Move onThe country might have to face dire consequences if the Madhesi demands are not fulfilled
If anything, the Madhesi revolt against the constitution has lasted this long due to the government’s mishandling. The agitation could have been resolved through effective communication early on. Instead the state chose to instigate racism, segregation and violate human rights. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, and those who know are doomed to pronounce it in a manner that favours their position, much like our politicians who are turning a blind eye to the Madhes unrest. History provides us lessons but with time things change—politically, socially and internationally—and it is essential for every state to adapt to these changes. The path the Nepal government has been treading in is relatively primitive. It allows its bitter memories of the past to deteriorate its present.
Struggle for existence
Nepal did have valid threats to its independence after the decolonisation of India which persisted until the end of the Cold War. During Cold War, international politics had become highly anarchic. Nepal was weary of regional instability and struggled for its existence as a sovereign state: the invasion of Tibet, the Sino-India War (1962), India-Pakistan War (1971) and secession of Pakistan and Bangladesh, annexation of Sikkim (1975).
Weary of such threats, late king Mahendra embarked on his three major projects: national identity, national integration and diversification of foreign relations. When similarities and geographical proximity between two neighbouring states are high, the risk of assimilation by the bigger and more powerful state is present. To maintain an independent status, Mahendra acknowledged that autonomous decision-making in the international community was essential to gain respect as a sovereign state and an identity independent from India. Anti-Indian sentiments became handy to consolidate the national identity as it was crafted on differentiation.
Either distancing Nepal in the time zone (15 minutes) or celebrating Laxmi Puja in its own unique style, or celebrating the Holi festival one day before the Indians, Mahendra started to create a nationalist ideology around the Nepali language and ‘Nepaliness against India.’ Also at the international stage, Nepal voted against the Soviet bloc in the United Nations General Assembly on the Hungarian issue, not because of its preference but to establish its credentials as a sovereign state by taking a different position than that of India.
As important as the creation of national identity amidst this fear was, the national integration called for a contradictory solution because in the attempt to differentiate Nepalis from Indians, Madhesi people, whose manners, culture and language bore high resemblance to the people from the Indian state of Bihar, got pushed farther away from the Pahadi Nepalis. The natural barrier—dense, malaria-ridden forest between the plains and the hills that prevented contact of these two regions—alienated the Madhesis. Moreover, the national flower (Rhododendron), national costume (Daura saruwal), national flag (Gurkha’s symbol), national weapon (Khukuri), national language (Nepali), even the national bird (Lophophorus) only represented hill people and Madhesis could not relate to them.
Madhesi people have long suffered for their demonstration during the Anglo-Gurkha war of 1814-1816—the people of the region supported British India. Some view this incident as deception against Nepal while some view it as an assertion of the Madhesis’ ethnic nationalism. But it is a known fact that they have been treated as quasi-foreigners requiring visa to enter Kathmandu until 1958.
Over the years, socially and politically, there have been systemic changes in the country. Nepal has transformed from a constitutional monarchy to a federal democratic republic. In this context, how justifiable it is for the country to cling to a primitive judgement? The fears of sovereignty and territorial integrity during Panchayat era were legitimate and perhaps one can even try to come to an understanding with it, but now such fears should not persist and people should be at the centre of national politics.
Madhes movement now has become a matter of dignity, pride, respect and recognition. If we are unable or unwilling to address their need, pain and suffering, it will not yield good results for the country in the future. There are three possible consequences if the demands of the Madhesis— electoral constituencies based on population, proportional representation of Madhesi in government bodies, autonomous identity-based provincial demarcation—are not addressed through peaceful means. First, it may radicalise the youth of Tarai and trigger armed violence in the region; second, the separatist agenda may gain momentum, leading to the demand for a separate nation instead of just an autonomous province as it stands now; and finally, communal violence between the Pahadis and the Madhesis may erupt.
Democracy and people are central themes of the modern state system. Accepting the new reality and valuing ‘people’ as a central theme of any political discourse is the only comprehensible solution to a never-ending tension. The argument that fulfilling the Madhesi demands on demarcation will lead to a separatist movement in the future does not hold water as even if their demands are not fulfilled it can still move in that direction. The current inertia, accusations and loss of human lives would only accelerate the process of a separatist movement in some decades. Risks and benefits here are a zero-sum game and a choice between now or later. It is high time to reconcile with the history and move on.
Pandey holds a Masters in International Relations and Political Science from Universidade Fernando Pessoa, Portugal