Democratic jitters

February 12, 2007 at 4:42 am Leave a comment

Democratic jitters

–Aditi Phadnis

The Madhesis’ uprising is the latest in a string of crises for Nepal’s prime minister.

 
Nepali bloggers are agog at the international movement that has been launched to nominate Prime Minister and Nepali Congress chief, Girija Prasad Koirala for the Nobel peace prize. “Prime Minister Koirala did make significant contributions to the historic agreement to end the decade-old violent Maoist conflict and end of the autocratic 238-year royal regime, and establish complete democracy and permanent peace,” says the petition that is circulating on the Net in support of his candidature.
 
“Perhaps if Girija agreed not to run for a fifth time, and institute a western-style limit on the prime ministerial term (first term of four years, with another four years for a popular leader, and then a Constitutional ban on the man ever running again for the same post), we might consider him for a Nobel,” was the acid comment of another blogger advising he was more suited for the Ig-Nobel, given corruption charges against some members of his family.
 
The fact is Koirala has his back against the ropes. Barely does one problem get resolved in Nepal than another raises its head. The latest violence against Madhesis — those living in the 22 plains or Terai districts — shows how fragile the peace is. If you thought the Maoist movement was the offshoot of bad governance, well, here’s one movement that no one knew existed.
 
The grievances of the Madhesis are not new. These are the people who settled in the southern plains of Nepal, battling malaria and clearing forests to claim fertile land. Madhesis living close to the Indian border have properties in both the countries. According to the 2001 Nepal census, they constitute 57 per cent of the population. More akin to Indian culture, they speak Maithili, Bhojpuri and Avadhi. They live with Tharu tribals in the mid- and far-western districts of Nepal. A majority of them are Hindu, though the Muslim population is growing.
 
Historically, Madhesis have been considered with a degree of contempt by ethnic Nepalis who see themselves as the victors and Madhesis as the vanquished and collaborators. Madhes king Hari Singh Dev established a small kingdom, but this was swallowed up by Prithvi Narayan Shah. The recruitment of Madhesis in the army was barred 200 years ago and has resumed only recently. In 1816, the colonial British army (then ruling over India) defeated Nepali forces. A few landlords in Madhes supported the British during the war and were branded as traitors, an image that has persisted. Though they contributed significantly to the democracy movement in 1951, they continued to be denied equal participation. Hindi teaching was banned by King Mahendra in the interest of national integration. Citizenship has become a contentious issue. Many Madhesis have lived in Nepal for generations but are considered — and consider themselves — Indians. Some have the right to own property but many don’t. Many don’t have the right to vote.
 
Yet 60 per cent of Nepal’s GDP is contributed by them. All industries in Nepal are located in the Terai. The East-West Highway that links the two ends of Nepal and is its lifeline, passes through the region. If the Terai wants to paralyse life in the country, it can do so with great success and ease.
 
That’s what has been happening in the last four weeks. Angered at years of discrimination and fearful that their demands would not be heeded even by the new dispensation, the Madhesis erupted in an orgy of violence. Twenty seven people were killed, police stations burnt down and statues of Nepalese leaders attacked.
 
The Maoists — like ethnic Nepalese — don’t have much sympathy for the Madhesis. Their response was to dub the agitation a resurgence of the royalists. Former royalist Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa and two others of the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party were arrested and it took two broadcasts to the nation in one week by Koirala — flanked by two members of the Left parties — to convey to the Madhesis that their grievances would be addressed.
 
The Madhesis want internal colonialism to end. They want a federal democratic republic in which they too have a say. They want citizenship certificates, regional autonomy, racial and religious discrimination, rights on land and an end to displacement. In other words, an opportunity to participate in democracy. Why the Nepali Congress, the seven party alliance or the Maoists, all of whom have prospered by democracy, should find this difficult to understand, no one knows. India has patted Koirala for his promises to the Madhesis, but that could be the kiss of death for them. The minute they are seen as being Indian proxies, everyone in Nepal will turn on them ferociously.
 
It can be argued, as some Maoists do, that the Madhesis have brought this upon themselves. An RSS conference organised at the end of December was attended by three Madhesi representatives. The meeting decided to start a campaign seeking Nepal’s return to a Hindu kingdom. A recent poll that interviewed 2011 respondents in 21 districts found that 44.9 per cent were for monarchy, though there were differences on whether this should be an active or a constitutional one.
 
Little wonder then that Koirala is a worried man. What Nepal needs is political maturity, and those around him are too busy with politicking. He would happily say no to a Nobel if doing so would keep Nepal stable. But even that sacrifice might be in vain.

source::http://business-standard.com/search/storypage_new.php?leftnm=4&leftindx=4&subLeft=1&autono=274205

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Entry filed under: Articles.

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