By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On April 6, 2016, United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) cadres protested the visit of Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation, Agni Prasad Sapkota, greeting him with black flags in the Rautahat District. Ram Niwas Yadav, District Coordinator of UDMF, observed, “We have restricted the Ministers or any other Government officials from visiting the District. But, Sapkota’s visit sparked tension; so we protested.” The agitation by UDMF – comprising the Upendra Yadav-led Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal (FSF-N), the Mahantha Thakur-led Tarai Madhes Democratic Party (TMDP), the Rajendra Mahato-led Sadbhawana Party (SP) and the Mahendra Raya Yadav-led Tarai Madhes Sadbhawana Party (TMSP) began – commenced on July 1, 2015, when they burnt copies of the preliminary draft of the Constitution in capital Kathmandu, as it failed to incorporate their demands. The Madhesi protestors are the demanding redrawing of the boundaries of Provinces in the Himalayan nation as proposed in the new Constitution, and the restoration of rights granted to Madhesis in the Interim Constitution of 2007 which, they claim, the new Constitution has snatched away.
According to partial data compiled by the South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP), at least 44 persons, including 25 civilians and 19 Security Force (SF) personnel, were killed and another 229, including 166 civilians and 63 SF personnel, were injured in violent protests across the Terai region during the first round of violence, between July 1 and September 19, 2015. In Surhket District, adjoining the Terai region, another two civilians were killed and 50 were injured. Further, violence continued subsequent to the adoption of the new Constitution on September 20, 2015, with 13 civilians and one SF trooper killed and another 448 persons, including 344 civilians and 104 SF personnel, injured in violent protests across the Tarai region, according to SATP data. In adjoining Districts, one civilian was killed in Udayapur and another was injured in Dhading District (all data till April 10, 2016).
Meanwhile, to mount pressure on the Government to address their demands at the earliest, as many as 100 cadres of UDMF started a blockade at Dasgaja on the Indo-Nepal border, near Birgunj town in Parsa District, on September 24, 2015. However, keeping in mind country’s problems, people’s needs and their suggestions, UDMF decided to lift the border blockade on February 8, 2016, and put off its general strike to allow Government offices to function for the time being. However, UDMF stated in its release, “Our agitation will continue till our demands are met. No matter what the circumstances are, we will not backtrack from our struggle.” The violent protests, however, came to an end.
Estimating the economic losses of the Terai turmoil and subsequent economic blockade, the Federation of the Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), Nepal’s apex business body, claimed on January 12, 2016, that the Madhesi protests resulted in a huge revenue loss to the country amounting to an estimated NR two billion daily over the preceding five months, and that more than 400,000 Nepalis lost their jobs and 2,200 manufacturing units stopped operations.
Meanwhile, on February 17, 2016, the task forces of the three major political parties – the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) – and the agitating UDMF discussed the Terms of Reference (ToR) of the political mechanism to be formed to revise provincial boundaries, but failed to reach an agreement. The UDMF taskforce members put forth their views on the UDMF’s 11-point demand and sought a package deal. However, members of the taskforce of the major parties were concerned only with forming a political mechanism. Finally, on February 18, 2016, UDMF rejected the political mechanism formed under Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa to revise provincial boundaries, arguing that the newly formed mechanism would not be able to address the demands of the agitating parties.
Later, on March 11, 2016, the agitating UDMF held talks with Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli and submitted a seven-point memorandum to the Prime Minister urging the Government to address their 11-point demands before mid-April. In the four-page memorandum, the front also demanded the delineation of constituencies on the basis of population and the retention of the proportions of the mixed election system ensured in the Interim Constitution. At the end of the meeting, the Prime Minister formed the political committee under the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa to find a solution to the issues of provincial boundaries.
Nevertheless, to escalate pressure, the agitating Madhesi parties decided on March 15, 2016, to launch fresh protests from the second week of April if their demands are not addressed by then. Further, the Federal Alliance, comprising UDMF and 15 other political parties, organized a protest rally in Kathmandu on March 19, 2016, demanding amendments to the Constitution to address the concerns of Madhesis, Janajatis and other ‘marginalized communities’. In a Press Release on March 21, 2016, the Alliance urged the public to prepare for a “decisive joint people’s movement”, declaring that it would continue to fight for identity-based federalism no matter how difficult and how long the battle was. The Alliance also declared that the First Amendment to the Constitution addressed none of the vital issues related to identity-based federalism, autonomous provinces and multi-language policy, the Upper House of the Parliament, federal judiciary, local bodies, and multi-nationalities – concerns the Alliance had articulated. On January 23, 2016, Parliament voted to amend the country’s new Constitution after its promulgation four months earlier, to ensure higher representation in Government bodies on the basis of proportional inclusion of the Madhesis and other marginalized communities. However, the lawmakers of agitating Madhesi parties boycotted the voting, arguing that the amendment failed to address their core demand of fresh demarcation of provincial boundaries. Madhesi lawmaker Sarbendra Nath Sukla declared, “This amendment fails to fulfill our demands. Our agitation will go on.”
A series of such warnings followed. Ashok Kumar Rai, Parliamentary Party leader of FSF-N, stated on April 7, 2016, that launching another movement had become a compulsion for UDMF as the Government had been indifferent to the Front’s demands. He noted that senior leaders would complete the campaign by mid-April, when the ultimatum served to the Government to address UDMF’s demands would end.
Meanwhile, Minister for Home Affairs Shakti Basnet, while speaking at a Press Conference organized by the Federation of Revolutionary Journalists at Bharatpur Airport in Chitwan District on April 3, 2016, argued, “Most of the demands of Madhes-based parties have already been addressed by amending the Constitution. Rest of the demands will be addressed through the political mechanism.”
Further, on March 30, 2016, Prime Minister Oli assured the nation that there would not be any kind of border blockade and obstruction in free transportation, as the Government would not tolerate such activities, and remarked, “The Government will move ahead in accordance with the law. The Government cannot just look at Nepali people suffering because of someone’s whim.” Further, on April 5, 2016, the Prime Minister added that the Government had learnt a serious lesson from the five-month blockade and was now committed to further diversification of Nepal’s transit and trade options.
Underscoring the need for unity among parties for effective implementation of the newly promulgated Constitution, Law Minister Agni Kharel observed, on March 29, 2016, “As the statute is the common achievement of all the people and the parties, unity and cooperation among them is a must for its proper implementation. The main opposition Nepali Congress must join the Government to ensure the effective execution of the statute.”
However, NC General Secretary Krishna Prasad Sitaula on April 6, 2016, stressed that NC would not join the incumbent Government in the present context. Sitaula nevertheless stated that his party would remain involved in the resolution of the Madhes agitation, implementation of the new Constitution and economic prosperity of the country. Earlier, arguing that the current Government had itself become a hindrance to the implementation of the country’s new Constitution, NC central leader Bimalendra Nidhi asserted, on April 1, 2016, “The Government has failed completely to implement the Constitution, address the issues of Madhes and execute post-quake reconstruction works.”
The promulgation of the new Constitution on September 20, 2015, was no doubt a historic step forward, but certain shortcomings clearly remain. With the Madhesi groups threatening a revival of their disruptive agitation and blockade, it is imperative that the main political parties end their blame games and unite to address the residual grievances and reservations of various political formations.
* S. Binodkumar Singh
Research Associate, Institute for Conflict Management