The last week of 2007 marks the first anniversary of the onset of madhesi protests. It was exactly a year ago that madhesi groups began to rally opinion against the interim constitution not addressing the issue of federalism and an unfair electoral system.
The Nepalganj riots of December 2006 exposed the state's partisan handling of the issue and fuelled anger across the tarai, culminating into the movement.
One year later, the climate of pessimism that engulfs Kathmandu is contagious, and disillusionment is widespread. But from the perspective of the madhes, 2007 has been transformative. Nepal is not the same country anymore. Nepal can never be described anymore as just a country of mountains, even in a tourist brochure.
Any party that ignores madhesi sentiments cannot remain a national entity for long. Any politician, who thinks he can take the madhesi vote for granted, commits political suicide. Never again will Kathmandu be able to tell a madhesi politician not to wear a dhoti to parliament or speak in his own language.
All government departments have been forced to at least appear sensitive about the need to include madhesis. Even the insular mafia of international organisations in the capital has had to wake up. The World Bank is adding a chapter to a major study on exclusion in which they had originally forgotten all about madhesis.
But any Nepali who derisively dismisses a madhesi as "dhoti" can't get away with it anymore. A madhesi friend who lives in Kupondole reports that he used to look down and walk away when abused. Today, there are no more insults. If this is happening in the capital, where madhesis are relatively insecure, think about their level of confidence in the tarai.
A lot more needs to be done. The state needs to be transformed in systemic terms and redefining who a Nepali is will be a long process. But an irreversible process of political and social change is underway that will alter the relationship between the state and madhesis, between hill-origin people and madhesis, and among madhesis themselves.
But precisely because of the enormity of this change, the madhesi political leadership and society at large needs to sit back and answer some difficult questions. Is the end goal a secessionist movement or a struggle for rights within Nepal? If it is the latter, madhesi leaders need to stop throwing the independence card even as a bargaining chip as Hridayesh Tripathi, Upendra Yadav and Rajendra Mahato have done in public in recent weeks and others do in private conversations.
If this is a struggle for rights, why is the madhesi leadership and civil society a part of the conspiracy of silence against the attack on pahadis in the tarai? This breakdown of social fabric must rank as among the most unfortunate aspects of the past year.
Where do the dalits fit in vis-a-vis the movement, or is the aim to replace one form of discrimination with another? How will madhesi leaders deal with the Tharus and Muslims who often want to assert an independent identity and are skeptical of exclusivist rhetoric?
Do the madhesi activists want a quick election so they can fight for rights within the elected assembly? Or do they want certain pre-conditions fulfilled before polls? How can there possibly be immediate proportionate inclusion of madhesis in state structures? Is the Madhes as one federal unit from east to west viable or even desirable? Why are moderate leaders winking at the armed groups and abetting the criminalisation of politics? And why are madhesi leaders fighting over the share of a cake that doesn't even exist yet?
Last week's editorial in this paper called 2007 the 'lost year'. The description is apt in many respects: a myopic political class, a peace process that appears to be in permanent crisis, no polls, no development. But if there is one achievement for which this year will be remembered, it will be because the madhesis found their voice.