Nepal’s Madhesh Movement (Fall 2015)

November 2, 2015
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By Hari Bansh Jha

Nepal’s new constitution was promulgated on 20th September 2015. But that hardly satisfied the Madheshis and Tharus forming 70 of Terai population. The Madheshis and Tharus are non-Nepali speaking people residing in Terai (plain) region of Nepal who are culturally distinct from the hill people. Those people think the demarcation of seven federal provinces in the constitution to be unfair. Only a patch of eight districts in the region were given the status of state in Terai; while the remaining 14 districts were carved with the hill districts with the sole purpose of converting the local people into minority. In doing so, the Madheshis and Tharus were sidelined in the entire constitution making process due to the distrust towards them. Of course, Bijay Kumar Gachhadar-led Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum–Democratic was initially involved in constitution drafting process, but later on he had no option left but to quit the alliance as his voice was not entertained.

Consequently, the major Madhesh-based parties did not sign constitution which had serious flaws. Provision was made for 165 member parliament in the new constitution. But the constituencies were developed in a way that the people of hill and mountain region get 100 seats, though their share in Nepal’s total population is less than 50 per cent. On the other hand, the Terai region inhabits over half of the country’s population, but it has been allocated only 65 seats.

Because of the insensitivity towards the demands of the Madheshi parties, a call was given by Unified Democratic Madheshi Front and Tharuhat/Tharuwan Joint Struggle committee for indefinite strike in Terai beginning from August 8. The security personnel used excesses force to suppress the agitation. Even the army was mobilized for this purpose. But the situation deteriorated fast. During last one-and-half month of the protest, over 46 people, including the protesters and ten security personnel were killed. Besides, thousands of protesters have been badly injured. Many people have taken asylum in India. Almost all the Terai districts have turned into war-like zones.

Immediately after the promulgation of constitution, the ruling political parties including Nepali Congress and CPN-UML celebrated ‘diwali”, while the Madheshi political parties and Tharuhat Struggle Committee observed it as a black day. Both within and outside the country, the new constitution was welcomed by one community, but it was burnt by the others. The country is now widely polarized in support and against the constitution. China, Pakistan and a few other countries have welcomed the new constitution, but India did not follow the suit, which is ominous.

Victims of Marginalization
Until 1954, the Madheshis and Tharus formed 94 per cent of the total population in Terai. But since 1970s the state under the monarchical institution helped hundreds of thousands of hill migrants to settle in Terai mostly by clearing the thick forest land. For this, even resettlement companies were set up. Though landlessness among the Madheshis is common, none of them got any piece of land in the resettlement companies.

Those who suffered most due to the state sponsored migration of population in Terai were the tribal groups like the Tharus, Rajbanshis and Satars. Land of many of those people was confiscated on one or the other excuse by the clever migrants. A sizeable chunk of those people were forced to migrate to India. But those who stayed at home in Terai were virtually made Kamaiyas (paupers) whose only means of survival was to work as slaves in the houses of the hill migrants. As if this was not enough, in early 1980s a Commission on Internal and International Migration was constituted under Hark Gurung. In this report, recommendation was made to clear whatever remaining forest that was left along the East West Highway with a view to settling the hill migrants.

Both under the rules of the kings and the Ranas, big chunk of land in Terai used to be gifted to the civil servants, army and family members of the ruling class in the name of birta. A policy was made by the monarchical institution not to employ the Madheshis in civil service until they got hands from hill elites and even from the Indian noble families. This deficit of trust towards the Madheshis and Tharus was one of the major reasons why their presence in the civil service, judiciary and security agencies remained minimal. Even their presence in corporations, industries and private sector agencies became far from satisfactory. Until mid-1950s, the Madheshis had to receive visa from the government authorities to enter Kathmandu, the capital city. Even in the matter of citizenship, they were discriminated a lot. The Madheshis comprise bulk of the stateless citizens in Nepal even to this day.

All the major political parties place several of their candidates in the Terai from the hill elites during the elections, but they never allow any Madheshi candidate even for the namesake to give tickets in the elections from any of the hill constituencies.

In order to get rid of discrimination, the Terai Congress in 1950 gave a call for federal state for the Terai. But the idea could not gain much of the currency as the party was defeated in 1959 General Election. After the restoration of multi-party democracy in 1990, Nepal Sadbhavana Party was formed to protect the interests of the Madheshis. This party also echoed its voice for federal state. Later on, the idea of federalism was picked by the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist). Subsequently, in 2007 there was major Terai uprising, which was controlled only when the government made formal agreement with the Madheshi leaders for the formation of single autonomous Madhesh Pradesh with right to self-determination.

From Disarray to Unity
Despite the overwhelming size of population of the Madheshis and Tharus in Terai, they could get only 10 per cent seats in the 601-member Constituent Assembly (CA) 2 in 2013. Many of the Madheshi leaders were defeated in CA2 election because they failed to address people’s problems. Out of the lust for money and power, they did not hesitate to fragment the parties into pieces. During the CA1 election in 2008, only three Madhesh-based parties had contested the election and so they had substantial presence in CA1; while during CA2 election in 2013 there were 13 parties. Though both during CA1 and CA2 the overall voting percentage for the Madhesh based parties remained almost the same 12 per cent, the political leaders lost the elections because their votes were divided.

Nevertheless, the Madhesh-based parties learnt little lesson from the election debacle and they could not unite. By the time they formed Unified Democratic Madheshi Front this year, it was too late to exhibit their strength. The three major political parties including the NC, CPN-UML and UCPN-Maoist took advantage from this split. Because they had 90 per cent seats in the CA2, they excluded the Madheshi parties in constitution-making process. But this was a major blunder. It was forgotten that the common mass of the Madheshi and Tharus have always been humiliated ever since central and eastern part of Terai was gifted by British East India Company to Nepal partly after the Sugauli Treaty of 1816 and partly after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1860. Their loyalty towards the nation was always suspected by the hill elites. This distrust towards the Madheshis and Tharus provided them ample ground to unite and protest against the constitution when a call was given for indefinite strike.

Impact of Strike
Impact of agitation in Nepal as a whole in general and in Terai region in particular is severe. For more than one-and-half month, life in Terai region is totally paralyzed. All the educational institutions, hospitals, government offices, industries, banks, shops, agricultural activities and transport services are crippled. Most of the goods of daily needs including foodgrains, petrol and gas are in short supply. Those who depend on daily wages for their livelihood are suffering most. Movement of people is restricted because of continuous curfew in several places and also due to the deteriorating law and order situation. Unscrupulous elements hostile to India could pose security risks in India at this time taking advantage of open border system between Nepal and India. But the government and the main political parties in Nepal are least sensitive towards their own people and also about the security challenges in India. Instead of taking any initiative to defuse the crisis, some of them have started blaming India for the trouble in Nepal. Rumors have been floated that India imposed blockade as the trucks loaded with goods are not coming from India to Nepal. Also, wrong information is given that the sealing of the border at certain locations have caused food scarcity in Nepal. The truth, however, is that the private trucks lying in Indian side of the border have not been daring to cross over the border and come to Nepal because of the fragile law and order situation, which is due to the mishandling of the situation by the Nepalese government.

If the government and the main political parties are really serious to diffuse the crisis, they should accept it as political problem and take steps in a way that all the Nepalese, including the Madheshis and Tharus feel a sense of ownership in constitution. For this, what is required to initiate dialogue with the political leaders and move forward to address such demands as:

  • Election of House of Representatives (Parliament) and National Assembly on the basis of population, and not on geographical region;
  • Formation of two autonomous states in the Terai – one from Jhapa to Parasi to be called Mithila state with Janakpur as its capital and the other from Chitwan to Kanchanpur to be called Buddha State with Lumbini as its capital;
  • Provision of 83 parliamentary seats in Terai;
  • Reservation of seats for the Madheshis and Tharus in administrative, security, judiciary and diplomatic services on the basis of their population;
  • Adequate representation of Madheshis and Tharus in decision-making process in all constitutional bodes, including in Public Service Commission at the central and state levels;
  • Formation of an independent commission to investigate the excesses done and punish the culprits.