By S. Binodkumar Singh*
On April 6, 2016, cadres of United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) comprising of 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) protested the visit of Minister of Forest and Soil Conservation Agni Prasad Sapkota by greeting him with black flags in Rautahat district. The agitation by the UDMF cadres began on July 1, 2015, by burning the copies of the preliminary draft of the constitution in the capital, Kathmandu, as it failed to incorporate their demands. The Madhesis are demanding redrawing of the boundaries of the provinces in the Himalayan nation as proposed in the new constitution and restoration of rights granted to Madhesis in the interim constitution of 2007 which, they claim, the new constitution has snatched away.
During the first round of violence, between July 1 and September 19, 2015, 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 Tarai region. In Surhket district, adjoining the Tarai region, another two civilians were killed and 50 were injured. Further, subsequent to the adoption of the new constitution on September 20, 2015, violence continued with 13 civilians and one SF killed and another 448 persons, including 344 civilians and 104 SF personnel, injured in violent protests across the Tarai region. In adjoining districts, one civilian was killed in Udayapur and another was injured in Dhading district (all data till April 11, 2016).
Further, to pile pressure on the government to address their demands at the earliest, as many as 100 cadres of the UDMF on September 24, 2015, started a blockade at Dasgaja, the Indo-Nepal border, near Birgunj town in Parsa district. However, keeping in mind country’s problems, people’s needs and their suggestions, the UDMF at an informal meeting of the chiefs of its constituents on February 8, 2016, decided to lift border blockade, put off its general strike and allow government offices to open for the time being. The front also decided to expand its protest programmes in Madhes/Tharuhat, Kathmandu and other parts of the country. The UDMF also decided to induct other like-minded parties and alliances into the front.
Meanwhile, estimating the economic losses of the Tarai turmoil and subsequent economic blockade, Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FNCCI), Nepal’s apex business body, on January 12, 2016, claimed that the Madhesi protests have resulted in a huge revenue loss to the country amounting to an estimated NR 2 billion daily for the last five months, over 400,000 Nepalis lost their jobs in the last five months and 2,200 manufacturing units stopped operations during the last five months.
Remarkably, on February 17, 2016, the task forces of the three major parties 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, the UDMF on February 18, 2016, rejected the political mechanism formed under Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa to revise provincial boundaries saying that the newly formed mechanism would not be able to address the demands of the agitating parties, so it would not accept the mechanism.
For the first time, on March 11, 2016, after the UDMF withdrew its extreme forms of protest, including border blockade, leaders of the agitating UDMF held talks with Prime Minister KP 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 to delineate constituencies on the basis of population and to retain the proportion of mixed election system ensured in the interim constitution. After the meeting, once again, the Prime Minister formed a political committee under the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Kamal Thapa to find a solution to the issues of provincial boundaries.
Frustratingly, on March 15, 2016, the agitating Madhesi parties decided to launch fresh protests from April second week if their demands are not addressed by then. Further, Federal Alliance, comprising the UDMF and 15 other political parties, on March 19, 2016, organized a protest rally in Kathmandu demanding amendments to the constitution to address the concerns of Madhesi, Janajati and other marginalized communities. The Alliance said that the first amendment to the constitution on January 23, 2016, addressed none of the vital issues related to identity-based federalism, autonomous provinces, and multi-language policy, Upper House of the Parliament, federal judiciary, local bodies and multi-nationalities. Worryingly, on March 31, 2016, UDMF Secretariat directed its constituents to prepare for another movement to begin from mid-April.
Underscoring the need for unity among parties for effective implementation of the newly promulgated constitution, UCPN-M Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal on March 15, 2016, said that there is a need of national unity for the implementation of the new constitution. Similarly, UCPN-M Secretary Barsha Man Pun on March 28, 2016, said that the participation of the NC in the incumbent government would ease the constitution implementation process.
However, expressing dissatisfaction over the works of the CPN-UML-led government, NC General Secretary Krishna Prasad Sitaula on April 6, 2016, clarified that the NC would not join the incumbent government in the present context. Sitaula further said that his party would be involved for resolving Madhes agitation, implementation of the new constitution and economic prosperity of the country. Earlier, blaming that the current government itself was a hindrance to the implementation of the country’s new constitution, NC central leader Bimalendra Nidhi on April 1, 2016, said “The government has failed completely to implement the constitution, address the issues of Madhes and execute post-quake reconstruction works”.
Remarkably, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli on March 30, 2016, assuring that the nation would not witness any kind of border blockade and obstruction in free transportation as the government would not tolerate such activities 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, Prime Minister Oli on April 5, 2016, said that the government has learnt a serious lesson from the five-month blockade and is now committed to further diversification of Nepal’s transit and trade options.
No doubt, the promulgation of new constitution on September 20, 2015, was a historic step forward, but there are certain shortcomings in the new constitution and the disruptive protests by marginalized Madhesi formations have caused enormous loss and distress within Nepal. Moreover, as the Madhesi groups are threatening to restart their agitation from mid-April, the ethnic polarization may persist and radicalization may deepen undermining the hard won peace.
*Dr. S. Binodkumar Singh is a Research Associate at the Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. He can be reached at: [email protected]