Handle with careKathmandu’s political elites should reach out to the agitating Madhesi forces and seek an amicable solution as soon as possible
In every ten years since the 1950s, Nepal has witnessed a major political movement. The Madhes, however, is an exception. In the last decade, there were two political movements in the Tarai while the third one is currently underway.
The ongoing movement is an outcome of the Madhesis’ and Tharus’ dissastisfaction with the new consitution of Nepal. Tensions between the Madhesi/Tharus forces and the big three parties—Nepali Congress (NC), CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist)—surfaced after the signing of the 16-point agreement on June 8. The tension is of course political in nature but its causes are psychological and administrative too.
The constitution is not just a legal or technical document but political document as well. The new constitution is an outcome of the decade long Maoist insurgency, the 2006 People’s Movement and the two Madhes movements of 2007 and 2008. But the constitution-making process neither included the Madhesi forces—major political actors since 2007—nor accommodated their agendas in the real sense.
Alienation of the Madhes
The demand for a constitution through an elected Constituent Assembly (CA) was first raised 65 years ago in Nepal but the first CA election was held only in 2008. The real actors of this phase of Nepali politics were: UCPN (Maoist), Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and the Madhesi Morcha. When the new phase of constitution-making politics started in 2008 these actors were divided into two groups—the NC and CPN-UML on the one side and the UCPN (Maoist) and the Madhesi Morcha on the other. However, the alliance of the UCPN (Maoist) and the Madhesis and Janajatis split after the Maoist party sided with the NC and UML and signed the 16-point agreement. After that, the big three parties intentionally ignored the Madhesi Morcha. Then the Madhesi parties boycotted the constitution-making process. Later, Bijay Kumar Gachhedar, a leader of one faction of Morcha, who was initially part of the agreement also quit the process. The exit of the Madhesi forces from the constitution-writing process thus resulted in the psychological alienation of the entire Madhesi and Tharu community.
The Madhesi and Tharus now have grave concerns about the content of the constitution. The agendas of the Maoist movement, People’s Movement of 2006 and the two Madhes movements were republicianism, secularism, restructuring of the state and liberal citizenship provisions. The last two agendas were the major concerns of the Madhesis and Tharus.
Though far from satisfactory, the new constitution has addressed the agendas of republicianism and secularism, but not that of state restructuring in the real sense. The new constitution also removed some rights enjoyed by naturalised citizens.
The social composition of Nepal is not reflected in its state structure, ie, the executive, legislature, and judiciary. Nepali society has an almost equal share of the population of Khas-Aryas, Janajatis and Madhesis but the bureacracy, judiciary, security agencies are highly dominated (more than 85 percent) by the Khas-Aryas alone. So, the people’s movements sought to restructure the state mechanism and make it inclusive.
The process of restructuring started in 2008. Before the election of the first CA, the election system was revised to make the legislature inclusive. The redistribution of the constituencies for first-past-the-post (FPTP) elections on the basis of population increased the number of seats in the Tarai. Similarly, proportional representation (PR) system was adopted. The ratio of PR and FPTP was 60 and 40 respectively. The PR system benefitted the marginalised groups, such as Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits, women and those living in backward regions. As a result, both the first and second CAs turned out to be highly inclusive.
The new constitution, however, has revised the electoral system and reduced the size of the legislature from 601 to 334—275 in the House of Representatives and 59 in the National Assembly. Out of the 275 members in the Lower House, 165 representatives will be elected under the FPTP system and 110 under PR system. The big three parties reduced the ratio of PR from 60 to 40 percent and increased the ratio of FPTP from 40 to 60 percent. In the National Assembly, there will be eight members from all provinces and three will be nominated. This is likely to perpetuate the hegemony of Khas Aryas in the legislature.
Furthermore, in 2008, the Pushpa Kamal Dahal-led government began reservations in bureaucracy and other executive mechanisms by allocating 45 percent of the total seats to Madhesis, women, Janajatis, Dalits and others. But the new constitution has removed the term ‘proportional’. The general understanding is that proportional representation is a matter of principal in which certain fixed ratio will be allocated for reservation. But the mere mention of ‘inclusion’ does not guarantee a fixed ratio. As the Madhesi and Janajati CA members of the big three parties protested against the removal of the term ‘proportional’ they have agreed to amend the statue and to incorporate the term ‘proportional inclusion’. But the big three have not still agreed to federalise and make the judiciary of Nepal inclusive.
Regarding federalism, the Madhesis and Tharus believed that newly-carved states would provide them a demographical advantage in their province(s). But six out of the seven-proposed provinces ensure a demographic advantage to the traditional elite caste groups of Khas-Aryas.
Even though the Madhesis had been demanding a single province in the plains to address their issues of identity crisis and demographic advantage since the very beginning, after rigorous exercises in the first CA, the Madhesis and Tharus agreed to go for two provinces in the Tarai. In the newly proposed federal setup, however, only eight districts in the plain are included in the Madhes-only province and the rest 12 are included in hill provinces. The Madhesis and Tharus believe this gerrymandering will render them a minority in that province. Therefore, the Madhesis and Tharus are protesting against the new constitution.
Since the start of the Madhesis’ and Tharus’ protests, the state did not take it seriously and only perceived it as a law and order problem. Then India entered into the scenario, and now, the whole country is reeling under the effect of the blockade.
And it is indeed very unfortunate that Kathmandu ignored the unrest in the Tarai for 40 days. It was only after the protesting forces imposed a blockade on the border that Kathmandu felt the heat. And this time around, it is the Madhes that remains indifferent.
This is worrying. And there could be more trouble in the horizon as the Madhes currently has three kinds of political forces. There are some who care only for power in the name of Madhesi politics, others are very vocal about their agendas such as identity, federalism and inclusion and the third force seeks the secession of the Madhes.
Before 2007, the first kind of force was in the mainstream of the Madhesi politics. After 2008 election, the second type of force has been representing the sentiments of the Madhesis. This group is increasingly feeling alienated by the Kathmandu’s traditional political elites. Of late, the third group is trying to bring more people into their fold. Hopefully, Kathmandu wakes up to the challenges in Madhes and handles its issues carefully.
Shah is executive director of Nepal Madhesh Foundation