newspapers and criticise the lack of democracy in Nepali parties. If there is internal democracy in a party, it will lead to either chaos or capture by one community, the way the UML has been captured by Bahuns. So in a parliamentary system, certain level of centralisation in parties is necessary.
Leadership comes primarily from those who are close to the regime, are educated or are relatively well-off, which is what we can see in all the parties, including the Maoists. Moreover, political parties in Nepal do not have a long history. Compared to parties with a longer history like the NC, the UML and the Maoists, the leadership of Madhes-based parties is more inclusive. It is certainly not enough, but we cannot overlook the fact that they have existed for only about 10 years.
Let’s talk for a while about international actors. How have you assessed India’s role in Nepali politics?
All the political movements in Nepal have owed their success (or failure) to Indian support (or lack thereof). The fact that the third Madhes movement did not succeed demonstrates that it did not have India’s support. What India did was exploit the dissatisfaction in the Madhes to advance its diplomatic agenda. For the Madhesis, India was their only source of international support. The killing stopped when the blockade was imposed. Before that, the security forces were firing indiscriminately, which is natural in a way, since they were scared upon seeing the crowd of agitators.
Until the first CA, whatever India wanted had happened, because the interests of the Nepali and the Indian establishments had aligned perfectly. Both had to, for example, cut the Maoists down to size and to oust the UNMIN. When the results of the second CA came, the Indian establishment realised that all three major parties were part of the Nepali establishment. Modi’s first strategy then was that of appeasement of the Nepali establishment. During Modi’s first visit, he did not even utter the word Madhes. In fact, he reprimanded the Madhesi leadership and instructed them to collaborate with the Nepali establishment. But appeasement does not work in politics. Modi thought the Nepali establishment would not go against India’s wishes while promulgating the constitution. But the Nepali establishment thought that once the promulgation takes place, it will be a fait accompli.
When Modi saw that it could not work with the Nepali establishment, India looked for other groups. It picked the Madhesis for two reasons. One was to check the growing radicalism in the Madhes; another was to exercise pressure diplomacy. It was not for getting the Madhesis their rights. The Modi doctrine in Nepal was a complete failure. Modi is an unpredictable character, who will not easily forget his humiliation. He tried to please the Nepali establishment to the hilt. What he received in return was a kick on his back. That is the danger for Nepal. If the Indian establishment does not place too high an importance on the failure of one politician’s doctrine and continues to see its interest in working closely with the Nepali establishment, there will not be much impact. But if the Indian establishment thinks of Modi’s humiliation as its own failure, the road ahead for Nepal can be hard.