Nepali Times Asian Paints
Plain Speaking
Plains prescience


The fact that Frederick H Gaige's 'Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal' (1975) remains the single most important work on the politics of the plains is a testament to both its pioneering and prescient nature, and the sorry state of English language scholarship on the Tarai.

Gaige first got interested in Nepal after hearing the formidable Nepal hand, Leo Rose. He subsequently enrolled in a PhD program, won a Fulbright scholarship, and flew into Nepal in 1966. A US embassy officer suggested to him that at a time when other scholars were drawn to the mountain region, he could focus on the Tarai. Gaige was excited, and asked himself the question we are still struggling with today: "how Nepal, as a young and struggling nation, would pull together all the disparate ethnic groups and regions into a stable national entity". He felt that the Tarai "represented both a very important region of Nepal and the one most difficult to integrate into a national framework".

He visited Biratanagar, Janakpur, Birganj and Nepalganj, the most politically volatile cities when the Madhes rose in opposition to the Nepali state thirty-two years later. Gaige travelled to villages across the Tarai in a Land Rover, armed with copies of the census bureau district maps, sleeping on foldout canvas cots, and cooking on a pump-up kerosene stove. His dissertation got published as a book.

Gaige runs through the entire gamut of issues that marked the Tarai's troubled relationship with the Nepali state: its intimate links across the border; the perception of the plains people as 'Indians' and its implications in a polity that thrived on generating anti-Indian sentiments; the region's geopolitics and economy; and the politics of citizenship and language.

In the last and most prophetic section 'on the problem of national integration', Gaige declares dealing with the problem 'through the elimination of minority groups' is entirely unrealistic. India would not allow it; and the economic power of the plains would prevent any such move.

If the Nepali state could not integrate the Tarai into the national framework by force, the 'realistic alternative would be draw the plains people into the national structure through participation in the nation's political life'. He recommends certain policy changes ? removal of discriminatory clauses in the citizenship law and simplifying citizenship procedures; ensuring that plains people are not denied sources of livelihood; recognising Hindi as an associate language; and hiring plains people as government administrators, police and army officers through quotas.

Gaige's study has limitations because he was thinking of these issues in a monarchical set-up, and could not cross certain lines. But reading these recommendations, and their striking relevance today, makes one wonder what would have happened if the regime had undertaken such transformations earlier.

Soon enough, Gaige's book was out of print. Researchers and journalists looking for a basic overview of the plains struggled to get a photocopy from libraries. Social Science Baha and Himal Books filled the gap earlier this year by bringing out a new edition to inaugurate a series on 'Classics in Nepali Social Sciences'.

Before that, publisher Deepak Thapa, aided by US-based scholar Mahendra Lawoti, had to launch a massive hunt to find Gaige, who had disappeared from the Nepali academic radar. A Baha representative, academic Bandita Sijapati, met Gaige last year in New York. He was retired and bedridden, had only visited Nepal once in all these years, and had spent a major part of his life as an academic administrator at Penn State Berks. He readily gave his consent for a new edition.

Gaige passed away on August 25 this year. He did get to see a copy of the new edition, though he was very unwell by that time.

The Tarai, and Nepal, owe Gaige a huge debt for his outstanding work that questioned existing assumptions. The fact that he got to see what his work meant to generations of Nepali scholars, and that Nepal is slowly on the path to accommodating the people of the plains, is the best tribute we can pay him.

Madhesh special, Nepali Times coverage on Madhes issues

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)