New Confrontations, Old Coercion
New Confrontations, Old Coercion
Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management; Assistant Editor, Faultlines: Writings on Conflict & Resolution
Even as Nepal prepares for a landmark election in its transition process, a new conflict, inherently separatist in nature, is gathering pace in the country, as fatalities mount in the ongoing ethnic unrest that is affecting the southern part of Nepal. Ek Mani Nepal, Under Secretary of the Nepali Home Ministry, disclosed that violent demonstrations, largely orchestrated by the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF, also known as the Madheshi Peoples’ Rights Forum), across the eastern and central Terai (moist land) Plains of southern Nepal, from January 19 to February 7, 2007, resulted in the death of 24 persons. 18 people reportedly died during clashes with the police; three in civilian confrontations; one was killed in a shootout involving a Maoist; a policeman died during demonstrations by Madhesi activists; and a truck driver was reportedly killed by the ‘Terai Cobra’ organisation, of which little else is known. MJF Vice-President, Kishor Kumar Bishwas, however, claimed that the death toll was 38. The current unrest began on January 19, 2007, when the Maoists reportedly shot dead a Madheshi demonstrator who was attempting to enforce a transportation strike to protest against the Interim Constitution.
The identity, profile and aspirations of the Madheshis have abruptly acquired increasing importance in the fragile political detente in Nepal. According to the 2001 Census, 48.4 percent of the over 23 million Nepalese in the country reside in the Terai region. “Madhesh, also known as Terai or Tarai, is the flat southern region of Nepal, extending from east to west. It occupies about 17 per cent of the country’s landmass. The word ‘Madhesh’ is said to be derived from ‘Madhya Desh’ meaning ‘country in the middle’. Economically, Madhesh is the most productive region of Nepal, accounting for its most fertile lands and the overwhelming proportion of its agricultural output. In addition, a large number of agro-based industries, including jute factories, sugar mills, rice mills and tobacco factories, have been established throughout the region.”
The contours of the emerging conflict envelop the familiar loop of underdevelopment, discrimination by the state, and political grievances – both real and perceived. The Madheshis have long been arguing that the ruling elite in Kathmandu discriminate against them. Although their immediate demand is for the creation of an autonomous Terai state within a federal system, their eventual aim is to secure separation from Nepal, because “ruling elites dominated by people from the northern hills have kept them out of jobs in the Government, Police and Army, and seats in Nepal’s Interim Parliament.” According to them, there is not a single Madheshi “employed at the Royal Palace; that only one of the 75 district chiefs is a Madheshi; and there are very few in the Army.”
The Madhesi unrest now affects, at varying levels, all 20 Districts of the Terai: Banke, Bara, Bardiya, Chitwan, Dang, Dhanusa, Jhapa, Kailali, Kanchanpur, Kapilavastu, Mohattari, Morang, Nawalparasi, Parsa, Rautahat, Rupandehi, Saptari, Sarlahi, Siraha and Sunsari. The main protagonists are: the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) and the two militant factions of the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM, People’s Terai Liberation Front) led by Jaya Krishna Goit and Jwala Singh. The MJF, of which former Nepali Congress minister Jayprakash Prasad Gupta ‘Anand’ is the general secretary, is active in 16 of the 20 Districts.
The JTMM split from the Communist Party of Nepal – Maoist (CPN-M) in late 2004, alleging that the Maoists had ignored the people living in the plains, and went on to initiate an armed ‘rebellion within a rebellion’ in southern Nepal. Headed by Goit, a former senior leader of the CPI-Maoist plains’ unit (the Madhesh Mukti Morcha), the JTMM split recently with the splinter faction now led by Goit’s former lieutenant, Jwala Singh. One of JTMM’s demands is an independent state for the Madhesis, and the group is now as viscerally opposed to the Maoists as it is to the Nepali Army. In an interview, Goit vowed that, “The people of Terai will drive them out… Every child in Terai will fight against the Army and the PLA [the Maoist People’s Liberation Army] and is willing to become a martyr.”
Another Maoist break-away group, the Janatantrik Terai Liberation Front, has regularly threatened the Hill groups settled in the Terai, warning them to return to their villages. As a result, large sections of the non-Madheshi population have fled the Terai, and current reports indicate that the exodus continues.
Both the JTMM factions are reportedly minor groups with a cadre strength not exceeding a few hundred. However, they are openly and professedly violent in nature, having been tutored in the ‘Prachanda school of thought’. The two have been successful in creating a constituency of their own, primarily through the well-tested Maoist strategy of killings, abduction and extortion.
The Madhesis span the Hindu caste spectrum, from Brahmins to Dalits, and include linguistic groups such as the Maithilis and Bhojpuris, ethnic groups such as Tharu and Danuwar, and religious groups such as Hindus and Muslims. The Madhesis have generally been looked down upon by the dominant Hill People in Nepal, from which the top Maoist leadership is itself drawn. As Thomas Marks notes, the Maoist leadership is drawn overwhelmingly from the very ‘class enemies’ attacked by the party’s doctrine.
Elaborating on their conflict with the Maoists, Jwala Singh alias Nagendra Pasman, cited caste discrimination as a principal grievance:
We joined the Maoist party believing it was a scientific party… We performed all our duties honestly as per the party policy and direction from the party. But caste domination persisted inside the party. We used to send people of our areas to the People’s Liberation Army but they would be bothered unnecessarily. There was discrimination among the Pahade (Hill area people) and Madheshi (Plains area people). We were unsatisfied with such abhorrence of caste inside a Marxist party, a scientific party. We said that since we have Madheshi fighters inside the Maoist party, our demands should also be addressed and the Maoist party’s vision for Madhesh should be clear… Therefore, we put forward proposals that a separated command should be established in the Terai and the leadership be given to Madheshi people. Our demand was that Madheshi should be the in-charge and a Madheshi regiment should also be established. But some responsible friends of the Maoist party termed it dangerous to establish a Madheshi regiment in Terai area. Their opinion that establishing Madheshi army would pose threat to Pahade friends was discriminating. This is why we could not walk together. Maoist party could not keep its clear view on us, could not satisfy us, as a result we separated from the party.
The Jwala Singh faction’s demands include:
The Terai should be declared an independent state;
There should be proportionate participation by determining constituencies on the basis of population;
All the police, army and administration in the Terai should be evacuated and Madheshi people should be posted there;
Population census should be conducted in Terai under the supervision of Madheshis;
All the revenue collected from Terai should be spent for the development of Terai;
All the Madheshi killed by the state and Maoists should be declared martyrs and NPR 1.5 million should be provided as compensation;
Citizenship should be issued from the central to district level in coordination with the Madheshis;
The land of Madheshis captured by Maoists should be given back;
Maoists should end their ‘donation drive’ and tax collection in Terai.
The intensity of the demonstrations and violence appears to have subsided, but the conflict is by no means over. On February 2, 2007, when the Government constituted a three-member team and invited Madheshi leaders for talks aimed at ending the unrest, Upendra Yadav, chairman of the MJF, stated that the agitation had only been ‘suspended’. On February 8, the MJF announced the suspension of the demonstrations for 10 days, after Prime Minister G. P. Koirala addressed the nation on February 7. In his speech, Koirala called on the Madheshi to resolve all problems through dialogue and announced the addition of electoral seats in the Terai Districts and the delineation of election constituencies based on population and geographical appropriateness. However, the MJF has demanded a “fully proportional electoral system” for the forthcoming Constituent Assembly election.
Crucially, the Madheshis are not satisfied with the Interim Constitution promulgated on January 15, 2007. Vijay Kant Karna, who heads a Madheshi rights NGO, Jaghrit Nepal, warned: “I assure you there will be no election if the Madhesh issue is not settled… this movement will not be stopped.” Indications of a hard-line stance are visible in the fact that the Goit-led JTMM and the MJF have refused to talk to the Government unless Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula resigns and the deaths due to state action are investigated at the highest level. Yadav declared that Sitaula should quit, owning responsibility for the “brutal clampdown on peaceful agitations.” Sitaula has, since then, reportedly tendered an apology, which has been rejected by Yadav, who declared, on February 15, “Mere apologies will not suffice. He has to resign. Only then we will sit for talks.” However, the Jwala Singh-led JTMM and the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN), which represents 50 indigenous organizations in the Terai, the Hills and the Himalayan ranges of Nepal, have reportedly agreed to hold talks with the Government.
While it may be too early to talk about another insurgency in Nepal, some conventional indicators of an emerging sub-state conflict already exist. In a scenario where the state is weak and a process of transition is underway, even minor incidents could spark off a full-scale rebellion. The ten-year old Maoist ‘people’s war’ has already cost the country over 13,000 lives, and Nepal today has little capacity to manage multiple insurgencies. Initial indicators, however, suggest that a struggling and unstable state has clearly failed to grasp the severity of the Madheshi unrest and continues to vacillate.
The current outbreak of violence has also generated a critique of the Maoists’ capacity or willingness to resolve issues of ethnicity and caste. Indeed, such issues had never been effectively addressed by the Maoists or by successive Governments. Unsurprisingly, both the Government and the Maoists have accused “royalists” and Hindu activists of involvement in the Madhesh unrest. Three former ministers of King Gyanendra, Former Deputy Prime Minister Badri Prasad Mandal, former Home Minister Kamal Thapa and former Forest and Soil Conservation Minister Salim Miya Ansari, have been arrested following “credible intelligence inputs which suggest their involvement in the continuing violence in the Terai region.”
Diverse questions of identity are now coming to the fore in Nepal. While the world at large believed that the Maoists were the sole voice of dissent in Nepal, it is now clear that the insurgents had suppressed all dissent in the course of their ‘people’s war’. The Madheshi protest, currently articulated within an avowedly anti-Maoist spectrum, views the Government and the Maoists through the same lens. CPN-Maoist chief Prachanda’s arrogant response to the unrest was that he would “not negotiate with criminals and gangsters.” In an earlier interview, he declared, “The splinter groups in Nepal are very small, they are only located in a few districts, they have very small numbers, if we go with them in a clash we can cross them in one week.” Further, speaking to Kantipur TV on January 25, Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai rejected any “need to talk with MJF or JTMM,” describing them as “criminal groups without any base.” Little surprise, then, that there is visible anger in Madhesh against the Maoist leadership and effigies of Prachanda have been burnt in public. Used to settling issues through the ‘barrel of the gun’, the Maoists, soon to be the governing class, demonstrate little flexibility in the face of dissent. However, their ability and, significantly, their willingness to accommodate other socio-political forces will certainly come under intense scrutiny in the immediate future.
The ongoing Madhesh unrest puts at risk the possibility of creating a safe and secure milieu that is imperative in order to hold scheduled elections in June 2007. Ian Martin, the United Nations Secretary General’s representative in Nepal, rightly noted, on January 26, 2007, that the election schedule “can only be jeopardized if the situation in the Terai continues or escalates.” Kiran Dwyer of the UN noted further that the Terai “Is a tinder box that could spiral out of control.”
Significantly, amidst the unrest in the Terai, the Maoists continue to recruit, intimidate and extort in the Madhesh region and across the country. On February 9, the Industrial Security Group (ISG) – which comprises representatives of the Embassies of France, Germany, India, the United Kingdom, the United States of America, and the Delegation of the European Commission, along with their bilateral Chambers of Commerce – expressed its deep concern about continued extortion, kidnappings, and violence by Maoists against businesses and industries across Nepal.
In the run-up to the polls, the Maoists seek to ensure that no alternative centres of power emerge in the countryside. To this end, they would have to ensure that forces like the JTMM and, indeed, even mainstream political parties, are marginalised, forcibly or otherwise. The Maoists are currently engaged in ensuring that the preparation of the voters’ lists across Nepal does not work to their disadvantage. Thus, the Maoists decamped with the voters’ lists and other documents from the Kavre Village Development Committee (VDC) area of Dolakha District on February 9, 2007, after trying to force officials to enlist the names of their cadres, who were from other Districts. On the same day, Maoists seized all voters’ list documents from the Salyantar VDC area of Dhading District, protesting that they were not included in the tasks of the collection and compilation of the voters’ list. Maoists have also intensified their efforts to stop the relocation of Police Posts (initiatives are underway to re-establish Police Posts that had been shut down under Maoist threat and violence in the past) in several parts of Nepal. The Maoists have declared that they would not allow Police Post relocation till an Interim Government that included them had been formed. Further, Finance Minister Ram Sharan Mahat disclosed on February 12, that the Government had no knowledge of how the Maoists were spending money released to them by the Government. Mahat revealed that the Government had released NR 350 million to the Maoists at various intervals for rations, logistic and other needs of the People’s Liberation Army personnel, adding, “But, the Maoists have not submitted the details of expenses incurred so far, from the fund.”
The infant order that is struggling to establish itself in Nepal has yet to evolve the attitudes and mechanisms for democratic accommodation that will be necessary, not only to secure a stable Constitutional order, but even to preserve the tenuous peace that has been patched together after a decade of bloody warfare. To the extent that the historically violent Maoists continue to exert maximal influence over political developments in the country, there is much reason to believe that the transition in Nepal will be far from peaceful.
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