The new battlefront
Nepal’s ethnic politics
The new battlefront
Mar 8th 2007 | JANAKPUR
From The Economist print edition
Rivalries between caste and ethnic groups threaten the peace process
IN THE benign view of many Nepalis, their country’s 100 or so ethnic and caste groups have co-existed for centuries in remarkable peace and harmony. A new crop of ethnically-based groups, however, see things very differently. For them, the history of Nepal is one of remarkably successful and sustained discrimination. As the country of 28m people edges towards a solution to ten years of Maoist insurgency, these ancient cracks are being exposed.
Since the beginning of the year, a succession of previously little-known organisations have vied to bring Nepal to a standstill. First came the Madhesi movement, some half a dozen competing groups claiming to represent Nepalis from the southern plains, known as the Terai. At least 30 people died in three weeks of violent protests, mostly shot by the police.
In Janakpur, one of the worst affected areas, locals are angry, but sense historic change in the offing. A radio producer compares the mood to that of being weighed down by a boulder on the head and unable to stand up. “Then she throws it off. That’s the Madhesi movement.”
Next to take to the streets was the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities, claiming to represent various peoples from the Himalayan foothills, which began its own series of crippling strikes. Several other ethnic identities have been invoked and the noise is likely to grow.
These groups want an end to domination by the two highest Hindu castes—Brahmins (the priestly caste) and Chhetris (warriors), who make up about 28% of the population. These castes have controlled the country since it was unified in the 18th century. Power has often changed hands between them, and seems to be doing so again. Street protests last April toppled an essentially Chhetri royal government. Now, a coalition government of Brahmin-dominated political parties is negotiating with Maoist rebels, who have exploited caste and ethnic grievances, but are themselves largely led by Brahmins.
Peace hinges on elections, due in June, to an assembly set up to write a new constitution. There is much talk of creating a “new Nepal”. Yet many groups fear the Maoists will simply slip in at the top of the existing power structure while other interests are ignored again. A piece of ethnic propaganda shows two images of the Maoist leader, known as Prachanda. In one he eats beef—a taboo for Hindus—like an atheist rebel. In the next he drinks cow urine, like an orthodox Brahmin.
The various ethnic groups present similar, though vague, demands for proportional representation in the elections and an ethnic-federalist structure in the new constitution. The government and the Maoists have conceded both demands, though equally vaguely. Meanwhile promised negotiations with the agitators have not materialised. Doubting the government’s sincerity, the ethnic groups are continuing their strikes and protests.
The benefits of federalism and proportional representation are widely recognised, but hard to deliver. According to Krishna Khanal of Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, Nepal’s ethnic and caste groups are so many and so scattered that among the dozen or so states a federal Nepal might include it is only possible to create three with a clear identity.
Lok Raj Baral, a political scientist, says that in a system of proportional representation some of the Brahmin politicians on whom the parties depend must lose out. But the agitators hold some important advantages—especially the Madhesis, who live in an economically important area and control supply routes to the capital.
There can be no election until their grievances, and those of others, have been tackled. Already it seems certain that the June deadline for the poll will be missed, undermining the peace process. The uncertainty gives greater influence to minor players, such as the Madhesi separatist guerrilla leader known as Jwala Singh, who is at present in hiding. Like many of the new breed, Mr Singh is a former Maoist. He accuses his former comrades of not taking a clear stand on Madhesi rights. Mr Singh has the armed strength to scare people and order killings but, in an interview, he implied that he would drop his separatist demands in exchange for recognition and a seat at the table. Two other violent Madhesi groups have recently emerged. They, too, seem to see a chance to spoil the peace process or wring concessions from the government.
The biggest losers from the rise of ethnic politics are the Maoists. They have seen ethnic supporters who backed them during the conflict drift away as they draw closer to national power. They have responded by attacking their Madhesi rivals.
In daily thuggery the Maoists show that, ceasefire or not, they still rely on violence. They have set the example for the new batch of politicians. That makes it even harder to achieve a feat not tried since 1999, but essential if Nepal is to move on from the bloody decline of the past ten years: holding elections that are both peaceful and inclusive.
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