The Madhes and the Future of Nepal
Image Credit: REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar

The Madhes and the Future of Nepal


The results of Nepal’s Constituent Assembly (CA) elections, held for the second time in November 2013, results proved surprising to many observers. In particular, those political forces that had been fighting for a more “identity-based” approach to politics seem to have been defeated. These were namely the largest Maoist party, parties that advocated for a “single” province in the southern plains of Nepal (known as the Madhes, or Madhesh) and other new parties that had fought to bring about identity-based federalism in Nepal and that were strongly identified with particular ethnic groups.

Of these, the Madhesi parties seemed to have been routed most convincingly. The Maoists, while only the third largest political party in the country today, still managed to secure a not insignificant number of first-past-the-post seats and did fairly well in the proportional representation (PR) round. The newly formed “ethnic” parties fared less well, although perhaps that can be attributed to their inexperience with electoral politics. Yet the Madhesi parties had emerged as a significant force during the last CA elections.

Their rejection by the electorate has left them dispirited and shaken. It has also reignited a very basic question, one that was long thought to have been resolved: Does Nepal need federalism? The Madhesi parties were amongst the most vocal proponents of federalism. Ever since the 1950s, when Nepal first became a democracy, Madhesi activists have been agitating for autonomy. Alarmed by what they saw as a Pahade (referring to people from Nepal’s Hill Region) influx into their region and the subordination of their culture, they believed that only complete autonomy would enable them to limit migration and prevent their culture from being amalgamated into the Pahade one.

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The only other group with activists similarly committed to an autonomous region are the Limbus. But Limbus make up a much smaller percentage of the Nepali population that do Madhesis. Moreover, Madhesi parties wanted the entire southern plains of Nepal to be recreated as a separate Madhes province. Given the importance Nepalis attach to their southern plains (which is not only the country’s breadbasket but also the main link between Nepal and its largest trading partner, India), if it was to become a single province, Madhes would become the most important in the country.

Thus, if the Madhesi parties had had it their way, Madhes would be a single province and the Madhesi electorate would be overjoyed. Many a Madhesi politician has gone on record saying that the greatest desire of the Madhesi voter was to have a single province spanning the southern third of the country from east to west.

The results of the CA elections has proven them wrong. After a string of defeats during the CA elections of 2008, the Nepali Congress has rebounded and emerged once again as the strongest force in the Madhes. The Nepali Congress has never made federalism its central plank, and it has certainly been averse to the idea of identity-based federalism. Nepali Congress leaders, including current president Sushil Koirala and chief spokesperson Arjun Narsingh K.C., have time and again warned that identity-based federalism could lead to ethnic strife and even sharp conflicts between the country’s various ethnic groups. The Nepali Congress thus remains staunchly opposed to the concept of a Madhes province.

So how did they win? Several reasons have been offered. Some have argued that in the end Madhesis voted for stability, security and economic growth. While Madhesi autonomy may be a future goal for Madhesis, they were not willing to sacrifice their present needs for that dream. During the last five years, certain parts of the Madhes have been among the most violent areas in the country, plagued by political violence as well as banditry. Economic activity has declined. Nepal’s fledgling industrial towns of Biratnagar and Birgunj, both in the Terai, have experienced a precipitous decline in output. The Janakpur Cigarette Factory, located in the Terai town of Janakpur, was once the country’s largest employer. A railway line had been constructed specifically for the purpose of ferrying goods in and out of the factory. The factory was so large that it occupied a significant fraction of Janakpur. Today it lies idle and unused, its railway tracks discolored.

Janakpur is just a few kilometers away from India’s second most populous state of Bihar. Once synonymous with caste politics, crime and corruption, Bihar is now better known for the high quality of its roads and the numbers of its gangsters behind bars. For many young people in Janakpur and across other Terai towns, it is the roads that they enthuse about – that and the fact that vehicles can be obtained so cheaply across the border in Bihar, whereas Nepal imposes onerous taxes. There is a small but growing population of young, urban professionals in Terai towns like Janakpur who want not only to live in an autonomous Madhes region but who also crave the other trappings of life. Like young people everywhere, they want smartphones and SUVs and jeans – better versions of which are increasingly available across the border.

Older people and farmers have other priorities. One farmer, in the village of Phulgama a few kilometers away from Janakpur, told The Diplomat that all farmers want from the government are good irrigation schemes and decent roads. We farmers just want enough water to irrigate our fields and grow our crops and roads to take that to the market, he added.

Sandip, from the same village and a recent returnee from the Middle East, seemed quite politically savvy. “People in this region didn’t know what the election was really about. They thought it was about development, not a constitution. I don’t quite blame them. How long do you need to write a constitution? At some point, you need to start giving people what they really need. That’s why the people voted for the Congress this time. They want to see some actual development.”

And the Madhesi parties? He frowned. “Big talkers. They had a chance to do something for the Madhes while they were in power but they didn’t.” Another, older person said that he saw only a very remote chance for the Madhesi parties to return to power in Dhanusa (the district in which Janakpur lies). “The gap between what they promised and what they actually delivered was so huge despite some Madhesi ministers being in power almost continuously, that the people have become very wary of them. I can’t talk for the other districts but here in Dhanusa we really have a lot of problems that the Madhesi parties just couldn’t solve. Whole villages are now empty of young men who have migrated to the Persian Gulf. We have no one to work the fields anymore. Prices of agricultural commodities have skyrocketed. We farmers sometimes import from India because things are so expensive here.”

On the subject of India, there is a pretty wide divergence between what people in Kathmandu believe and what many residents of the Terai do. Many people in Kathmandu see India’s grip on Nepal was so tight that South Bloc bureaucrats can personally determine who will be seated on the prime minister’s chair. In the Terai, the view is generally more nuanced. The more literate members of the public believe that while India has some influence at the national level, it has little power to affect local outcomes. Many in the Terai think that the Kathmandu media exaggerates the extent of India’s involvement for effect. However, within the small Pahade community in Janakpur, there is more suspicion about India’s role. They think that at the very least India did nothing to stop the Madhesi-Pahadi conflict from spiraling out of control.

One member of the Pahade community told me – “India bet on the wrong horse last time by supporting the Madhesi forces. They proved to be too communal and are content to play politics with peoples’ emotions. They proved to be too power hungry and unreliable. At the same time the Madhesi forces themselves have realized that they cannot take India’s support for granted. Most of them have also realized that the multicultural Terai of the past was a better place in most respects – more vibrant, more tolerant and more secure”.

The Pahade community still appears unable to come to terms with the fact that at least in part, its own attitudes towards Madhesis (sometimes verging on outright racism) was responsible for the backlash. Madhesis have long been treated as second-class citizens, and not without having their patriotism questioned. Even today educated Pahadis have misgivings about where Madhesi loyalties lie. At the same time, the Madhes uprising was a horrific event for many Pahadis, who had to flee an area they had always called home. Before the uprising, the percentage of Pahadis in Janakpur may have been over 35 percent. Today, it may be less than 5 percent. In some other towns of the Madhes, such as Rajbiraj, the situation may be even worse. Walking through Rajbiraj last year at midday, I noticed that there was not a single Pahadi on the streets. Indeed, I was told not to venture out after dark because as a Pahadi, I was at risk of being abducted.

Never before had any part of Nepal experienced such a sharp change in its demographic profile as have Terai towns like Janakpur and Rajbiraj. Many Madhesis have rued this turn of events. “We only wanted to fight for our rights and identity, which were denied to us for so long,” said one activist, who was also a Maoist. “But demagogues exploited the situation for their own purposes and the situation quickly deteriorated. Now I see virtually no chance for things to go back to their earlier state.”

Manish Gyawali is a graduate of Miami University and Kathmandu University. He is a consultant and writer.

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