Nepali Times
Guest Column


Karl Marx was wrong. The history of the world is not about class struggles, but the struggle for ethnic self-determination. The Soviet Union broke into 15 independent states, Yugoslavia into five (so far).

The restoration of democracy in Nepal has also thrown up the demands of Nepal's various ethnic entities. Though Pahadis and Madhesis are not ethnic groups per se, they have a racial connotation. In the village where I was born, there was a Pahadi family. They are still called Pahadi. My family has been living in Kathmandu but we are still called Madhesis, even though we are Tharus.

Things started getting complicated after the Madhesi Movement flared up in January 2007, and for a good reason. Madhesis and Tharus have been marginalised from mainstream Nepali statehood. This is not to say that certain Pahadi groups were also not marginalised.

Madhesi representation in government, the diplomatic service, the army has been traditionally low. The Madhesi Movement seized on this historical sense of collective Madhesi grievance, and the struggle was (and is) quite justified. It has now culminated in the Constituent Assembly's election of Madhesis as president and vice-president of Nepal.

However, in the weeks before the CA election, it did look like the movement for Madhesi representation and autonomy was crossing the line where it could be called justifiable. Will this 'Madhesisation' actually create more problems?

The 64 CA members of Tarai-based parties took their oaths in Hindi, the Vice President himself took his oath in Hindi.

People in the Tarai speak in Maithili, Bhojpuri, Tharu, Abadhi, and many other languages, but who speaks Hindi? What is the point that our elected representatives are trying to make, and what kind of message does this send to other Nepalis? Don't they speak Nepali? Did they forget their own mother-tongues? Madhesi activists and politicians should realise that if you squeeze the spring too hard, it can jump out of your hand.

Most Madhesis have relatives across the border and there are close marriage ties with India, but this is not the case with the Tharus. In fact, aside from those forced out because of past atrocities by Pahadi settlers, there are few Tharus in India. The Tharus have their own mother tongue although many now speak Nepali because of assimilation.

'One Madhes One Pradesh' may have been a useful slogan for the Tarai-based parties at election time, but for the Tharus it became the last straw in what they perceived as the Madhesisation process. Hence, the movement against it last month.

As a compromise to the One Madhes proposal, ideas have been put forward to create multiple autonomous ethnic regions as integral parts of a unified nation of Nepal that includes the creation of a Tharu province in the Tarai.

As a development economist, I also do not see anything wrong with using our comparative advantages in Himal, Pahad and Madhes, which are endowed with their own resources. The Tharus, being the original bhumiputra of Nepal, will struggle for their ethnic rights, pride and economic wellbeing.

But ethnicity-based autonomy will be counter-productive for the wellbeing of Nepal and Nepalis. Ethnic groups have enclaves where some may be in majority, but other ethnicities and castes are interwoven into those territories. Autonomous regions based on ethnicity will pit one group against another and become the cause for long-term animosity, further polarising society.

Trib Tharu is Principal Economic Development Economist with the Navajo Nation and teaches at the University of New Mexico and the Dine College.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)