29 March-4 April 2013 #649

The Holi land

Anger over corruption and neglect after 2008 rankles the Tarai psyche, but people still favour immediate polls
Anurag Acharya
BIRATNAGAR - Nowhere in Nepal is Holi celebrated with such intensity and passion as it is in Nepal’s southern plains.

On Wednesday, I found Salim Seikh, Rahul Seikh, Dilip Jha, and Prince Rai celebrating Holi together in Tinpaini of Biratnagar. “Eid, Tihar or Holi, we are always together,” Dilip said, patting Prince’s back.

The Seikh brothers have been celebrating Holi for as long as they can remember while for Prince, Holi has a whole new meaning after his family migrated down to Biratnagar from the eastern hills. Last year’s census report reveals that more than half the country’s population now lives in the Tarai. This migration has made the already colourful Holi mosaic of the Tarai even more vibrant.

The four friends represent three sections of Nepali society: Muslim, Madhesi, and Pahadi. That they were celebrating Holi together, enjoying themselves, and cementing their bonds of friendship represents hope for the nation’s future. It shows that if the politicians and their radical rhetoric don’t poison the atmosphere, Nepalis from all ethnicities, religions, and regions will get along just fine.

However, the social aspect can be highly political, especially at a time when every section of the population is demanding its fair share of the national pie. Unless Madhesi aspirations are well-represented, this Holi’s revelry could once more turn to violence on the streets.

Until two months ago, the Madhes was engulfed in frustration and anger. The dissolution of the CA with the lingering debate on federalism had dashed the hopes of many in the Tarai that historical wrongs would be righted by an inclusive constitution. But with the country on track for elections either in June or November and the agreement among the four main parties to ensure citizenship and voting rights in the Madhes, people here in the eastern plains have something to look forward to.

However, serious challenges remain. Many were suspicious about the Regmi-led government holding polls, but it is clear that only a technocratic government can ensure free, fair, and peaceful elections if all major players are willing to participate. But the top parties are about to repeat the mistake they made back in 2007 when the Girija Prasad Koirala-led government tried to force the country into elections without homework, triggering the Madhes Uprising.

Although popular sentiment this time seems to be in favour of immediate polls, the refusal of the Baidya-led CPN-Maoists, the Upendra Yadav-led Madhesi bloc, and the Limbuwans to support polls is already affecting preparations for elections. There are disturbing early signs of voter registration being disrupted.

On Tuesday, former Morcha leader JP Gupta who was recently released from jail after serving his corruption sentence, threatened to lead the Madhes into another revolt if his demands were not immediately met. Gupta pleaded his case in Saptari, the epicentre of the Madhes Uprising, arguing that he was politically victimised for standing firm on the Single Madhes demand. Not once did he show remorse for corruption or betrayal of the people’s trust. His claim that he was charged while the ‘big fish’ were let off the hook, although convincing, does not take away his own culpability.

So when Gupta threatens to upset polls, one really wonders if it is for the common Madhesi that his heart bleeds or was he plotting this vendetta during long days in his jail cell. Political analyst CK Lal may well be right, when he told me: “What JP does now will be more about his own political destiny than about Madhes.”

Anger over corruption and neglect by successive governments after 2008 is still raw in the Tarai psyche, but elections can offer a platform for healthy debate and ensure that demands of the Madhes are satisfied at the earliest.

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