Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Post-identity politics


Madhesi parties are enjoying being feted in Kathmandu power corridors, and have ratcheted up the rhetoric on immediate implementation of past agreements. But this hides the incoherence between their statements and actions after elections.

There is a strong lobby within the MJF, especially of old timer activists on the ground, which is against joining the government. They fear co-option, a blunting of the party's radical edge, and giving their opponents opportunities to accuse them of selling out. This school wants the party to occupy the opposition space and aim for the next national and provincial elections. But there are others who want to enjoy the perks of power, and be in a position to extend patronage.

The party leadership will bargain hard, both for plum posts and some visible commitment by the Maoists to an autonomous Madhes. Whether they finally join or not will depend on the contours of such a deal, the attitude of NC and UML to government formation, the degree of Maoist flexibility, and the nature of Indian pressure.

But even as Kathmandu politics hogs all the attention, there is discontent and rumbling among Muslims. Only 16 Muslims have made it to the CA, which is about 2.5 percent of the house although the census shows they constitute four percent of the population. (Muslim activists insist they are at least seven percent.) Muslims feel the parties, including Madhesi forces which claim Muslims are Madhesis, have treated them as a mere vote bank.

The discontent is at a nascent stage, but there are voices arguing for the formation of a separate Muslim party and more militancy. It is essential that the national and Madhesi parties address the legitimate grievances and demands of Muslims immediately: representation, protection of their religious and cultural rights, education issues which may entail combining madrasa and scientific teaching.

If they fail to do so, Muslim politics will assume a more strident tone. The absence of a strong and mature mainstream Muslim leadership will only compound the problem. Radical Islamist politics will invite a Hindu rightwing reaction turning communal relations volatile, add another conflict fault-line, make the paranoid Indian intelligence agencies even more worried about \'ISI influence\' in the Tarai, and arouse US interest.

There has also been a surge in crime in the Tarai. Last week, a Kathmandu based Madhesi engineer traveled to Goithi village in Saptari for a development project. He was ambushed by four men claiming to be from the Madhesi Virus Killers. One had an SLR, the rest possessed local pistols. They began by asking for Rs 20,000.

After intense bargaining, a deal was struck for merely Rs 200. The incident reveals how everyone is easy prey, the political cover used by criminals, their desperation, and the administration\'s inability to rein in even weak fringe groups.

There is now a yearning among Madhesis for an agenda that goes beyond just identity. This is only bound to grow in the medium-term as identity chauvinism hits a glass ceiling. "With more than one-third of the CA made up of Madhesis, the representation issue has been addressed to some extent. The Madhesi groups will now have to move to the next stage," says Martin Chautari researcher, Bhaskar Gautam.

This next stage must be to lift living standards. None of the Madhesi parties have an economic and development vision for the Tarai. The plight of landless Dalits, employment generation, skills training, raising agricultural productivity and ensuring food security are absent from their agenda.

These are early warnings. If national and Madhesi parties do not listen to the Tarai\'s Muslims, deal with lawlessness and address economic issues, we may be on the brink of new conflicts.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)