Common causeOnly time will tell if Janajatis and Madhesis will align themselves to fight for the rights of the marginalised
In my last column, I had thrown some water on the firework of the Maoists and the CPN-UML after they won a majority in the federal and provincial elections. Today, I want to reflect on the “losers” of the election—the Madhesi and Janajati party of Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum Nepal (SSFN) and the Madhesi party, the Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N).
I have placed the word “losers” within quotation marks because both the parties think, and not without reason, that the Madhesis of Province 2 have endorsed their activism for justice on behalf of the marginalised—the Madhesis, the Janajatis, Dalits and women since the first Madhes movement but especially before, during and after the proclamation of the current constitution. Regarding the question of whether the Madhesis won or managed to save their skin, my view is that they did not win, but did manage to save their honour by a bare margin. I have some specific reasons behind this view.
The biggest problem of the Madhesi parties has been their failure to ask tough questions and confront their weaknesses. Ever since the mainstreaming of the Madhesi issues, why is it that Madhesi parties and their leaders have failed to persuade non-Madhesis to vote for them? Why is it that they failed to persuade even the Tharus to join their efforts until the Tikapur incident in 2015, when the state repression of the Tharus drove home the point in the Tharuhat leadership that the only way the Tharus could advance their politics of identity was by joining the RJP-N and the Madhesis? Prior to the incident in Tikapur, the Tharus didn’t even want to identify themselves with the Madhesis.
Not enough orientation
Upendra Yadav’s move to merge forces with Ashok Rai and bring Madhesis and Janajatis together under a common cause was a stroke of genius, but it failed on two fronts. One, it failed to persuade many Madhesis that joining hands with the hill Janajatis was a good idea, and I’m not talking about only the lay folks here. In a recent phone conversation, a Madhesi political scientist said sarcastically, “Did you see how Yadav won the hearts and minds of the hill Janjatis in the recent elections?” What he meant was that Yadav continues to shoulder the burden of the hill Janajati cause needlessly, because it is the Madhesis that have kept his party’s politics alive as shown in the recent elections. The Madhesis were the ones who voted for Yadav’s party, whilst the Janajatis in the hills and mountains enthusiastically voted for the UML, a party that has stubbornly gone against their identity interests. So to such Madhesis, it looks as though Yadav doesn’t really know what he is doing. This was an opinion expressed to me by some Madhesi intellectuals last summer in Kathmandu as well.
Indeed, Yadav’s vision of forming a common cause with Janajatis hasn’t proven very persuasive to many Madhesis. Now, it may be that Madhesis by nature and nurture have a deep cross-border Hindu caste orientation. This probably makes it likely that they would culturally identify more with hill caste Brahmins and Chhetris than with the pork-eating, alcohol-drinking, marriage-by-elopement hill Janajatis. So, such Madhesis would rather beg, cajole and directly protest against the hill caste political leaders than conceive the possibility of merging their struggle for justice and political ideology with the animist hill Janajatis. On the other hand, it also may be the case that Yadav is so sure of his visionary path of forming alliances with the Janajatis and the envisioned long-term success of such an alliance that he doesn’t bother to hold what the communists in Nepal call ‘party teaching’ or ‘party orientation’ (prashikshan) for not just his cadres, but for the general Madhesis as well.
The second failure of Ashok Rai and Upendra Yadav is even more serious and damning than the first. They failed to persuade the common men and women among the Janajatis in the hills and the plains to vote for them in the elections. Why was that the case when most Janajati intellectuals—Om Gurung, Padma R Tuladhar, Mangal Siddhi Manandhar, Krishna Bhattachan, Krishna Hachhethu—supported their cause? To find an adequate answer to this question, a deep and dispassionate analysis of the history of the relationship between the Nepali hill Janajatis and the state as well as the people who represent it will be required. An analysis of the cultural and linguistic psyche of the hill Janajati communities will also be required.
History binds fate
I said above that Madhesis view hill Janajatis as being more distant to them than in comparison to hill caste Hindus because of religion, language, purity and pollution in endogamy and commensality, eating, and drinking habits. But the Janajatis, too, view the Madhesis as being more distant than the hill castes Hindus because the Janajatis and hill caste Hindus have traditionally shared the experiences of geography (hills and mountains), state (especially in the form of the army rank and file), household service (employment in the ruling class household right from the beginning), and most importantly, the mixing of blood through traditionally illegitimate marriages in the form of elopement. This intermixing of blood was made possible by courtship and elopement between both hill Janajatis and hill caste Hindus, by the diminishing degree of restrictions in terms of caste adherence to purity and pollution, and by the eventual acceptance of such initially objectionable unions.
And, finally, the spectre of India always looms large over the Madhesi cause as well. The Madhesis of the Nepali plains appear no different from their Indian counterparts on the other side of the border, either in terms of culture, caste, ethnicity or language. And these similarities mark them as belonging culturally to the Indian heartland. This heartland is one from which the hill Janajatis, whether from Nepal, Darjeeling, Sikkim, and the rest of North East India, find themselves separated, and in many cases alienated as well.
Overcoming all these barriers would indeed be a Herculean task. Whether a sense of common discrimination by the state will eventually build a bridge between the Madhesis and the hill Janjatis, as it did among the Tharus from the east and the west, only time will tell. That’s why, when in the past weeks, articles with titles like “Can Upendra Yadav fill the vacuum in leadership created by the Maoists’ desertion of the cause of identity?” came up in the media, I posted them on social media with a facetious comment, “Only if Upendra Yadav takes up a rigorous regimen of physical exercise, can he do that.” But despite the fact that I may have sounded facetious, my intent was dead serious. It will require much work and will take time, but it’s doable.
Mishra is department Chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States