Whither Madhesi civil society?A redefinition of our democratic polity in a manner that empowers all the communities is required
While most of the Madhesi writers dealing with the ongoing problem of Sanyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha protests and the blockade at the border have written in support of its position, one intriguing development has been that even the well-read columnists in the print media toeing pan-Nepali outlook have tended to write in a manner that seemed to convey their sympathies to the Morcha, overtly or obliquely. Take Chandra Kishore for instance. In August 2012, he had written, in his article titled ‘Wariparika Bachhita’ in the Kantipur Daily, that the roti-beti based ‘south-oriented outlook’ was undergoing change. He wrote that the new generation of Madheshis is now ‘more inclined to embrace Kathmandu than the traditional destinations like Darbhanga, Madhuvani, Sitamadhi and so on’. He also mentioned the Madhesis’ dissatisfaction over the hegemony of the new arrivals from across the border who managed to acquire Nepali citizenship. For him, the Madhes revolt itself was ‘a process of “abharatiyakaran” (de-Indianisation). He concluded, ‘while living in Kathmandu continued to involve some challenges’, for the most part, ‘it has now become “sajha sahayatra” or a shared voyage. However, Kishorejee recently (December 3, 2015) wrote in the same daily under a Hindi title—borrowed from a popular Indian movie—‘Hum Apke hain kaun?’ or “What are we to you?” All such recent writings, including this article, suggest the increasing alienation of the Madhesis and placed responsibility on Kathmandu for the Tarai flare-up, the Indian blockade, and its possible resolution by agreeing to the demands of the Morcha.
However, this position clearly sidesteps some of the incongruities in the Morcha’s main demand, the demarcation of the whole of Tarai as one province. While no objective justification—social, economic, cultural whatever—has been advanced for such one (or two) province which, if realised, would be a 30km wide and 800km long east-west strip, inhabited by a wide diversity of ethnic and linguistic groups, including the ‘Madhesi’ and ‘Pahadi’ people, each representing around 39 percent of the Tarai population.
This position ignores a few compelling conditions that irrevocably tie the destiny of the Tarai to the hill regions to the north. For instance, without taming the rivers in the north, there will be no water in the Tarai for drinking, irrigation or for agro-industrial development due to excessive extraction of groundwater across the border that has perilously depleted the water table in the Tarai now standing at 250 feet or more.
Then, there is the developmental perspective. As things stand, the Tarai is poised to be one of the most prosperous places in the whole of South Asia, as long as its development is planned and integrated with the rest of the country. For instance, the West Seti Hydropower Project, now reportedly being considered for implementation by China, would submerge some 2,000 hectares of land and displace some 16,000 people in the four Far-West hill districts of Doti, Dandelchura, Baitadi and Bajhang. But it would irrigate 360,000 hectares of farmland in the Tharu heartland districts of Kanchanpur, Kailali and Bardia, generate much energy, which would power agro-industrial development that has to happen in the Tarai belt, and yield some 15 billion rupees in annual revenue that would significantly contribute to overall national development, including in the aforementioned Far-West hill districts. The same story would hold true also in the case of other hydroelectric projects in the country. In short, there are enormous developmental benefits to be reaped as long as Nepal’s diverse geography is used as an integrated whole.
Frying pan to fire
While a large segment of the Madheshi population remains chronically deprived, two factors have directly contributed to it. Firstly, as pointed out by another Madhesi scholar, Professor Ram Narayan Dev in his article in Kantipur Daily (May 8, 2012) titled, ‘Tarai-Madheshma Arakschyan Niti Kasto Hunu Parchha?’ (What kind of reservation policy should be there in Tarai Madhesh?), ‘most of the land in the Tarai is occupied by high-caste people’ rendering the lower-caste people ‘virtually landless’, and also ‘oppressed and exploited’ by the former. The three high castes comprise Brahmin, Kayastha and Rajput who account for only 4.2 percent of the Madhesi population that numbers 5.3 million.
Secondly, the last 25 years of multiparty democracy in Nepal have been a story of boundless corruption and limitless misrule at the hands of traditionally dominant feudal elites belonging to the three relatively more privileged groups of Bahun, Chhetri and Newar, clearly a case of sustained denial of promised developmental benefits to the people. This is what led many to believe that maybe, federalisation is the answer. However, going by Prof Dev’s portrayal of the Madhesi social structure referred to above, with the exploitative social structure remaining intact whether in the hills or in the Tarai, federalisation would only amount to jumping from the frying pan into the fire.
What is basically needed is a redefinition of our democratic polity in a manner that empowers every single community in the country, in the hill and in the Tarai, to preside over their own destiny. It is to this end that the Madhesi civil society has to intervene and stop this senseless turmoil now and in the future, so that, to quote Chandra Kishore again, the people of both Pahad and Madhesh could get on with the “sajha sahayatra”.
Bihari Krishna Shrestha is an anthropologist