This week marked the third anniversary of the Madhes movement. Over three weeks in January 2007, the spontaneous uprising in Tarai rocked the foundation of Nepali state and nationalism, challenged established forces, ensured federalism, and reconfigured politics. At a time when the Madhes is weaker and more fragmented than it has been since then, it would be instructive to look back at the lessons from the plains.
Here is what the Madhesis told the existing Nepali state: change or perish. In specific terms, this meant political representation, substantive inclusion, reframing symbols of nationhood, and treating citizens who wore dhoti, did not know how to speak Nepali, and had kinship links across the border with dignity and not scorn. If the Kathmandu establishment refused to do so, it would cost the state its legitimacy and erode political authority among one third of its own people. Despite the hiccups, resistance by sections in the capital, and the entrenched social prejudices, the Madhes has won this battle politically and intellectually. What remains is transforming it into institutions.
The second message was to the Maoists: beware of what you have unleashed. Though the Maoists had sowed the militant Madhesi consciousness, the movement itself acquired a strong anti-Maoist tilt. This was due to the failure of the Maoists? to push for federalism in the interim constitution, the recklessness of the Maoist Madhesi leadership, the class character (mid-sized landlords), political orientation (anti-communist), the caste mix of Madhesi leaders, and the perception that the Maoists were a part of the same Pahadi club.
The Maoists have since become more careful, but a similar pattern of ex-Maoists turning to ethnic radicalism can be discerned in the western Tarai. The Maoists and most Madhesi parties remain at loggerheads, but in some ways their commitment to federalism now makes them natural allies.
The people also gave a clear signal to the Nepali Congress, which the grand old party failed to read: reform or shrink. Instead of making the Madhes agenda its own, the NC misread the public mood entirely and felt that the andolan would only hurt the Maoists. The NC home minister (Krishna Sitaula) was seen to have suppressed the movement.
Leaders like Ram Baran Yadav spent all their time in bashing Madhesi leaders and claiming it was sponsored by reactionaries. And the party was a late and reluctant convert to federalism. The failure to innovate meant life was tough if you were a moderate Madhesi NC leader. This breed, led by Mahant Thakur, waited for a year but then left when the pressure from below became intense. The NC's rout in the elections was a result of its failure in the Madhes.
But the starkest message was to the new Madhesi political class that had created, and capitalized on the Madhes movement: be inclusive of all communities in Tarai, and fight for us in Kathmandu. Through the past three years, the trend has been that as any Madhesi leader or party has come close to Kathmandu or joined the government, it has lost legitimacy and credibility back home in Tarai.
Instead of using the period to build an organisation, and force issues, the leaders have been extremely amenable to co-option, and making a quick buck by looting the state. A glance through the last names of the martyrs reveals that people of all Hindu castes, Dalits, Muslims. But the structures of the Madhesi parties reveal they adopted exclusivist and discriminatory practices and did with Dalits, Muslims and Tharus what hill elites had done with them. This is why the various communities are now finding their own ways of political articulation.
The last year has not been good for the Madhes. Its most powerful party split. It has been unable to force the vice-president back into his position, and get language rights recognised. Madhesi reactionary leaders who had nothing to do with the movement have been able to corner all the advantages and win a share in the power structure.? The distance with the Tharus, who are actually allies in the battle against the old regime, grew. The inclusion bill was never operationalised. And India (by splitting the MJF and not backing the VP) showed that it will happily sacrifice the Madhes if it clashes with its interests at the centre.
But history's twists and turns should not make us ignore the larger picture. It is far better being a Madhesi in Nepal in January 2010 than it was in January 2007. That is the Madhes movement's biggest achievement.