Nepal’s Terai region “Madhes” is burning again. The residents of Terai region Madhes, known as ‘Madhesis’ are protesting against the plan to hold local body elections (Village Panchayats, sub-metropolitan areas and the Municipal Corporations of the Metropolitan areas) before their demand for amending the constitution are met. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had formed his government with the support of the Madhesi parties and the Nepali Congress. He came to power on the promise that he would amend the constitution to address the grievances of the country’s Madhesi population and the ‘Janjaatis’. He did introduce a constitutional amendment bill proposing the establishment of a second province in the Terai region of Nepal and to address three other key issues – citizenship, representation in the upper house and recognition of languages spoken in various parts of the country. However, he is in no position to ensure a safe passage for the bill as the proposed amendment does not have a two-thirds majority support in the Parliament. Meanwhile, the Government has announced that the local body elections would be held in the country on May 14th. This has seriously upset the Madhesis of the Terai region and they have given the Prime Minister Dahal, an ultimatum of seven days to postpone the local body elections and warned him that they could withdraw support from the Government.
Why is the ruling class unable to address the demands of the Madhesi population?
Nepal has been ruled by the Brahmin (upper-caste) elite and the Nevaris of the Kathmandu valley for decades and the Madhesis have been treated like the colonised people. After the abolition of the monarchy and the introduction of the new constitution, the Madhesis were expecting some power-sharing mechanism in the constitutional structure. This has been belied by the elite groups because they are unwilling to share power with them. Madhesis are looked upon very derisively.
Why did Prime Minister Dahal introduce the bill to recognise Madhesi rights?
PM Dahal introduced the bill as a part of his promise to the Madhesi population before forming his Government with their support. There are multiple issues with the clearing of the bill. First, there is a stiff opposition from the UML (Communist Party of Nepal) with respect to the reorganisation of the provinces in the Terai region. Secondly, there are elements within the Nepali Congress who are inspired by the ‘Hill nationalism’ i.e. upper-caste rule and non-accommodation of Terai demands. Therefore, the Prime Minister is sandwiched politically between the two compulsions of the constitutional amendment and constitutional implementation.
Prime Minister Dahal assumed the office on the understanding that he would run the Government for nine months and then he would hand over the charge to his counterpart in the Nepali Congress, Mr Sher Bahadur Deuba. During this period of nine months, PM Dahal has assumed the responsibility of conducting the local body elections; and the national elections which are to follow in the next nine-month period would be conducted under the Prime Ministership of Mr Sher Bahadur Deuba. The problem is that the elections to these local bodies (numbering nearly a thousand local bodies) lose credibility in the absence of the constitutional amendment which is necessary to demarcate the federal boundaries. Unless the federal boundaries are demarcated according to the demands of the Madhesi, the local body elections would pose a severe threat to their struggle as they would have a direct impact on the grassroots level politics of the provinces.
Why there is opposition to accommodating Madhesi demands by several parties in Nepal?
There are twenty districts which border India (collectively known as Terai region) and out of these twenty districts, eight districts have been put together to establish a ‘Madhes-dominated’ province in the eastern part. The constitutional amendment proposes further consolidation of few districts on the western side to establish a ‘Madhes-majority’ province. In this way, two provinces would be established through this constitutional amendment to accommodate Madhesi demands.
If there is any united Terai province under the Madhes domination, then it would give political power to the Madhesis, otherwise, they are splintered. As per the present constitutional arrangement, the various divisions of Nepal have been made to ensure that there is a Madhesi component in every province, to weaken the otherwise unified community. Therefore, geographical boundaries are made in order to ensure that the Madhesis are splintered and fragmented and their control over the natural resources stay weakened.
The emergence of xenophobia
The Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) is provoking xenophobic fears among the people in the hill region and stoking ultra-nationalism under the guise of anti-India political rhetoric to consolidate upper-caste elite opinion. The UML is aware that they have already lost their limited constituency in the Terai region, so they are polarising the public opinion on xenophobic lines to assimilate elite opinion against the Madhesi community who is regarded as retrogressive by the ‘Hill elite’.
The ‘Hill elite’ should realise that the dark days of economic blockade initiated by the Madhesis from the India-Nepal border to block the flow of goods from India to Nepal created havoc in the whole country. If the same strategy is adopted again by the marginalised Madhesi community, it could possibly become very destructive for the people of Nepal as a whole because the essential supplies from India are the lifeline for the economy and society of Nepal.
Throughout the process of Constitution making in Nepal, India has supported a federal, democratic, republican and inclusive Constitution. India has been urging Nepal that issues on which there are differences should be resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and institutionalized in a manner that would enable broad-based ownership and acceptance. This would lay the foundation of harmony, progress and development in Nepal.