Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Mainly in the plains


As far as Kathmandu is concerned, Nepal's madhesis look like Indians, talk like Indians, behave like Indians, are pro-Indian. And some would even go so far as to say they are Indian.

What they don't know is that there is actually resentment in the tarai against the Indian government. The madhes's relationship with India is complex and multi-layered. Madhesis have kinship, cultural, linguistic ties, a bahu-beti relationship with folks across the border.

And across the border in India there may be general sympathy for the madhesi cause, but this has not translated into active support. Indian policymakers do not want the madhesi movement to get too radicalised and would prefer a snappy solution.

Madhesis feel that New Delhi has never supported them in their struggle for rights, from the days of Vedanand Jha's Nepal Tarai Congress in the 1950s to the present agitation. They believe New Delhi has taken them for granted, and always used them as a bargaining chip with pahadi rulers in Kathmandu.

From Biratanagar to Birganj, it is common to hear people gripe about India's unhelpful attitude. Till a few years back, most of India's development and economic assistance to Nepal was concentrated in the hills. Only recently has this changed. India never used its enormous leverage to push Kathmandu into giving madhesis a fair deal despite the fact that they were excluded and dismissed as Indians. All it has done is privately fund the Nepal Sadbhabana Party which was ineffective in raising madhesi concerns. If New Delhi had wanted and put pressure on the government, 40 Madhesis would not have been killed during the movement and the government would be more sensitive to their demands.

Some of these perceptions may be exaggerated, but it is certain that New Delhi has not invested its political capital to push the madhes issue. New Delhi's interests, from maintaining Gurkha linkages and other political relations to securing hydropower, are intertwined with the hill elite and peoples. Those in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh who may have an incentive in supporting madhesis do not have influence in shaping India's foreign policy.

Some madhesis argue that active Indian support may have created more problems for the movement, by reinforcing the impression that madhesis are Indians and India wants to instigate trouble. Others say that Nepal's political history shows that unless India gets involved, no major political issue can be resolved. But while recognising India's influence, madhesis are unanimous that they will have to fight this battle themselves, the time to depend solely on Indian help has passed.

India's policy on tarai is work-in-progress. From Delhi to Patna to border towns, politicians and bureaucrats were thrilled to see an erosion in the Maoist influence in the tarai when the movement began. The support for the madhesi struggle remains strongest in bordering towns among people who have direct relatives across and understand the issues. There were solidarity demonstrations during the movement, local legislators continue to voice their support and may have helped madhesi armed leaders staying in India. Local administrators and security personnel turn a blind eye to movement of activists. Places like Gorakhpur are directly affected by politics in the tarai, a Hindu fundamentalist leader asked for support in local polls on an anti-Maoist plank.

In Patna and Lucknow, awareness of the madhesi issue is limited. Many politicians and bureaucrats term madhesis as people of Indian origin. Madhesi outfits have lobbied with politicians across the spectrum, from the ruling JD (United)-BJP coalition to the Samajwadi Party. There is sympathy, but there are few signs of active political or financial support by state politicians or governments to madhesi outfits.

South Block is anxious. Foreign policy mandarins do not want to see the peace process destabilised. India has invested a lot in the present rapprochement and Delhi diplomats are more irritated than anything else at this complication. They think the government has bungled up on tarai and the fractured nature of madhes politics doesn't help.

Indian diplomats are telling the madhesi groups that if they want support, they must forge a common understanding, and make the most of the constituent assembly elections. At the same time, there are reports of intelligence agencies keeping channels of communication open with the armed madhesi groups. It is difficult to ascertain whether this has translated into support to them.

If the conflict in the tarai continues, it will have a much deeper cross-border implication than the Maoist rebellion ever did. India can help by trying to exert pressure on both the government and the madhesi groups to get their acts together.

Realated Articles
. When the going gets tough...
. Fleeing the flood
. Split personality
. After the deluge
. Classroom No. 9

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)