Pay attentionJoin hands with the Madhesis who are fighting to end ethnic discrimination
A friend of mine recently shared a blog post that he thought was relevant to the current situation in Nepal with regard to the new constitution and the Madhes Andolan. The post was about a biblical incident in which Elijah, a prophet from the northern kingdom of Israel, fights against the established system which he knows to be wrong. He accuses king Ahab of misleading the people into worshipping false idols. The king says the prophet is the actual troublemaker, since he is the one disturbing the peace. However, the prophet refutes the charge and says that the king is troubling Israel. Drawing parallels between the story and the current Nepali context, many Nepalis, especially those from the hills, are either naively or knowingly accusing the Madhesi protestors of stirring things up by raising ethnic issues and creating unrest in our so-called peaceful nation.
Indeed, there is violence against the oppressed people and injustice against the minorities and marginalised communities in Nepal. The Madhes Andolan is simply pointing this out which some of us would rather ignore, especially if it works in our favour. Therefore, the protestors are blamed for creating problems by
challenging the system. However, it is the ruling classes that have invited trouble by creating an exclusive and rigged political and economic system. For decades the Madhesis have faced systematic discrimination in Nepal. The prolonged discrimination has turned the Madhes into a relatively underdeveloped region despite its high potential to contribute to the country’s growth and prosperity. The Madhes-based ethnic population makes up 30 percent of the country’s population, but their representation in different organs of the state does not reflect this reality.
According to Farah Cheah of the Institute of South Asian Studies, only five out of the 75 districts in the country had Madhesi chief district officers. In 2001, Madhesis held four out of 24 ministerial positions. Similarly, there were only two Madhesis among the 21 judges at the Supreme Court. Among the seven chiefs of the constitutional bodies, there were no Madhesis. There was one Madhesi among the six members of the National Human Rights Commission.
The list is long: one out of 23 ambassadors or consul generals, one out of 37 regional administrators, zero vice-chancellors, zero chief of security forces, four out of 47 government department heads, four out of 56 chiefs of government corporations and committees, zero chiefs of government information and communication agencies and three out of 15 heads of parliamentary bodies have been Madhesis. In the security sector, Madhesis make up only two percent of the Nepal Police, five percent of the Armed Police Force and two percent of the Nepal Army. This under-representation of Madhesis in high-level positions in the security agencies and the bureaucracy points to attitudinal discrimination.
Journalist Ameet Dhakal has written that Madhesis are considered to be less Nepali than Pahadis due to their proximity to India and cross-border exchanges, including marriage. He further states that Pahadis have dominated the country socially, culturally, economically and politically for a long time. Poverty and illiteracy in the Tarai districts are among the highest in the country, making the region the most impoverished and underdeveloped. However, when we compare these districts with the Pahadi dominated districts of Morang, Chitwan and Jhapa, the latter enjoy better conditions.
These facts indicate that the Tarai-Madhes has been troubled by the state for a long time. Thus, it is not the Madhesis who are creating all the problems but that they have always existed. In fact, the problems are so well hidden that we have become numb to the difficulties faced by the Madhesis, confused by propaganda and distracted by entertainment. Some of the recent examples of issues that have led people to lose sight of the plight of the Madhes are the state’s promises of meeting the fuel requirement by importing it from China, anti-India sentiments and the government issued order to hold an illumination to celebrate the promulgation of the constitution when the Madhesi and police families were mourning the loss of their loved ones. The Madhesi protestors, therefore, are simply trying to wake us from our slumber.
The new constitution was a great opportunity for the state to become inclusive. The 2007 Interim Constitution had already taken steps towards it and instilled hope in the people. The previous Madhes, women and Janajati movements would have finally come to fruition if that had happened. But the state betrayed the people by passing a constitution that was more regressive than the 2007 version. For example, the fundamental right to participation of socially backward and oppressed groups in the state structure in the 2015 constitution is stated to be “on the basis of inclusiveness”, not “on the basis of the principle of proportional inclusiveness” as enshrined in the Interim Constitution.
With regard to restructuring the state under federalism, the main goal was to eliminate age-old discrimination based on ethnicity, language, gender and region, among others, by ensuring the rightful share of the deprived groups in state organs. In this regard, Amar Kant Jha, a retired Tribhuvan University professor wrote on these pages: “This purpose was explicitly mentioned in the historic six-point agenda of the 2006 People’s Movement and also in the 12-point agreement signed between the Seven-Party Alliance and the Maoists. And later, the Madhes Andolan further mandated the parties to adopt federalism as a ‘shared-rule’ system. All of these formed the basis of Article 138 of the Interim Constitution which calls for the ‘progressive restructuring’ of the state. Against this backdrop, the current proposed model of federalism can be construed as a betrayal of the people’s trust and an obnoxious act against the 2006 People’s Movement.”
These point to a need to see things from a factual and historic perspective and reflect on the causes of the Madhes Andolan instead of being blinded by the propaganda of the ruling classes. I hope that we can come together as Nepalis and see the noble cause of our Madhesi brothers and sisters fighting for the right to be an equal Nepali citizen. When we thoughtlessly cry for peace, let us remind ourselves that there was no peace and never will be if we do not consciously work to end ethnic discrimination.
Mishra is a PhD candidate in dvelopment economics