Is it too much to expect Kathmandu’s rulers to take madhesi grievances seriously?
– By PRASHANT JHA
Kathmandu needs to stop playing games with the madhesis. Unless the state and civil society here understand and acknowledge the true nature of the madhesi movement, the problem will fester and flare up in more dangerous forms. The government makes the right noises but seems to think short-term Machiavellian tactics will solve the tarai issue. Unfortunately for Koirala & Co., the time for that has passed and such a strategy can only lead to further radicalisation.
The madhesi struggle is not for a few additional constituencies or token speeches on inclusion. It is certainly not an attempt to split off tarai from Nepal. Instead, this is a movement to redefine what being a Nepali means. It is a cry for respect and equality, abstract concepts which have struck a chord on the ground, and a desire to be a part of the mainstream.
People in the capital wonder why there is still trouble in the tarai when the prime minister ostensibly gave in to the demands in his second address. The problem persists because what is as important as substantive issues (which incidentally have not been addressed either) is sending out a message that madhesis are respected as Nepali citizens and the power elite is sincere about including them in all spheres. Let alone a change in mindset, the state appears to have done its best to add to the trust deficit with madhesis.
Look at the government’s stand, it has done nothing to honour the movement, and not even declaring those killed as martyrs. It took them four months to set up a commission to investigate police atrocities and guess who is a member—the police chief of the eastern region in charge during the killings; it did not consult any madhesi groups before amending the electoral law; and it has made a decision in principle to use security forces to quell the unrest.
The major parties ensured that the constituencies were gerrymandered to suit pahadi candidates. Instead of showing some political imagination and reshuffling Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula, Koirala stuck to him as the face of the state, and Situala is one face madhesis don’t like. Madhesis are still not being appointed in fair numbers, look at the cabinet, list of ambassadors, statutory bodies, and recent recruitments in the police force. The silence of the capital’s much-feted liberal civil society is also noticeable. Where are the Devendra Raj Pandeys when it comes to using their influence and pushing for madhesi concerns?
Take all this together, add it to long-standing grievances, and it shows why the eastern tarai remains fertile ground for agitation. It also explains why the most critical players, madhesi moderates, are in the weakest spot. If the government is unwilling to give in on issues, which have no political cost, they wonder whether the state is prepared for a true transformation. Most moderates say that the ground is becoming too radical for them to urge for restraint.
In May-end, some NC madhesi leaders in Birganj and Janakpur were critical of armed groups. Three weeks later, the same politicians sounded sympathetic and admitted there was increased acceptance of use of violence. At a Kathmandu discussion last week, a Sadbhabana Party youth leader said that picking arms seemed to be the only way out. These maybe voices of mainstream politicians keen on using armed groups as a bargaining chip to extract more but it also reflects the increasing radicalisation of the mood. It may not amount to much immediately in the absence of a strong force but ingredients for sustained confrontation are coming together.
The state is banking on a divided and, to some extent, discredited madhesi leadership which lacks a coherent political agenda or strong support base. Despite the public show, the government has done little to initiate back-channel communication with madhesi groups. Neither has it created an environment by fulfilling some minimum preconditions like assuring full security to leaders, agreeing to withdraw cases in principle, and guaranteeing minimum face-savers.
Instead, the Baluwatar recipe for managing the problem is engineering splits within madhesi groups, luring some away with money and posts, using coercive tactics, and asking India to put pressure on them. This may, at best, work in the short-term but will sow seeds for an even deeper and prolonged conflict.
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