The wrong solutionThe government has tried to suppress the Madhesi agitation instead of addressing their demands
Nepal is currently facing a grave crisis. There is a shortage of many essential goods including petroleum products and medicines causing a humanitarian crisis in some places. There has been an unusual increase in anti-Indian and anti-Madhesi sentiments among the hill people, stoked by high-pitched political propaganda. The movement in the Tarai has continued for more than 100 days with 54 people already dead. The government of Nepal, by not promptly tackling the issues raised by the Madhes movement, seems to be callous to the sufferings of the people.
Fallacies of the new constitution
The new constitution, because of its failure to include the demands of the Madhesis, indigenous nationalities, Tharus, Muslims and Dalits, has not generated the expected results. The new constitution has moved back from many of the important rights given in the all-party consensus document: the Interim Constitution of Nepal, 2007. The current seven-state model seems to be far removed from all the accepted criteria of identity and capability. The criteria used in dividing Nepal into seven units is not only unclear, it is arbitrary. The Madhes was basically divided into two units by the State Restructuring Committee of the first Constituent Assembly (CA). The Commission on State Restructuring had also proposed only two units in the Tarai. But the present constitution divided the Tarai into six parts. Surprisingly, even among those six divisions, the Tharuhat did not find any place.
The right to participate in state structures on the basis of proportional inclusion envisioned by the Interim Constitution has also been removed from the new constitution. It has also gone backwards on the right granted by the Interim Constitution to use one’s own mother tongue in local bodies. Although, the Pradesh Sabha has been given the right to decide on the local languages spoken by a large number of the people, unfortunately, no statistics exist regarding the most spoken local languages.
Similarly, the Interim Constitution gives the right to a foreign woman married to a Nepali to acquire naturalised citizenship as provided for by the existing laws. But the new constitution has changed it so that citizenship can be acquired only according to the federal law which is to be framed later. The Interim Constitution has the provision of electing and nominating people’s representatives on the basis of the percentage of the population in the case of Madhes. This provision has been removed from the present constitution despite serious objection by the Madhesis. The special provision targeting historically marginalised groups in Article 18 (3) of the new constitution includes, inappropriately, financially deprived Khas Arya (Chhetri, Bahun, Thakuri and Dasanami as defined in the constitution), a historically advanced group that has exercised political power throughout the last 250 years of Nepal’s history. The present ongoing movement, although centred in the Madhes, calls for the rights of all the marginalised groups in Nepal.
Although the new constitution was passed by more than 90 percent of the CA members, the immense participation of the people the Tarai in the current Madhes movement raises serious questions on its political legitimacy which cannot be simply brushed aside. More than 50 percent of Nepal’s population resides in the Tarai. And among this population group, Madhesis, Tharus, Muslims and indigenous nationalities of Tarai-Madhes make up more than 60 percent.
Clearly, the new constitution has alienated the Madhesis, indigenous nationalities, Tharus, Muslims and Dalits. All these communities constitute two-thirds of the total population of Nepal. The absence of the movement in the hills is not indicative of the objective reality. The silence in the hills is very deceptive. The absence of news reports in the media about events opposing the new constitution in the hills is another reason for the impression of this deceptive peace.
Not the solution
So far, the government, instead of positively addressing the demands of the movement, has been trying to suppress the movement by using the same age-old tactics practiced by previous Nepali rulers. For centuries, the hill people of Nepal have been fed with anti-Madhesi concepts like Madhesis are unreliable and are not Nepali. They were required to carry permits to enter Kathmandu in the past. This was done to prevent mingling between the hill people and Madhesis. Both the Madhesis and indigenous nationalities are equally discriminated against, excluded and suppressed. Therefore, the Madhesis and indigenous nationalities of the hills coming together could have posed a serious threat to the Rana oligarchy.
The Shah kings regained power after the end of Rana rule in the 1950s. King Mahendra introduced the partyless Panchayat system. The people’s struggle for democratic rights was suppressed by stoking anti-Indian sentiments and diverting people’s attention to the threat of Nepal’s independent existence as a sovereign state. All those who demanded democratic rights were charged of being anti-national elements (‘arastriya tatwa’). It was possible to stoke anti-Indian sentiments time and again as a tactic to lengthen the traditional elites’ rule because of the projects like the Koshi, Gandaki and Pancheshwor. But it should be noted that those projects were not given away by Madhesis or indigenous nationalities. Also, India’s interest in Nepal’s water resources can be secured only by building dams like the Koshi high dam in the hills, not in the Madhes. Therefore, implying Indian interest in the Madhesi insistence to include the Koshi in Madhes Pradesh is illogical. Equally surprising is denying the Tharus a province in the west by applying the same pretext of Indian interest.
Damaging our relation with India is not the solution to our problem, nor is stoking anti-Indian sentiments as done in the past to deprive our own people of their rights. We must first settle our internal problems as soon as possible. We must maintain good relations with our neighbours India and China. We do not have to be anti-Indian or anti-Chinese, we just have to remain staunchly pro-Nepali. The substitution of one neighbour by another is not a solution for long-term peace and prosperity. We must provide relief immediately to our people, and only then will it become possible to face the outside world with one coherent voice.
Manandhar is former Vice-Chairman of the National Planning Commission