24 Feb - 2 Mar 2017 #847

Who is the Madhesi subaltern?

Kanak Mani Dixit
Bikram Rai

The most dangerous possibility of Nepal’s modern era is that of eruption of inter-community conflict. Fortunately, the people on all sides have refused to jump off the precipice despite having been dragged to the edge.

There is of course a spectrum of disaffection among communities marginalised by the Kathmandu-centric state, from the hill/plain Dalit to the Janajati, to the western Khas steeped in poverty, the Himali people of the northern rimland, and the micro-communities all over.

But it is the dissatisfication among the Madhesi citizenry that represents the most serious challenge to the (mostly Bahun-run) state apparatus, which is asked to mend its ways and become inclusive in order to reflect the unique demographic diversity of Nepal.

The country’s future is presently caught between the insensitivity of national party politicians and desperation of plains-based leaders fighting for political survival. And it is the Kathmandu leaders and civil society, being in or close to power, that are to be held more accountable.

Janakpur and Jaleswar

‘Madhesi’, in its current usage, is a term specific to Nepal, connoting citizens of plains origin. Anyone who defines Madhesis as ‘Nepalis of Indian origin’ must consider attending re-education camp. While the demography across the international border tends to be the identical, a Jha citizen of Birganj is a Madhesi but not the Jha of Raxaul.

Kathmandu has historically discriminated against the citizens of plains origin, as it has against the Dalit and the Janajati. But the Madhesi have been doubly disadvantaged, for being marginalised socio-economically as well as socio-politically – the projected national self-identity being linked to mountain habitat and culture.

In the modern era, it was not only Kathmandu’s rulers, but also the foreign embassies and aid missions which ignored the Madhesi over the decades. When they did get into inclusion in the 1990s, the donors concentrated on the Dalit and later the Janajati fold.

This neglect and lack of funding infusion meant that Madhesi identity activism got the opportunity to be genuinely politicised, and communitarian grievances exploded in the form of the Madhes Movement of the winter of 2007-8.

The Movement forced the rest of Nepal to concede the Madhesis’ right to full ownership of the state, even though there has been foot-dragging in ensuring communitarian inclusion (continued till date). Significantly, the denigrating usage of ‘Madhisay’ or ‘Marsya’ more or less disappeared from the public discourse, and the new Constitution was shaped in part by the energies released by the Madhes Movement.

Consensus politics

What seems to be the current distancing between hill and plain is for now one between the ‘Madhes-baadi’ leadership and those who run the state administration. But how incredible that, despite the shock-wave of identity-led movements, the bhagbanda share-the-spoils consensus politics has today left the goal of inclusion in government appointments relegated to the outhouse.

In state institutions, from the bureaucracy and academia to the judiciary, the hold of the hill Bahun remains firmly in place. One looks to the implementation of the new constitution (through three tier elections) to break the logjam of exclusion. The fact that our national leaders have not internalised the lessons is seen in the brazen appointment last week of 14 new ambassadors, with a lone nominee of plains origin.

Inclusion should be integral to the Nepali state, and it should set an example for all Southasia – as a country where appointments to state office are ipso facto proportional without having to rely on tokenism. A fully inclusive politics will have been achieved when non-Bahun/Chhetri politicians not only become powerful but function as power-brokers.


As far as ‘Madhes-baadi’ activism is concerned, we must ask how far the push for plains-only provinces (as the movement's central agenda) helps the population of the plains, given that the density of population and poverty are both concentrated here. Does Province No. 2, the only all-plain entity thus far, and the only one defined by identity among the seven, hold the promise of progress for its inhabitants?

More questions: Do the dozen frontline leaders of the Madhesi Morcha fully represent the people of the plains, given that only two of them (Upendra Yadav, Mahendra Raya Yadav) won seats through direct elections in 2013? How does laying claim to the five-month blockade of Nepal conducted by Indian authorities help the cause of the plains citizenry?

Who represents the voice of the Madhesi masses, given the preponderance of the socio-economic-cultural elites (the ‘BhuRaBaL’) at the forefront in challenging the new Constitution? We are asked, correctly, to stand on the side of the subaltern, the marginalised. Who speaks for the subaltern Madhesi, substantial and marginalised nationally and further so within plains society? Having waded into the fraught arena of identity politics, this writer can only reiterate his position on the underlying demand of the present agitation: Provinces that incorporate hills and plains are the best for progress of citizens, particularly of the plains with its habitat density. However, given that we already have one plains-specific province, and may have more, we must rise to calibrate inter-province relationships so that the plains people do not suffer socially, economically, culturally and politically as a result.

Read also:

Restless radicals, Nabin Jha

Frivolous federalism, Bihari K Shrestha

What about whataboutery?, Bineeta Gurung

Identifying with identity, Mukesh Jha

Not out of woods yet, Prashant Jha

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