Violence in the Terai Region and the Madhesi Movement: Prospects for Peace in Nepal
Violence in the Terai Region and the Madhesi Movement: Prospects for Peace in Nepal
By Emily Wann
August 3, 2007
Nepal is in a period of transition to peace and democracy, progressing on many fronts but encountering some challenges and threats to sustainable peace along the way. King Gyanendra relinquished absolute control and reinstated the House of Representatives on April 24, 2006, underscoring the movement toward democracy. The Maoists and the government of Nepal signed a peace agreement on November 21, 2006, and then a ceasefire agreement on December 8, 2006, ending the ten-year insurgency. An Interim Constitution was adopted on January 15, 2007, and the Maoists joined the government. Despite these positive steps, the Terai region, located in the southern lowlands of Nepal near the border of India, has experienced a surge in violence from the last six months.On July 17, 2007, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) hosted an event with Minister Rajendra Mahto, Nepal’s minister of Industry, Commerce and Supplies, vice president of the Nepal Sadbhawana Party-Anandidevi (NSP-A), and prominent leader for the Madhesi people of the Terai region, to discuss the current situation in the Terai region. The NSP-A party has supported Madhesi issues over the last 25 years, and has played a role in the democratic movement. Recently, NSP-A and the Nepal Sadbhawana Party (NSP) unified under the name NSP-A, which unified the Madhesi political parties and the interests they represent. NSP-A is a partner with other political parties in the Comprehensive Peace Accord as well as the ongoing peace process. NSP-A focuses on promoting Madhesi political and social rights through peaceful democratic means. Colette Rausch, deputy director of USIP’s Rule of Law program, moderated the event and Jaya Raj Acharya, USIP senior fellow, translated for Minister Mahto.
Peace for the Maoists
Minister Mahto set forth a two-prong process for achieving enduring peace in Nepal: (1) bring the Maoists into mainstream political culture; and (2) advance economic and social development. The minister expressed his confidence that the first prong of the peace process related to the Maoists is well underway, but expressed some concern that the Maoists’ rebel training and inexperience with governmental responsibility would interfere with their ability to form a functioning political party. Grassroots training of Maoist leaders to assume governmental roles and responsibilities will facilitate the process of integrating the Maoists into mainstream political culture. Some Maoist groups, such as the Young Communist League (YCL), continue to turn to violence and break the law, and the minister emphasized the need to bring them under the rule of law.
Violence in the Terai
The focus on the Maoists in the peace process has led to the neglect of other peoples and regions of Nepal, such as the Terai region and the Madhesi people who live there. The people of Terai estimate that they comprise fifty percent of the population of Nepal, and even statistics from the government of Nepal indicate that thirty to forty percent of the population lives in the Terai region. The term “Madhesi” encompasses many different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups that inhabit the Terai region. Despite the fact that they represent a large portion of the Nepali population, the Madhesi lack proportional representation in government and experience discrimination from the government and other Nepali people. The failure to address these issues has caused the Madhesi to turn to violence to bring attention to their plight. Today, as the minister noted, change needs to occur in the Terai region in order to stem the violence and secure peace throughout Nepal.
The minister explained that the first problem that faced the Madhesi was identity and citizenship. The dress and language of the Madhesi differ from that of other Nepalis, which sets them apart and subjects them to discrimination. The government of Nepal formerly questioned whether the Madhesi were truly Nepali because of the resemblance of their indigenous culture to that of their neighboring Indians. Based on strict criteria controlling citizenship by descent in the 1964 Citizenship Act and 1990 Constitution, the government denied the citizenship of a number of Madhesis because they did not have citizenship certificates and other documents to prove their Nepali origin. Local officials demanded proof of land ownership before granting citizenship and proof of citizenship before granting land titles, which effectively prevented the Madhesi from either obtaining citizenship or owning land. The political parties from the Terai region became devoted to achieving equal rights as Nepali citizens for the Madhesi. In November 2006, an amendment to the citizenship law provided for acquisition of Nepali citizenship by descent, birth, naturalization, or honorary award. Importantly for the Madhesi, any permanent resident born in Nepal before 1990 is deemed a citizen and may obtain a citizenship certificate under the amended law. Whereas the citizenship law previously limited naturalization to people who spoke Nepali, people who can read or speak any language practiced in Nepal may become naturalized citizens now. The amendment to the citizenship law resolved the most critical problem of who is entitled to citizenship cards. However, other issues relating to citizenship remain and require further discussion and resolution, such as how to distribute the citizenship cards as soon as possible to ensure that eligible voters participate in the upcoming November elections. Moreover, the amendment only addressed those born before 1990, which fails to resolve the citizenship for those born after 1990 who will be turning 18 soon. In addition to citizenship, the Madhesi are making progress against the discrimination. Since 1990, some representatives from the Terai have insisted on wearing their traditional dress and speaking their native language in the Parliament, which the government previously prohibited.
Despite the fact that they represent a large portion of the population of Nepal, Madhesi fill only five percent of government positions and are underrepresented in the police, army, and bureaucracy. The Madhesi are demanding proportional representation. The Interim Constitution provides that fifty percent of the seats of the proposed Constituent Assembly are subject to proportional representation and the other fifty percent are subject to the old system of “first past the post” in which a candidate who receives the most votes wins the election. The minister proposed redistricting or allocating seats according to an agenda to concentrate Madhesi voters and enable them to elect candidates that they support even in the “first past the post” system. The government is considering that proposal currently in order to ensure that the Madhesi receive proportional representation in the whole of the Constituent Assembly rather than only half. That said, there are 104 different castes in Nepal, so accommodating all groups is impossible and might yield disproportionate representation of some very small groups.
Due to these persistent problems in the region, some Madhesi are losing faith in peaceful progress and democracy. The Madhesi see the success that the Maoists achieved through violence and want to achieve the same for themselves. Following the Maoists’ lead, they are increasingly turning to violence to bring attention to their problems. To curb the spread of violence, mainstream political groups and others are trying to address the genuine problems of the people of Terai and convince splinter groups that violence is not in the best interest of their people or their cause. They aim to persuade the Madhesi that following the violent ways of the Maoists will achieve nothing besides more violence and conflict. Minister Mahto called on international support to bring these groups to the negotiating table to resolve the problems at hand peacefully and before the conflict in Nepal rekindles.
The Upcoming Elections as a Turning Point and a Test
The upcoming November elections for the Constituent Assembly will play a significant role in bringing democracy and peace to Nepal, so it is especially important that they are as free and fair as possible to underscore their legitimacy. Free speech, debate and assembly must be permitted and encouraged to strengthen the election process. The monarch cannot unnecessarily interfere in the process, even if he fears the loss of his traditional power. The Interim Constitution provides that the Parliament may abolish the monarchy upon a two-thirds vote, placing an important check on the power of the monarch to influence the elections.
The Nepali government is focused on ensuring that the upcoming elections are free and fair, but it also needs international support besides just election monitors to attain that goal. One audience participant emphasized that the international community will likely take a hands-off approach unless the Nepali government submits specific requests for involvement such as technical support to promote minority participation or aid packages. In response to this comment, Minister Mahto emphasized that free and fair elections with international support is a primary concern of the Election Commission, and that the international community will likely take a greater interest in the elections because of its involvement in the peace process in Nepal. The minister urged the audience, as international actors, to be “vigilant and watchful” over the election process.
The Future of Nepal
Minister Mahto’s presentation brought to the forefront the issues facing the Madhesi people and underlying the recent violence. With a transition to the rule of law within grasp, international actors, the government of Nepal, and the Nepali people must address these issues and the increasing violence in Terai to secure lasting peace in Nepal. The November elections are a turning point and a test for Nepal in terms of laying the foundation for its democratic future. The key is free and fair elections that produce representation for the Madhesi people and protect the interests of the Terai region.
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