What Are Nepal’s Madhesis Fighting For?

The series of protests in Nepal’s southern plains can be traced back to the long fight for federalism, anger against state violence and the people’s struggle for fair representation.

A board announcing the martyrdom of Sohan Sah Kelwar. Source: Puja Sen

Birgunj (Nepal): A board hangs outside a tea shack in Pani Tanki, Birgunj, a city in central-southern Nepal bordering Bihar, announcing the martyrdom of Sohan Sah Kelwar. Inside, the recently widowed 21-year-old Binita Devi has doubled her effort to keep the bhojanalaya running, the sole source of income for her family since Kelwar’s death. Her husband would occasionally help run the kitchen, but he was one among the large number of men in Birgunj absorbed in the city’s informal economy, doing various odd jobs to make a living to supplement a meagre income. He would bring consumable goods across the open border from Raxaul to sell it to local kirana stores inside Birgunj.

Devi had been wary of her husband leaving the house on September 1, 2015. The day before, 21-year-old Dilip Chaurasiya was shot in the back by the police when he went to Radhemai Chowk to buy vegetables with his friends. The sixth killing within a span of two weeks in late August, Chaurasiya’s death immediately accelerated the Madhesi agitations in the Terai, the southern plains of Nepal bordering India. Devi recalls how she tried to dissuade her husband from joining the protests, fearful now that there had been so many deaths. But Kelwar was adamant. Later that day, the police would shoot him in the left eye when he peeked out from behind Hotel Bawa, where nearly 4,000 people from Musharwah village had come to join the protests and a standoff with the police had ensued. To Devi’s objections, he had said, “Ghar kaise baith sakte hain, jab desh ki ladai hai? (How can I sit at home, when the fight is for our country?)”

What was this fight and what exactly where they fighting for?

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Following the April 25 earthquake that killed near 9,000, major parties in Nepal fast tracked a constitution that reneged on key promises made in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 that had put to an end a decade-long civil war. The constitution was to signal a new social contract for the young republic, one that honoured the lessons and commitments arrived at following the 2006 people’s movement that overthrew the monarchy and ensured a ‘safe landing’ for the Maoists to come overground and join parliamentary politics. As a part of that agreement, all the involved parties, even when they didn’t directly refer to federalism, made an overarching commitment to end the “unitary centralised” state structure of political governance in Nepal. A chief consequence of that centralised monopoly of power and resources has been the collective dispossession of a people based on class, caste and ethnicity – a history that had been the vector on which various revolutionary mobilisations had taken place.

Historically, it has been the Bahun, Chettri and Newari groups in Kathmandu who have held political power and cultural sway over the national narrative of Nepal. Traditional associations of the Nepali-speaking hill Brahmin as representative of a Nepali national – at the cost of half the country’s diverse population who live in the Terai-Madhes, speak various languages such as Hindi, Maithili, Urdu and Bhojpuri, and have deep cultural continuities with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh – were challenged in the new documents, forging the way ahead for a plural, progressive and inclusive polity.

Source: Puja Sen

The series of protests that Nepal’s southern plains saw last year can be traced back to how the promise for more inclusion had been hard-won in the first place. In 2007, when the interim constitution of Nepal was promulgated, Upendra Yadav, then the leader of Madesh-centred activist group Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum, burned a copy of the document at the Maitighar Mandala, an area close to the government complex in Kathmandu. This symbolic protest by the soon-to-be prominent Madeshi leader sparked the biggest Madhesi movement the country had yet seen. Their demands: the inclusion of the word ‘federalism’ as an abiding promise towards state restructuring that would take into account ethnic identity, proportional representation for Madhesis and increased representation for electoral seats in the . And indeed, the inclusion of the word was the first amendment made to the interim constitution, guaranteeing Nepal a federal structure. Federalism had, by then, begun to be articulated as an instrument that would not only devolve power to the future states, but also would correct the course of history in which Madhesi and indigenous janjati groups were left out of power sharing and remained structurally marginalised.

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On the day Sohan Sah Kelwar was shot, Dharma Raj Singh was leading a contingent of nearly 5,000 protestors from Maniriyari village to agitate against the killing of Dilip Chaurasiya. This was despite a curfew being imposed in Birgunj. As they drew near the Ramraj bridge, the police fired at the crowd, injuring a protestor in the leg. Dharma Raj Singh carried the injured protestor, but minutes later a bullet bore through his head, exiting from the left side to injure the neck of another protestor.

Dharma Raj’s brother Sikender Singh was at Ghanta Ghar while this was happening. When he was finally able to reach his brother, Dharma Raj Singh was dead. Sikender told me, “Before this no one even knew my brother. He used to stay at home, he never went anywhere. Now that he is a martyr, everyone knows him.” In 2007, it was the killing of 16-year-old Ramesh Mahato, who was protesting the arrest of Upendra Yadav for burning the interim constitution, which had escalated the movement to a higher pitch and intensity. Sikender spoke similarly of how the growing number of deaths was further spiking anger in the villages. He says, “We won’t back down, we will fight for our rights as long as it takes”

It was in these circumstances that on September 20, 2015 the new constitution was promulgated: with the Terai under curfew, with violent clashes between the protestors and the police, with over 35 civilian and nine police deaths. Following the passage of the constitution, a six month long blockade ensued that affected the country’s economic and social life all the way to Kathmandu and polarised its polity. Famously, the mood in Kathmandu has tended to be at odds with the anger and discontent in the plains. While a majority of residents in the capital saw the blockade as unwanted Indian interference in the sovereign decisions of the nation-state, Nepalis in the Terai carry a profound sense of ownership over the movement.

“But we are not Indian, no? The people, numbering in the lakhs, who turned up day after day were Nepalis, weren’t they?” asks Nizammudin Samani, district president of the Nepal Sadbhavna Party. Samani was responding to a particularly unsavoury strain of Nepali nationalism that is suspicious of Madhesi demands and denounces their political activism as actions engineered by the Indian state. Chandra Kishore Jha, a journalist based in Birgunj, is clear that if the relationship between India and Nepal needs to be understood in any adequate way, one has to account for the ‘roti-beti’ relationship between the Terai towns and UP and Bihar. He draws a distinction between Kathmandu-New Delhi tensions, that are often the product of high politics, and border-town relationships that naturally exist among the people of the two neighbouring countries.

The blockade ended on February 5, 2016, and, seemingly, a degree of stability was restored. According to Pradeep Yadav, district president of the Federal Socialist Forum in Parsa, a crucial thing the andolan achieved was to map Madhes onto the international imagination, to see Nepal as a country beyond Kathmandu and Himalayan peaks. Still, he says, the Terai remains a tinderbox. “Hum log sukha hua lakdi jaise hein. Phoonk denge aur phir se andolan khada ho jaega (We are like dried up sticks. If set fire to, it can start another revolution).” He fears, however, that a future movement – if the demands of the Madhesi and Tharu (an indigenous group in Terai) communities continue to be ignored – may turn violent, if outside the control of the party leaders.

Some like Krishna Kumar Singh, central president of the Terai-Madhes Youth Front, the youth wing of the Terai Madhesh Democratic Party feel that one of the setbacks for the movement was that it did not bring up any younger, recognisable leaders. The representatives of the movement continue be the older cadre, who shot to prominence during the 2007 protests. Many Madhesi leaders are viewed with suspicion once they join politics at the centre. Bhagyanath Gupta, a Madhesi activist, expresses a deep distrust towards the representatives of the movement in the political parties, especially those who join national politics. He argues they become less connected to the people and the fight for human rights, and more beholden to the promise of gaining power at the Singhadurbar. “Change can only come from revolution on the street now.”

At any given time, according to Jha, there is a triangulation between the Madhesi agenda, the people and the parties. Although discordant on occasion, the six month Terai protests saw an effective alignment between all three factors. As Omprakash Sarraf told me, “The biggest weapon of the andolan was the issue itself.” And whatever weariness there is among the people about the often-talked-about opportunism and internecine strifes within Madhesi leadership, the anger about being treated as second-class citizens assumes a more urgent proportion.

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By mid-May, in what they called a series of capital-centric protests, a loose coalition of 29 Madhesi and indigenous parties under the banner Sanghiya Gatbandhan, or federal alliance, restarted their agitation in Kathmandu. From June 7, 2016, at the Khullamanch stadium in Tundikhel (an open ground and a prominent political site in the centre of the city), the various leaders of the parties staged a relay hunger strike for 39 days. Apart from an initial and sparse spurt of interest in the Kathmandu media, the strike has found negligible print space in the main dailies. It appears as a speck on the larger mosaic of political intrigues in the capital. Not suprisingly, the turnout for this protest was negligible in both the number and intensity compared to the protests of last year.

Relay hunger strike in Kathmandu. Source: Puja Sen

I spoke to Upendra Yadav on July 15, the final day of the ansan, about how far he thought the movement had come and whether they had been able to capitalise on the momentum after the six month long agitations. “That was a mass movement that brought a political and structural change,” he said, describing the 2007 Madhesi movement. The ongoing protests, he said, are there to “implement that change”. For him, the strength and intensity of the movement has not abated, only its form has changed. “Revolutions in this country have toppled governments, reinstated democracy. The system here was concentrated at the centre, we have weakened that. And now we have a federal democracy. ”

Meanwhile, the ruling coalition has not been paying the protestors any attention, in part because it is having problems regarding its own viability. The day before the conclusion of the relay hunger strike, the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), with the support of the opposition Nepali Congress, pulled out of the coalition in a bid to topple the current K.P. Oli-led government. A potentially new government at the centre would make it the 24th in 26 years. Amidst this instability, the Madhesi parties continue to attempt to centrestage their demands and struggle, and might have a role in deciding what parties command the new government. But in a country whose patience has long been tiring, and which may even be excused for a certain degree of cynicism, they will need to find a way to return to crucial questions about inclusivity and progressiveness – the questions that were at the centre of political transformations of the last decade.

Puja Sen is a Kathmandu-based journalist.

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