By Sohan Prasad Sha*
The past two decades in Nepal has witnessed a series of revolts, unrest and uprising of the people. Ever since the peace process started, with a popular 12-point agreement in 2005 between Maoists and the seven parties, it paved the way for peoples’ movement II (2006) against the monarchy, and, simultaneously the historic comprehensive peace agreement to institutionalize the peace process through a new constitution of Nepal. Until then, Maoists and the government of Nepal were two parties. After the interim constitution 2007 was promulgated, the Madhes region, in the southern plains of Nepal, erupted in protest twice, in 2007 and 2008, establishing the Madhesis as a political force to be reckoned with and whose legitimate concerns needed to be addressed in the new constitution.
The Madhesis are yearning for federalism, and autonomy – away from the high caste hill elites’ centralized state structure. They want inclusion in the state organs, proportional representation in the power structure of Nepal through political devolution rather than mere decentralization. They aspire for inclusive citizenship, social justice and dignity of Madhesis in Nepal by doing away with the exclusionary definition of Nepali nationalism to include everyone in the mainstream of Nepal. The agreements were signed and the interim constitution was amended to include the word “Federalism”, provision made for an electoral system, and a commitment made for proportionate representation corresponding to population, among others. Thus, Madhesis, Tharus, Dalits, indigenous groups, minorities, women and backward regions were to be included in the transition towards inclusive ‘Naya Nepal’.
Now, Madhesis are in revolt again since over a month, demanding that the agreed principles and previous agreements signed with them be implemented. However, in the recent few weeks, the developments that have taken place in the name of fast tracking the constitution has alienated the Madhesis and caused anxiety in the way the constitution was rammed through, ignoring the genuine concerns of Madhesis. The feeling of betrayal is strong among the Madhesis, as the Madhes-based parties were kept outside the constitution-making process altogether. This led to unhappiness among them over the new constitution of Nepal, promulgated on September 20, 2015, adding to their apprehension over the brute “majoritarian” tendency shown by a few leaders on the future “entitlement” rights.
Why Madhesi consensus matters in Nepal?
Firstly, in Nepal, there are four political actors and three social actors. The political actors are Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist, the Maoists and a cluster groups of Madhes-based parties. The social actors include the Caste of High Hill Elites (CHHE – comprising Brahmins and Chettris), indigenous groups (Janajatis), and Madhesis. In the political space, Madhes-based parties are in minority. However, in the social space, all the social actors comprise almost one-third each of the population in Nepal. Thus, optimum balance is necessary in the new constitution for long-term future of a peaceful Nepal, as Nepal has had failed experiments with six constitutions earlier in the last six decades. The emerging new social contract needs adequate attention in the constitution.
Secondly, the Madhes (Terai) incorporates 20 of Nepal’s 75 districts, touching border with India, and includes over half the population. The unrest in Madhes for over a month and violence has caused the loss of lives of more than 40 people and led to widespread strikes opposing the constitution.
Third, there is a deep-down perception at the ground among Madhesis of being treated as subjects of “internal colonialism” in Nepal, where the central state extracts the resources from the Madhes-populated plains and treats its people as second-class citizens, depriving them of adequate political power and rights. Moreover, Madhesis maintain the discrimination against them is mainly due to their cultural, language, race and regional affinity with neighboring India. For instance, during the time of Madhes revolt in 2007 and 2008, murals all over Nepal displayed, “Say with pride I am Madhesi, not a traitor but a son of a soil”.
The prevailing feeling of Nepali nationalism towards Madhesis has been derogatory. Prejudices were reinforced, including by rather offensive racial remarks, during the peak of constitution-making in Nepal by the conservative leaders, which was tantamount to pushing their own people to the doors of neighbors to fight for their rights and dignity. This has led to further deterioration of the situation at ground level in Madhes/Tarai. This has more damningly put paid to the Madhesis’ confidence of ensuring their rights in the new constitution.
Fourth, with the emergence of new social contacts, there is need to negotiate the concerns of large social groups like Madhesis, Janajatis, women and other marginalized groups to institutionalize peace. Else, it will most likely merely prolong the conflict and civil war, that too in the Madhes region, which houses over half of Nepal’s agriculture and industrial sector output, bordering India.
Fifth, with the ongoing protest for almost a month, Nepal’s old fault lines are resurfacing. For instance, Nepal never united emotionally at the people-to-people level but only physically. There exists ultra-nationalist jingoism among the hill elites coterie, who are unable to conceive of the ideal of ‘unity in diversity’. All nations and its constitutions hold on certain perceptions that bind everyone. For this, it is important that institutions like politics and its leaders, civil society, media and state apparatus plays a crucial role. However, in Nepal it has not just failed but also generated a crisis of confidence on the overall institutions in Nepal. For instance, there is an overwhelming perception in Madhes that Kathmandu has not risen up to put pressure on the government to take necessary steps for forging consensus on the constitution, and nor could civil society effectively intervene on human rights violation, press freedom, torture and killings, and the consistently deteriorating conditions in Madhes region of Nepal.
The new constitution should have been a foundation for celebrating ‘unity in diversity’ while Nepal makes transition from peoples’ war and social conflicts to ‘peace’. Instead, unfortunately, the brute “majoritarian” tendency of the new constitution will only alienate the people living on the margins. What has triumphed in Nepal is ultra-nationalism with arrogance that is premised on discrimination, subjugation, racism and second-class citizenship that Madhesis have been suffering historically. What Nepali leaders are missing is what once B.R. Ambedkar aptly said: ‘Democracy is not merely a form of government. It is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience. It is essentially an attitude of respect and reverence towards fellowmen’.
Similarly, Madhesis are not asking anything new in this ongoing revolt but to respect those commitments already agreed to implement and institutionalize in the new constitution with regard to proportionate election constituency based on population, inclusive citizenship, social inclusion in all state apparatus and two federal provinces in Madhes region. Not the least, to restore confidence towards the state/government at a time when a feeling of being deceived is felt widely among the people of Madhes in Nepal.
Amendments to the new constitution will be a step forward as an historic opportunity for peaceful reconciliation towards national unity, by addressing their grievances and simultaneously mainstreaming the Madhesis of Nepal into the constitutional fold.
*Sohan Prasad Sha is a PhD candidate in School of Social Science, JNU (Delhi, India) and hails from Nepal. He can be contacted at [email protected]