Saptari and beyondFollowing a year of tenuous peace, what happened this week in Maleth, Saptari threatens to stall the country’s already beleaguered political process.
Following a year of tenuous peace, what happened this week in Maleth, Saptari threatens to stall the country’s already beleaguered political process. Four Madhesi protesters were killed by security forces and reports have confirmed that the shots were fired to cause grievous harm—all the deceased were shot above their waist. Whatever the political pretext, the killing of a citizen by the state cannot be justified, especially when our law itself prohibits any form of action that takes away life, even if they are considered perpetrators of a crime.
What has been done cannot be undone but there can be a two-pronged approach in avoiding such tragic incidents in the future. The first approach is to see the incident in its immediate form and it is this approach that is being initiated by the major stakeholders. The Prime Minister and the Home Minister have attempted to wash their hands clean off the incident and pass on any responsibility—legal or moral—even though security forces that fired the shots are under their command. UML leaders have been pointing their fingers towards the Madhesi Morcha for obstructing their Mechi-Mahakali campaign, while the Morcha blames the UML of disregarding ground realities by ramming through the campaign, despite ominous signs of the probability of an outbreak of violence.
While all the involved parties have someone else to blame, the fact of the matter is: All of them have their share of the responsibility. It is true that the UML, or any political party, should be able to hold peaceful rallies in any part of the country. But shouldn’t a party with a history and pedigree like the UML have exercised more caution? It is astonishing that UML leaders did not anticipate such an incident when they had blocked the amendment in the Parliament for months. And after lobbying the government to announce local elections, UML went to the Madhes in what essentially looked like a victory rally. It is what invited political confrontation, even if, technically, holding the event in itself was not malicious.
On its part, the government has to own up to the deaths. It is true that the state has monopoly over violence but that right comes with the responsibility of protecting its citizens. The government needs to find the culprits and punish them accordingly, setting a precedent that killing Nepali citizens is not okay. Until now, police officers like Durj Kumar Rai, for instance, have been tolerated by consequent governments even as he’s been accused of shooting at protesters during the second People’s Movement. If security forces cannot protect ‘all’ Nepali citizens and have to resort to shooting people and entering people’s homes to beat them mercilessly, then the government has to seriously invest in overhauling their approach to controlling large crowds and riot situations.
Likewise, the Madhesi Morcha leaders also need to be more responsible in protecting their cadres and supporters when all recent governments—headed by Koirala, Oli and Dahal—have been heavy-handed on Madhesis. Their agitation can be strategised carefully so as not to confront the police. The Morcha leaders also might want to listen to what Madhesi civil society members have said and written after the Saptari incident. Rather than issuing statements from Kathmandu, Madhesi people want them to return and organise from the grassroots-level. Else, they risk their agenda sliding towards CK Raut-esque radical Madhesi nationalism.
However, even as we are analysing the immediate causes and effects of the Saptari incident, we are again failing to acknowledge the elephant in the room—the larger Madhesi demand. All of these confrontations and political wrangling are largely taking place because of the Madhesi parties’ demand of provincial demarcation that separates Tarai provinces from the hills. The Madhesis have come to a compromise from their previous demand of an ‘Ek Madhes, Ek Pradesh’ (One Madhes, One Province), to now accepting two to three provinces in the Tarai. Differing from Madhesi parties but keeping the spirit largely intact, the Maoist Centre and Nepali Congress have tabled an amendment which promises two Madhes provinces, barring some districts. That amendment appears to be the ultimate compromise for now.
But UML does not want to see hilly districts separated from the Tarai, even though political parties, including UML, had proposed Madhesh-only provinces during the first Constituent Assembly. Having ‘Akhanda’ (unified) provinces can very well be UML’s political position for years to come in electoral politics, just as Rastriya Prajatantra Party still remains persistent in their demands of a Hindu nation. But to give the country a way ahead, the UML must accept the amendment put forward by the Maoist Centre and Nepali Congress. If UML does not accept the compromise, it will be very difficult for the political process to come to a consensus. If the UML continues to disregard the demands for Madhes provinces, eventually, the major problem will not just be UML’s position but will be drawn along communal lines that could potentially divide the country as a result.
Then, rather than just standing in the sidelines, the Nepali Congress should also play a healing role as the largest party that commands support in both the Pahad and the Madhes. The party president, Sher Bahadur Deuba, has to show resolve and political willpower in order to sideline radical Pahade voices, like that of the central working committee member Chandra Bhandari who is vehemently against his own party’s amendment to break apart hills from the Tarai.
For the rest of us, let us try to remain calm in these difficult times and avoid radical comments in public and in the already highly-polarised social media platforms. If there is a way to bring the sentiments of Madhesis and Pahades together, let us act on it as civil society members. Though it might be an oft-repeated cliché, we as a nation stand at a dire crossroads at the moment, and how we respond as a society will likely reverberate for years, even decades, to come.