India and the Crisis in Nepal: The Madhesi Option
By Alok Bansal
November 19, 2005
Nepal has been in turmoil ever since the king sacked the duly elected Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and took over the direct control of government on February 1, 2005. Since then Nepal has been engulfed by relentless violence as conflict between Royal Nepalese Army, which has always been the king’s army as opposed to a national army, and the Maoist rebels has intensified and resulted in a large number of deaths and destruction. Frequent violations of human rights by the two sides have been reported. The escalating violence in Nepal has definitely created anxiety in India where many perceive that rising Maoists will not only provide moral but also material support to the radical left wing insurgency in India. These Cassandras see a Red Corridor emerging across the length of India all the way from Nepal to Tamil Nadu. Some feel India needs to fence its borders with Nepal, while others contend that under the circumstances India has no other option but to support the undemocratic and autocratic actions of King Gyanendra. Fencing, at a time when everyone is talking about a South Asian Economic Union, will only be a retrograde step and will drive a wedge between the Indian and Nepali populace which have long standing historical cultural and linguistic ties. Similarly, supporting the king would amount to condoning his undemocratic and reprehensible act. He has never hidden his anti-India feelings, and had also tried to use the China card to counter India in the immediate aftermath of the dismissal of the democratic dispensation in Nepal, as India along with other democratic nations was quick to criticise the King’s action. The Government of India has unambiguously stated that it would like to see the democratic setup restored in Nepal and blindly supporting the King at this juncture would not only result in ceding the moral high ground but also in losing the popular support in Nepal. Moreover, such an approach will definitely bring the Maoist insurgency across the open borders into India. Not only do we have an open border but also over seven million Nepalis are believed to be residing in India. We also have over 40,000 Nepalis serving in the Indian Armed Forces and have approximately 120,000 Indian exservicemen living in Nepal, and the disturbances in Nepal will definitely affect them.
From India’s point of view the best option would be the return of the democratic forces to the centre stage but the mainstream political forces as represented by the Nepali Congress and Nepal Communist Party (UML) have been rendered irrelevant by the King’s actions and are unlikely to command the people’s support. Popular support appears to have been polarised between the Maoists and the Royalists, though there is a silver lining. There is a large section of people who have hitherto been denied their due political rights and have still not fallen prey to the Maoist propaganda — the Hindi speaking Nepalis inhabiting the Terai Region of Nepal, who number approximately ten million.
To be honest, the democracy that existed in Nepal prior to the sacking of Prime Minister Deuba was highly flawed. Through gerrymandering, it gave disproportionately high representation to certain regions of the state while denying the people living in the Terai Region their rightful share in governance. As a result the governments that were constituted did not adequately represent the people inhabiting the Terai Region, derogatorily referred to as ‘Madheshis’. They are believed to constitute more than fifty per cent of the population of Nepal. If true representative elections were to be held in Nepal, these Madheshis would surely hold the levers of power. To deny them power, a large number of hill people have been systematically settled in this region and electoral constituencies have been drawn without any sense of geography, cultural affinity and uniformity. Whereas the hill constituencies with hardly six to eight thousand voters send one representative to the Parliament, almost seventy to eighty thousand voters elect one representative in the Terai region. On top of this some four million Madheshis have been denied citizenship certificates and are being termed as Indians.
Present day Nepal is divided into 75 districts administratively. Out of these 55 districts are hilly and snow clad and despite being larger in size, are sparsely populated. The northern border of many of these districts touches the hills of Tibet. The 20 Southern districts have common borders with West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttaranchal in India. The mother tongue of the sons of the soil in these 20 districts is Maithili, Bhojpuri, Avdhi, and other dialects of Hindi, but they interact with each other in Hindi and have Hindi as their common language of communication. These people not only speak Hindi but also are also culturally and ethnically closest to India. They physically resemble Indians and have relatives across the border. Unlike the elite inhabiting the Kathmandu Valley, who despite having migrated from India, like to denigrate things associated with India to project their separate identity, these Madheshi are proud of their language, customs and traditions and are keen to maintain close links with India. In order to prevent Madheshis from attaining their true potential, Hindi, which along with Nepali had been accorded the status of the official language in 1959, was abolished as a medium of instruction during the autocratic ‘partyless’ panchayat regime in 1965. After this the use of Hindi was banned in the Nepali parliament as well. Since 1990, some of the parliamentary representatives elected from this region have insisted on their right to speak in Hindi in parliament. Though after a lot of reluctance they have been permitted to speak in Hindi, it has not yet been recognised as the official language and as a result no record is maintained of statements made in Hindi in parliament.
In addition, during the 1970’s, when the East West Highway was constructed, a number of labourers from hill districts were settled in Terai region and many of these are included in census as well as in the electoral roles in more than one place i.e. their original place of residence as well as their newly acquired place of residence in the Terai. Some own residences in Kathmandu Valley as well and are counted thrice in census. As a result the population of the hill people tends to be inflated.
Nepal is culturally, ethnically and linguistically close to India and shares a special relationship with India. Most of the population of the Hindu Kingdom is friendly towards India but of late certain elements from the Kathmandu elite have been indulging in anti India propaganda, which has even resulted in anti India riots in the past. Peace and tranquillity in Nepal is in India’s interest. The ideal solution to Nepal’s problems would be the establishment of a truly representative parliamentary democracy with the King as purely a figurehead. For this the constituencies need to be redrawn based on population. The governments thus constituted would have fair representation of Madheshis who have relatively been less influenced by the Maoists. This government will not only be favourably disposed towards India but will also meet the aspirations of a large section of population and will be able to check the influence of the Maoists. In order to stabilise democracy in Nepal; it is also essential to transform the Royal Nepalese Army as a genuine national army with representation from each section of the population and must be made responsible to the people, parliament and the prime minister.
(Cdr. Alok Bansal is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. A modified version was earlier published in Kashmir Times on October 10, 2005)
Entry filed under: Reports.