Nepal rioting threatens political transition

February 5, 2007 at 8:16 pm Leave a comment

Nepal rioting threatens political transition
By Dhruba Adhikary

KATHMANDU – The disturbances that mountainous Nepal is currently facing in the southern plains, called Terai, threaten to blossom into a separatist movement as in Sri Lanka. And they could derail the peace process, in effect preventing Maoist rebels from joining the interim government in a few weeks’ time.

The agitation in Terai, also known as Madhesh, started immediately after the interim legislature, which includes Maoist representatives, approved an interim constitution that was promulgated on January 15. A small group of native Madheshis instantly expressed their discontent by burning a copy of the interim charter. Another group took the issue to Terai, where it spread like a wildfire. Two other groups, edged out by the mainstream Maoist party, also became a part of the agitation.

Spontaneous demonstrations across several Terai towns, separated by a porous border from the Indian states of West Bengal, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, took an ugly turn when mobs began to attack the lives, homes and properties of people with hill origins. In some district centers, government offices were burned, others stormed and ransacked. In some cases, mobs with spears, knives and sticks attacked police stations unprovoked, killing police officers trying to defend themselves.

On Wednesday, demonstrators in the eastern district of Morang took a sword to the head of a police officer and threw him into a nearby pond with his limbs tied. Demonstrators were among a dozen people who have lost their lives. The violent activities subsequently assumed communal overtones, prompting authorities to impose a curfew in half a dozen towns in the eastern region. But the measures have not been effective.

Initial restlessness among the Madheshis was visible in the western town of Nepalgunj.

“The continuing violence and loss of life in the Terai is very worrying,” said the United Nations office for human rights. UN representative Ian Martin separately expressed his concerns, saying the trend could affect the schedule for polls to elect Nepal’s first constituent assembly by mid-June.

The main reason for the disgruntlement, according to those who think they can speak for the Madheshi community, is the failure of the interim constitution to include a provision whereby the Terai region could become an autonomous province in a federal Nepal, which thus far remains a unitary system, though with provisions for devolution of powers to regions, zones and districts.

Another point of contention is based on a perception that Madheshi natives have always been under-represented in Parliament, and that the number of seats allocated to them should be increased in proportion to their population.

These demands appear innocuous, but those currently in authority argue that a proposition for restructuring the state apparatus is not something an interim government is empowered to do. It is the new constitution, to be written by a constituent assembly, that will deal with demands for autonomy and regional identities.

Terai is not the only perceived victim of discrimination; there are several dozen ethnic groups in the hill districts, some of whom live in the remotest parts of the country. The claim that the Terai region is under-represented in Parliament in not exactly correct, either. An analytical report published by the Kathmandu Post disproves the Madheshi claim. And, since most of Nepal’s road networks and industrial activities are based in the Terai, it is unrealistic to say that the region is neglected from the national perspective.

Members of the Madheshi community, including the members of the interim legislature representing various political parties, contend that agitation in Terai is spontaneous and an expression of pent-up anger against exploitation and discrimination, and is not directed to Terai people with hill origins (often alluded to as Pahaades).

This contention is not credible to the authorities, nor to most of the leaders whose political parties are constituents of the governing alliance headed by Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. In a televised address to the nation on Wednesday to deal with the “Madheshi grievance”, Koirala minced no words about who the suspects could be: “After analyzing the recent incidents, I want to caution you all that regressive forces are attempting to take advantage of the situation.”

The authorities have, in the meantime, detained three politicians who served in King Gyanendra’s regime, which was toppled last April. A section of the Nepali media has been constantly writing that Gyanendra’s loyal courtiers have been working clandestinely to bring the monarchy back to power.

Together with others, Maoists see the Terai unrest as a ploy to disturb the constituent-assembly polls and thereby stop the smooth transition to a democratic republic. The Maoist supremo, Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda), and his deputy Barubarm Bhattarai have publicly shared the government perception of a conspiracy, adding that Hindu fundamentalists from India are also active behind the scenes.

“They are carrying many truckloads of people from Bihar, India, to foment violence in the Terai,” Bhattarai said in a recent radio interview.

According to Prachanda, two of the militant Madheshi groups that have surfaced in recent months are headed by people who were earlier expelled from the Maoist party. And the leader of a “forum” of the Madheshi community was once detained in India for being a member of the Nepali Maoist movement.

While Indian authorities, said Prachanda in a televised debate last week, handed over two of three detainees to the Nepali army, the third one, Upendra Yadav, was set free without any condition. He was allowed to stay in India for the next six months, and now he is the person who heads the “forum” for Madheshi rights. The Maoist leadership once again claimed in a press conference on Thursday that the Indian establishment is conniving, if not overtly cooperating, with the groups carrying out violent deeds in the southern plains.

Indian Ambassador Shiv Shankar Mukherjee has described as “rumors” the media reports that India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party was involved in the Terai mayhem.

Mukherjee, as a diplomat, has to follow New Delhi’s instructions. But people who welcomed India’s support of the pro-democracy movement last year do not believe that the ruling class in New Delhi is unaware of what is happening in Terai. India is the only country that has a consulate in Nepal outside of the capital city, Kathmandu. Birgunj, where the Indian diplomatic mission is located, has been in the midst of what a local journalist described as a “highly inflammable” situation since last week. “A lot of vested interests are active,” Chandrakishore Jha, editor of a local newsmagazine, told Asia Times Online. He did not elaborate.

Back in Kathmandu, there is a strong perception that New Delhi has instigated a directionless, and often leaderless, violent movement, the fallout of which could harm Indian interests. It appears to be a case of shortsightedness. Analyst Madan Regmi, writing in the People’s Review weekly, used strong words to criticize the UN for glossing over the reality and becoming servile to New Delhi.

What is New Delhi up to? Since Nepali rulers have always shied away from entering any agreement to place Nepal under the Indian security umbrella, often citing their need to balance relations with China, New Delhi might have devised an alternative scheme to achieve its objective. One such alternative could be to fan a secessionist movement in Terai.

Professor Mahendra Lama of Jawarharlal Nehru University does not find reason to disagree with such a view even if it sounds alarming. In an interaction program held in Kathmandu on December 26, Lama alluded to a small but strong minority view in New Delhi that advocates the following: “If Nepal has to be managed effectively, it should be allowed to disintegrate.” Such a minority view might not ultimately prevail in India, which is an emerging Asia power.

But this minority opinion does not seem to be a sudden thought. In a book titled The Call of Nepal, a former British embassy defense attache in Laos, J P Cross, recalls his conversation with an Indian embassy diplomat in mid-1970s (around the time India “liberated” Bangladesh and annexed Sikkim) when he told the author, “sincerely if a little drunkenly, that by the year 2000 Nepal would be part of India for all intent and purposes. He proceeded to tell me the weak points about all levels of Nepalese administration that India would rectify.”

Why did it not it happen? First, as Lama said, it has been a minority view probably influenced by a colonial mindset inherited from the British Raj. Second, events in 1980s and thereafter did not encourage the Indian leadership to embark on a mission that would put the Indian military face to face with the Chinese in an additional area covering nearly 1,500 kilometers. Third, the global scenario that emerged after September 11, 2001, required India to explore other alternatives, including the one referred to by Professor Lama.

Dhruba Adhikary, who has been a Dag Hammarskjold fellow, is a Kathmandu-based journalist.



Entry filed under: Articles.

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