26 Sep - 2 Oct 2014 #726

Nepal’s soft underbelly

The Madhes has never been more integrated with the rest of the country
Bihari K Shrestha
Ever since British India days right through the Rana period till today, the Nepal Tarai has been this landlocked nation’s soft underbelly.

The plains-dwelling Madhesi people have always felt excluded by Kathmandu, and have demanded greater recognition and respect.

The demand for dignity and acceptance of the region’s distinctive identity fuelled the Madhes Movement of 2007, which has now graduated to calls for greater autonomy and even outright secession. Most of the fractious Madhesi parties in the Constituent Assembly have persisted with their demand for the whole of the Tarai to be turned into a single province with a ‘right to self-determination’ in the new federal setup.

The pro-federal forces have not presented enough convincing arguments about the new province’s economic and political viability, and most other residents of the plains, including the aboriginal Tharu people, contest the advisability of this proposition. They find no socio-economic or developmental rationale behind it, and, therefore, view it as being insidious in its intent.

The suspicion is fuelled by other antecedents. The ten-year Maoist insurgency was followed in 2007 by the call for Madhesi ‘liberation’, the defining feature of which was the anti-Hill cleansing of the Tarai. It led to a mass out-migration of people of Hill descent from Morang, Mahottari, Rautahat and other districts.

On one occasion, the leader of a Madhesi party threatened an embargo against Kathmandu at Birganj, reminding the people of the protracted Indian blockade of Nepal in 1989-90. Lately, the same politician tried to drag India in by describing the drubbing of Madhesi parties in the Tarai in last year’s elections as “India’s defeat”. Earlier, a Birganj-based Indian diplomat egged Madhesi politicians to “make the Tarai burn”.

The irony is that all this is happening at a time when the Madhes has never been more integrated with the rest of the country, socially, economically and emotionally. The Madhes has a distinctive identity, with its own languages (Maithili, Bhojpuri and Avadhi), an agrarian economy, an entrenched caste system and an extended relationship with kindred across the border. Even so, hill-plain interaction has intensified to such an extent in recent decades that Kathmandu has now emerged as the centre of gravity for the Madhesi people too.

Noted columnist Chandra Kishore wrote recently that the Madhesi people are now ‘inclined to embrace Kathmandu more than the traditional destinations of Darbhanga, Madhubani, Sitamadi, Bettiah, Patna, Gorakhpur, Baharaich or Lucknow’. He continued: ‘While living in Kathmandu still involves some struggle, for the most part, it has now become one of coexistence.’

Madhesi scholar, Ram Narayan Dev, writing about the ‘extreme exploitation’ in the region, says high caste people in the Madhesh-Tarai have always ‘lorded over the people of the lower caste who are virtually landless’. He asks Tarai leaders, ‘How justified is it to provide reservation to all caste groups under the pressure of the Madhesbadi parties?’ He is against government reservation policy mentioning Madhesi as a category because it would exclude deprived groups like the Dalit, Mushahars, Chamars. Traditionally privileged Jhas, Misras, Thakurs, Yadavs, Sahs and Chaudharis would end up grabbing reserved opportunities.

The Constituent Assembly must take a closer look at the diversity within the Madhes.  The demand of a few loud politicians for a single Madhes province will not address this exclusion within the Madhes. The Tarai stands to gain the most from irrigation and electricity benefits from future hydropower projects located in the valleys upstream. This would open up a can of worms. Why should the land in the upper riparian province be submerged to irrigate farms downstream?

Nepal’s diverse geography is so unique that its comparative advantage can be best exploited by respecting its integrity, not by breaking it up. So, the challenge for the framers of the new constitution is to rise above their political careers to look at the long-term interest of all Nepalis.

Will we learn from the Scottish referendum last week? The ‘No’ vote prevailed only after Westminster promised extensive constitutional reform in taxation and welfare. The Constituent Assembly could push back a decision on federalisation to a future time, and instead make provisions to address the need for decentralisation, local self-governance and empowerment of the deprived minorities within the excluded and neglected sections of the Tarai.

Bihari Shrestha is an anthropologist and a former civil servant.

Read also:

Extreme at both ends, Anurag Acharya

A gathering storm, Anurag Acharya

The Tarai is tinder dry,Navin Jha

CK who?

Who Madhes?, Rubeena Mahato

Tharuautonomy, kumar Lekhi

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