Way down southInternal divisions in Madhes are being used as a propaganda tool to dismiss its demands
The Tarai of Nepal, now known as Madhes, is home to diverse ethnic, cultural, linguistic, caste and religious groups. In terms of caste hierarchy, the Madhes exhibits much commonality with the Pahad, and this is also true for caste-based discrimination. This diversity is increasingly being portrayed as an internal division, and is used to dismiss the entire issue of federal demarcation that Madhes has been long asserting. However, the fact that has been completely disregarded is the common experience of discrimination faced by the entire population of Madhes at the hands of the hill elite. They share the same history of being treated as second class citizens. It was this shared experience of prejudice which gave rise to the collective identity of the Madhes and helped mobilise the Madhes Andolan.
Their struggle is against the Pahade-dominated polity and systematic exclusion of the plains people. The Madhes movement thus seeks to reclaim their past understanding of how discriminatory policies like the Nepali language being imposed as the medium for all official purposes, discriminatory citizenship policies and the declaration of “daura suruwal, dhaka topi” as the national dress, which most Madhesis still find alien, have determined their second class status. The most crucial blow to the advancement of Madhesi society was the imposition of education in the Nepali language that systematically denied Madhesis the fundamental right to education, but also demolished the existing educational system that worked through the exchange of teachers and students across the border. This devalued the worth of Madhesis and produced levels of poverty severing social relations within and resulted in segregation that separated Madhesis from the wider society.
The internal problems prevalent in the plains are also largely a result of the Kathmandu-centric polity that has, for the most part, ignored the problems and development needs of the Madhes. Caste-based discrimination in the Madhes, for example, is a crude reality much like in the hills. Article 11 of the 1990 Constitution provided the right to equality and prohibited any kind of discrimination based on caste, class, race, religion or gender by the state. Moreover, this article also provided the right against untouchability. However, the implementation of both these rights has remained weak, especially in the plains. This is largely because all the law enforcement bodies in the plains are almost entirely composed of the hill elite. The Nepal Army, Armed Police Force, Nepal Police, judiciary, CDOs and all the justice delivery bodies are dominated by the hill high-caste elite.
In addition, the law enforcement officers are largely untrained to understand the diversity within the country and act accordingly. It is this structure that has boxed the entire population of the Madhes into one category disregarding its internal dimensions. In a positive development, this is what has reinforced the Madhesi identity today. It is apparent that while the hill high-caste dominated structure appears to be least interested in addressing the social ills in the plains, the Madhesis themselves are helpless and lack power to deal with them. The discrimination in the Madhes is reflected in their sparse presence in the civil service and decision-making positions. Foreign aid, which accounts for as much as 60 percent of Nepal’s development budget, began percolating into Madhes only after the 2007 Madhes movement. The Madhesis never had any agency to determine the costs required for their development or create the design that is most efficient for the development of the region.
In such a discriminatory environment, the activism to end social ills in the plains could not spread. The social activists and anthropologists who have proliferated in the mountains and hills have largely remained oblivious of the plains. An example of this is the comparative situation of Dalits in the hills and the Tarai. Hill Dalits fare better in almost all the human development indices compared to their Tarai counterparts. This is because of the simple fact that the former share the common decadency of Pahad, which has received greater attention than the plains, and do not face the compounded discrimination of being Madhesi and a Dalit.
Hope for change
The Madhes movement encompasses these factors and is driven by the sentiments of the common people. It is also understood by a large section of the population that the problems in the Madhes can only be addressed through real devolution of power. This devolution of power is possible only after the dispute over provincial demarcation has been settled. The demarcation of provinces will not only ensure representation in the developmental model and a fair share in the national economy, but also place greater responsibility on the states to ensure affirmative action for those who are most marginalised within the provinces. Removing social ills based on caste, religion, class and language and addressing the diversity within will also be the responsibility of the states.
When the constitution provisions for provincial police and courts, it will make justice more accessible to the people. With a more culturally sensitive localised security force, law and order will be that of civilians with better understanding of the local context. This will help alter the relationship between the people and the security forces, establishing them as guardians of law and order. The state civil service will ensure the representation of the local people in the administration, creating employment opportunities at the local level. Affirmative action and inclusion at each level will also address internal divisions. A localised educational system will help preserve local languages, and make education more accessible. These plans, can only be executed after the issue of federal demarcation is sorted out.
At the moment, the caste and other internal divisions in the Madhes, hitherto unseen by Kathmandu, are being used as a propaganda tool to dismiss its demands. This sudden interest in the problems of the plains will only dismiss the possibility of their elimination in the future. It is a fact that Madhes encompasses great diversity, but the people also have a common experience of being discriminated against. Therefore, Madhes is a collective identity derived from common interests, experiences and solidarity, and a commitment to challenge established power by the excluded groups. Only a recognition of this fact will help address the current impasse in the plains. The old colonial tactic of divide and rule to dismiss the demands will be a futile attempt, and, more importantly, will only aggravate the situation.
Jha holds a master’s degree in Social Work from Tata Institute of Social Sciences