Slow and steadyThe Madhes movement has succeeded by failing—by not achieving its declared objectives
The Madhes movement seems to have fizzled out with the resumption of supplies through the Nepal-India border. As a result, Madhesis and sympathisers of their plight certainly feel both demoralised and let down. Demoralised because the killings of more than two score Madhesis and abuse of the Madhesi population by the security forces and the powerful figures of the state seem to have come to naught. And let down because both the lay activists and their well-wishers had hoped that the leaders of the Morcha would dynamically respond to the evolving fluidity of the movement and know when to shift strategy and when to change tactics—in short, when to start, halt and stop, or shift gear. Instead, the leaders either let things play out or depended on India’s largess to pressure the state and bargain behind the scenes. Of course, analysts and historians would sift the events and find many reasons why the movement could not succeed.
But what if it had succeeded? What if the Koirala or Oli government had conceded all the demands of the Morcha under either India’s pressure or the pressure and hardship due to the blockade? Would that have been an achievement for the ages? Many would certainly think so.The Madhesis would have won constitutional equality, state borders would have been demarcated to the satisfaction of their leaders, and these leaders would have triumphantly marched to positions of power, election after election. It would have been politics as usual.
The failure of this long struggle, therefore, hits where it hurts most—self-respect and self-esteem of the Madhesis. Their despair and defeat is thus quite understandable. That said, if the Koirala-Oli-Dahal alliance had fulfilled the Madhesi demands, it would have been an easy victory. And when easy victory occurs, the victors, especially their leaders, do not appreciate the rewards as much. Most likely than not, they misuse and abuse their rewards when they come to power. They would rule the Madhes either like the Nepali state has done so far or Bihar did until recently.
The question that one can ask at this point is: What have the leaders of the Madhes movement learnt from the movement? Has the movement transformed their thinking, character, penchant for squabbling, and inability to form alliances with other marginalised groups, such as the Madhesi Dalits, and Madhesi and hill Janajatis? Have they kept a journal of the movement to record their thoughts, note the ups and downs of the movement and assess and reflect upon their actions and decisions even as the movement was in full swing? I have probably read almost every media article and watched almost every television show on the Madhes movement. Madhesi leaders have certainly given some good television interviews, but in terms of writings in the media, they have not made a mark. What this means is that there is no serious and systematic thinker among them.
And without a serious thinker among the leaders, a movement evolves spontaneously and goes where the wave of activists and participants take it, reacting to external and internal forces. In my view, that was the biggest shortcoming of the Madhes movement despite its sustained energy and many sacrifices. And this is precisely where the movement has succeeded by failing—by not achieving its declared objectives. It has fulfilled its long-term goals by coming short on its short-term results.
If the biggest failure of the movement has been the lack of its leaders’ ability to systematically reflect, dynamically assess and effectively guide the movement to its logical destination, its biggest success has been, as I had suggested in this space some months ago, the raising of consciousness of the common Madhesis and the testing and training of the Talented Tenth among the Madhesis, the Young Turks, who have already been providing leadership to the movement intellectually.
What this movement has also done, which is quite salutary for the entire country itself, is to force other marginalised groups, such as the Tharus, Dalits and hill Janajatis, and even many women, to assess their priorities, choose their friends and recognise their true adversaries. Above all, this movement has created a sizable group of intellectual activists and a large group of sympathisers among even the hill caste people. All these things happened not overnight but gradually, as the movement progressed day by day, week by week over the past half year. And the things that percolate through slowly seep to the bottom to sit well.
This slow raising of consciousness among the marginalised in response to the violence of the Nepali state was the only way that a fundamental transformation could be possible in the future without a sudden eruption of mass violence.
This slow transformation can take one of three forms: Realisation on the part of the ruling parties of their bleak future and consequent role in the structural transformation of the state; change in the political structure as a result of a new political alliance of the marginalised and a complete boycott of the three main parties; or a future joint movement of all the marginalised people to force structural change.
The first option is the best but unlikely given what we have witnessed so far in Nepal where force and violence have worked better than persuasion and peaceful transformation. The second option would also be good given the example of India where its messy democracy has over the past half-century slowly empowered the lower castes but the Adivasi issue still remains thorny and violent. Also, given human weakness for posts and power, I am not sure if members of the marginalised will not continue with the existing dominant political parties as token Madhesis, Dalits or Janajatis. Besides, the leadership among the marginalised is fragile and fragmented. Look at the many political cooks among the Madhesis and the failure of leadership among the Tharus. The last option, of course, is least desirable but most likely given the shortcomings in the first two options. That would certainly be unfortunate for the country and its people.