Campaigners against Koshi hope province will get new nameProvince 1 renamed Koshi on March 1. There are no signs of movement for name reflecting ethnic identity ebbing.
Tika R Pradhan
Nearly a month after his death on March 24, the struggle committee agitating against the decision of the Province 1 provincial assembly to name the province as ‘Koshi', decided to perform the funeral rites of their activist Padam Limbu, also known as Lajehang, on Saturday, after holding a condolence assembly in Biratnagar.
As there was no significant struggle when all five provinces were named by two-thirds majority of their respective provincial assemblies, the Province 1 assembly decided to name itself Koshi, after a river’s name, instead of going for a name that reflects the identity of a ethnic community in the region.
But the ethnic organisations including Kirat Yakthum Chumlung and Kirat Rai Yayokkha, who have long been fighting for identity-based federalism, were not like the ones in other five provinces that were named without referring to ethnic identities.
“We will resume our protests after performing the last rites of martyr Lajehang on Saturday,” said Prem Yekten Limbu, chairperson of the Kirat Yakthum Chumlung and a lecturer of political science at the Tribhuvan University. “We will continue to obstruct the assembly members' movement and boycott their functions until the assembly begins the process of renaming the province.”
Yekten claimed that he believes the mentality of the provincial assembly members has changed gradually, following their movement. He hopes that the province will be renamed soon.
They started chasing the leaders, who were involved in naming the province right after the provincial assembly took the decision by its two-thirds majority, ignoring their demands, on March 1.
According to political analysts and observers, this move, however, seems to be igniting identity movements in other provinces as well.
Five other provinces among the seven also got their names either from the rivers—Gandaki, Bagmati and Karnali—or religious place—Lumbini—and regional identity—Sudur Paschim [Far West]—which essentially resembles the zonal or five development regions carved out during the Panchayat regime.
The ongoing movement against naming the province after a river seems to have gained momentum gradually with political parties and even the civil society recognising and supporting it.
Various ethnicity-based groups including Limbuwan, and Kirat Joint Struggle Committee have been staging demonstrations in the province and in Kathmandu, demanding that the province’s new name reflect the region’s ethnic identities instead of the UML-proposed name, Koshi.
“Actually, our political leaders and parties are responsible for the recurring movements because they betrayed those who championed identity politics,” said Govinda Chhantyal, a researcher and commentator. “The ongoing movement in Province 1 shows that identity politics won’t die down soon. It will continue to recur unless it is settled properly.”
Chhantyal said the civil movement has also felt the heat of the agitation against the naming of Province 1 as Koshi and has started protests in Kathmandu to express solidarity.
Through its secretariat meeting, the CPN (Maoist Centre) decided that the party made a wrong decision by supporting Koshi through its provincial committee and that it would be corrected.
The Janata Samajbadi Party has said they won’t recognise Koshi as the province’s name. The party would use “Province 1” unless an identity-based name is endorsed.
Sanjeev Uprety, a civil society activist and author, said they expressed solidarity with the movement against Koshi after one of the protesters was killed. He also demanded that their concerns be addressed.
“Unless we accept the identity of the communities, our nation cannot be strong and we cannot maintain social harmony,” Uprety told the Post. “We should learn to live together.”
He argued that without addressing the grievances of the people, one can’t save the country from any accident.
“One can claim there is no dissatisfaction in Nepal, but that would just be illusionary and it could lead the country towards serious accidents,” Uprety said.
Provincial assembly members, however, insist that in a democracy there is no alternative to a decision that's made based on a constitutional provision. They said it was not just one party but four major parties that voted in favour of the name Koshi.
“The UML, the Congress, the Maoist Centre and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party have all voted in favour of Koshi. So, I don’t think this will change anytime soon,” said Rewati Raman Bhandari, a leader of the CPN-UML and a provincial lawmaker, who also was a member of the Constituent Assembly that drafted the constitution. “If they protest against Koshi, another group could stand in favour of the name.”
Though the leaders of the parties represented in the provincial assembly said they endorsed the name with an overwhelming majority, advocates of identity-based federalism have said the fire ignited by the refusal may flare up throughout the five other provinces as well.
Three people have already lost their lives after the 2006 movement in Province 1. In the recent protests, more than two dozen people got injured as police used rubber bullets against them.
“We will continue to remove Koshi name plates from everywhere,” said Niranti Tumbapo, another leader of the ongoing anti-Koshi struggle. “We are ready to die, but won’t stop without our demands being met. If the government wants peace and prosperity, it must accept our demands.”
The Nagarik Unmukti Party established by Resham Chaudhary, who has been doing time at Sadarkhor Prison for his involvement in the 2015 Tikapur incident, fared well in the 2022 elections. Observers see the phenomenon as an approval of the identity-based movement.
Among the seven provinces, only Madhesh reflects ethnic identity.