The composure of the Madheshi politicos in Kathmandu is apparently deceptive. Soon they would be under pressure to hit the streets to achieve what they failed to deliver from Singh Durbar in six years.
Up to 2006, Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) was an obscure organization based in Biratnagar. Activities of its leader Upendra Yadav had been limited to opposing Nepali Congress. He had hopped from CPN-UML to CPN (Maoist) in late-1990s but had been lying low after his escape from the Indian capital. It was rumoured that Ramraja Prasad Singh had personally intervened to secure his release and safe passage. Upendra would later ditch his benefactor to ensure the victory of a fellow-Yadav as the first president of the republic.
Little is publicly known about the role MJF or its leaders played in Spring Uprising, 2006. Some of its activists may have participated in anti-monarchy movements in their personal capacity, but the MJF as an organization was largely absent from the streets. The situation changed with the promulgation of the interim constitution and subsequent cooptation of Maoists into mainstream politics.
MJF announced a ‘Madhesh Bandh’ on January 16, 2007, demanding that the country adopt a federal system and that the electoral constituencies be delineated on the basis of population. A handful of Madheshi activists—consisting mainly of disgruntled academics, frustrated bureaucrats and peeved politicos—symbolically burnt copies of interim constitution at Maitighar Mandala in Kathmandu. The government dealt with the protest in a ham-handed manner. Soon after, MJF juggernaut began to roll throughout Tarai-Madhesh. The rest, to use a cliché, is history.
MADHESH UPRISING ANNIV
Six years after the first Madhesh Uprising in 2007—there were other waves of protests later in the year and in early 2008 just before Constituent Assembly elections—Madheshis have begun to straddle the corridors of political power in Kathmandu. In the absence of parliament to reign in his ambitions, President Ram Baran Yadav fancies himself as the de facto chief executive of the country. Deputy Prime Minister Bijaya Gachhedar considers himself premier-in-waiting. If Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai were to resign without a broad political understanding for his replacement, Gachhedar would automatically be the officiating head of government. The Vice-President Parmananda Jha is probably expecting President Yadav to resign on moral grounds after repeated failures of calls for the formation of a consensus government.
Emergence of Madheshis as important political players has done precious little to change ground realities in Tarai-Madhesh. The colour, composition and character of Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON)—the administration, the police force, the army, the judiciary, the media, and the handmaidens of donor agencies in the NGO-sector—continues to be predominantly Pahadi. The PEON has thrown away all pretences of impartiality and has begun to propagate, promote and defend communal interests in the name of ‘national unity’.
Madhesh Uprisings established the identity of Madheshi community. But concerns of common Madheshis such as recognition, justice and opportunity remain to be addressed. Something as simple as the nationality of children of naturalized citizens is still in limbo as political decisions have been overturned by administrative fiats. Courts have stayed the proposed proactive policy of special recruitment drive to include Madheshis in the army. The media and the civil society acted in tandem with conservative politicos to undermine the agenda of substantive federalism based on identity, dignity and viability. In short, Madheshis in politics have failed to live up to any of the promises they made during Madhesh Uprisings. They won the electoral battles on home turf, but have almost lost the war of establishing their agenda as national goals for the transformation of Nepali society and polity.
Amnesty International notes in its most recent report: “Between January 2008 and June 2010, OHCHR in Nepal received reports of 39 incidents, involving 57 deaths, which it says involved credible allegations of the unlawful use of lethal force;” all but two incidents occurred in the Tarai. According to OHCHR, most of the victims were Madheshi men, between 20 and 30 years of age; in one case victims included women and children. Madheshi politicos have remained in high positions during and after these incidents. They have either been unwilling or unable to bring perpetrators of these crimes—mostly government functionaries—to book. Impunity is the norm in Tarai-Madhesh where men in uniform take their right to arrest, interrogate or shoot in ‘national interest’ with dead seriousness.
Like Negritude—affirmation of Black culture—Madheshbad too evolved as an ideology that sought to avow, articulate, and assert common Madheshi’s identity (culture), dignity (politics) and interests (economy). Six years after the first Madhesh Uprising, those aims have been either abandoned or put on the backburner. Shorn of their motive force, Madhesh-based parties have become political machines of obtaining benefits from the state and distributing patronage among the faithful. Getting into government through whatever means has become the be all and end all of their politics.
Madhesh-based parties were in UML-led anti-Madhesh coalitions and have shared cabinet berths with the Maoists despite fundamental differences over principles of political economy. When ideology and principles are dumped, politics becomes merely a business, and ambitious Madheshi politicos have shown astonishing alacrity in opening independent shops. Their problem is that they have nothing to sell. In a public program in Kathmandu, Upendra Yadav had thundered that unlike Marxism or Maoism, Madheshbad was not a political ideology at all. In effect, he admitted to being in the business of peddling political trivia. Other Madheshi politicos have been less forthcoming, but they suffer from equally acute idea-deficit. In this depressing milieu, how have Madheshis been coping with the challenges of surviving in a country where almost every organ of the state is inherently inimical to their very being?
A quick hop through Tarai-Madhesh in December-January revealed that most Madheshis have managed to retain their self-respect. In places like Biratnagar, Janakpur and Birgunj, the PEON has failed to dampen Madheshi spirits despite all the resources at its command. However, in bastions of Chure-Bhavar aggressiveness such as Itahari, Bardibas and Hariaun, the Madheshi intelligentsia tends to measure every word before speaking up. Everywhere, the chasm between Madheshi and Pahadi communities continues to be deep. On both sides of Madheshi-Pahadi divide, there are people that want to reach out to each other. However, vengeful Pahadis that want to teach Madheshis a lesson or militant Madheshis that want to give another push outnumber peace-mongers in most places.
Among Peggy McIntosh’s oft-quoted 47 advantages of being White, three come to mind while talking about social harmony to mixed groups of Pahadis and Madheshis: “I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial; I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race; and I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” Even enlightened Pahadis judge a Madheshi by who he is rather than what he has to say. The choice of metaphor of a prominent mediaperson and civil society activist in Bhairahawa was revealing. A Pahadi, he compared Madhesh Uprisings to scabies that should not be scratched. Further west in Taulihawa, Madheshi youths appeared ready to scratch the itch.
Scabies or boils, the itch is getting harder to resist. The composure of Madheshi politicos in the capital is apparently deceptive. Soon they would be under pressure to hit the streets to achieve what they failed to deliver from Singh Durbar in six years