Problem in MadhesA few hours before becoming Nepal’s new Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli had said in Parliament that he was aware of his lousy image in the Madhes, and that he would correct it, not by words but by actions. A couple of days after taking office, he reiterated that he did not know the demands of Madhesis.
A few hours before becoming Nepal’s new Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli had said in Parliament that he was aware of his lousy image in the Madhes, and that he would correct it, not by words but by actions. A couple of days after taking office, he reiterated that he did not know the demands of Madhesis. And a week ago, two of his deputies in the jumbo Cabinet dismissed the Madhesi movement entirely and blamed India for the whole mess, and a third deputy had to clarify it.
Meanwhile, scores of protestors have been out on the streets of the Tarai for more than two and a half months opposing provisions in the new constitution which they feel are worse than in the Interim Constitution. Tharus appear to have calmed down, especially after the tragic violence in Kailali, but their anger is still simmering because the way the federal states have been demarcated has put them in a clear demographic disadvantage. The Madhesis, on their part, celebrated Dashain on the streets. Reports from the ground seem to reflect the determination of the protestors, alertness against the leaders who at any time can betray them in exchange for power and perks, and remarkable solidarity across ethnic lines. Certainly, there are many other factors behind the scale and strength of this movement, including contradictory interests of the Madhesi Morcha leaders themselves, but at the heart of this uprising lies the real and perceived alienation of Madhesis with the new constitution.
But the rulers and opinion shapers in Kathmandu seem to have misread the motivation behind the movement. Many feel that it is being sponsored by India and that if it can be appeased, the dust will settle. Another group feels that the protests are taking place solely because the protestors have not read the constitution. Yet another group feels that it is only the vocal minority who are on the streets, and hence, the Madhesis can be tired out. All these assessments are deeply problematic. India’s action may have made the movement more complicated, but it was primarily the result of the fast-tracked constitution that failed to incorporate the people’s aspirations. The agitation started before the constitution was promulgated when India’s role had not yet become apparent.
All the protestors may not have gone through every point in the 186-page document by downloading it from the website of the Legislature Parliament—this is true for its defenders too—but they know what it feels like when proportional representation is cut down to 40 percent from the previous 60 percent. Those downplaying the scale and strength of the movement are at best the unfortunate ones who probably do not have the time and will to read the ground reports.
Need for introspection
Truth be told, the unofficial blockade by India has indeed made this protest more complicated. Imports of essential goods including medicines have been hampered. The fuel shortage is obvious, and we are gradually entering a phase of a humanitarian crisis. India has to share the blame for this, but at this time, it is worth remembering that Nepal has always sought India’s role at momentous points in its country’s history—be it in 1950, 1990 or 2006. The Rookmangud Katuwal episode is the latest one, when even the staunchest defenders of the current Oli dispensation had smiled at India’s role. Undoubtedly, the tradition across Nepali parties to strive to secure Indian favour should end sooner than later. However, you cannot selectively take a group seeking Indian favour and declare it as anti-national while treating others doing the same thing at a different time as true defenders of nationalism as per your convenience.
A more productive way, instead of questioning the loyalty of the protestors, would be to introspect where and when we made mistakes. Let us accept the fact that the constitution was supposed to usher in peace, harmony and equality, but that just did not happen. In reality, we ended up making our society even more polarised. Dozens of precious lives have been lost, most of which could have been saved if the security personnel had exercised a little restraint. The already tottering economy has been hit hard once again, and public life is becoming increasingly difficult. Now, we are living at the threshold of breaking a delicately balanced ethnic harmony.
However, the government seems to have different priorities: it is keen on persuading India rather than its own citizens. There has not been even a single public address by the Prime Minster, let alone an hour-long hop to the agitating districts. When those in power bark up the wrong tree, it comes as a responsibility of civil society and public intellectuals to warn them. But Nepali civil society glaringly failed to bridge the gap between the protestors and the rulers in Kathmandu. Obviously, Nepal’s civil society could have done more to pressurise the government to hold sincere talks instead of organising a ‘Chhyama puja’ at Pashupatinath and baselessly attacking the report of Human Rights Watch.
Nevertheless, having realised that the only sane option is engagement and negotiation, many in Kathmandu have been pushing the for dialogue: the social media campaign #KtmwithMadhes being its latest avatar. This has given hope in these depressing days that there are people in Kathmandu who care, emphasise and support the genuine demands of the Madhesis. The idea behind this campaign is to put pressure on both the government and the protestors to start dialogue in good faith. When the constitution drafting was underway, we were told that it was a living document and could be amended. This is the time for the government to be open to discussion on amending the constitution, including a fresh delimitation of the federal boundaries. The protestors, for their part, need to stop occupying the no-man’s land and focus on dialogue and switch to peaceful methods of protest if needed. The motivation behind this campaign—that the Capital should not remain insular to its periphery—is a big social capital that, if we are smart enough to nurture it, may prove to be a valuable asset in maintaining sound social health in the coming days.
At this time, it is worth remembering that addressing the grievances by amending the constitution is a just the tip of the iceberg. Huge efforts will be needed to transform the polity—to make it transparent, efficient, inclusive and just. We need to overhaul not only the state apparatus but also our everyday interpersonal conduct. Anyway, the mess needs to be cleared, and let us begin by addressing the grievances of the Madhes.
(Acharya is a graduate student at Louisiana State University, the US )