Nepal is not safely en route to a peaceful resolution to most of its outstanding problems, despite settled public belief to that effect. So far the tarai movement representing madhesi aspirations has claimed the lives of 38 people and more lives seem to be at stake.
The tarai issue can make or break the country not only because the region is home to more than half the population and resources of Nepal, but because this is an uprising of people who have shared a common history with other Nepalis without ever being truly an integral part of the nation. The movement therefore reflects a changing perspective in the political discourse of Nepal, destroying old perceptions and creating new ones.
First, the movement marks the start of a seemingly irreversible shift in the Nepali ethos, which was predominantly characterised by the people of the hills. The national consciousness is thus slowly accepting the pluralistic aspect of the state and its populace. Despite viewing madhesis with suspicion and prejudice due to their geographical and cultural proximity to India, political leaders and the people at large have now acknowledged that these grievances are genuine.
The solidarity expressed by various ethnic outfits and the student organisations of the major parties is proof of this growing consciousness of and sensitivity to madhesi demands. This tiny nation could become an exemplar of multi-ethnicity and multi-culturalism if such issues are addressed seriously. Xenophobia has less of a chance with such a broad social perspective.
Second, the tarai movement has given a new direction to the state building process in Nepal. The upsurge suggests that the April Movement, more than merely restoring democracy, is a continuing political feature of present-day politics in Nepal and the beginning of state-building. Debates such as this one were untouchable for fears they would disrupt 'national integrity'.
But, as we are seeing, if such situations are handled deftly, the protesting groups, such as the madhesis, are far more likely to remain loyal Nepalis. The process of state-building in any part of the world is more often than not long and violent. There are likely to be a series of such stirs, expressing the concerns of various interest groups. It will take years of patience and sacrifice before Nepalis have peace in the true sense of the term.
Finally, the tarai movement has struck a strong blow to the Maoists, the self-proclaimed saviours of the Nepali people. Insinuations about reactionary forces or a foreign hand being behind the tarai backlash do not hold water. The movement was almost wholly spontaneous. The recent shifts in the Maoists' policy statements (aggressive demands, such as that for a republic) and tactics (the use of violence to reinforce their edicts) appear to be a consequence of their loss of control over the tarai and perhaps even the Nepali electorate at large. Clearly, if the Maoists have so much public appeal, a significant chunk of the population residing in the tarai would not have revolted against the interim constitution, a statute whole-heartedly endorsed by the Maoists.
In the tarai movement we can see the emergence of a new identity for Nepal and its institutions, its people, their ethos, and even the very individual.