Terai agitation raises new questions before Nepal

September 20, 2007 at 7:16 pm Leave a comment

Terai agitation raises new questions before Nepal

By Shubha Singh.

The Maoist decision to pull out of the interim government in Kathmandu and the worsening security situation in Nepal’s Terai region have cast a shadow over the elections to the country’s Constituent Assembly scheduled for November.

An agreement between the Nepalese government and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), which spearheaded the Terai agitation earlier this year, was expected to bring peace to Nepal’s plains. However, the agreement did not find favour with the armed Madhesi groups, including a dissident faction of the MJF, and the Maoists were strongly critical of it. Maoist leader Prachanda described the agreement as ‘extremely objectionable, flawed, and deceptive in content and procedure’. He said the agreement was a deplorable effort to fool the Madhesis and was a ‘continuation of the divide and rule policy’.

The Madhesis launched an agitation in January to get their longstanding grievances redressed. The Aug 30 agreement, signed by Minister for Peace and Reconstruction Ram Chandra Poudel and MJF leader Upendra Yadav, brought to an end the eight-month long agitation in the Terai.

The agreement met many demands of the Madhesis but did not accept their plea for proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly. Initially, the Maoists had supported the Madhesis as a deprived group and their demand for autonomy. But when the agitation turned violent early this year, it brought the Madhesi groups into confrontation with the Maoists. To the discomfiture of Maoists, leaders of the most active Madhesi groups, including Upendra Yadav, are former Maoists.

The Madhesis are people living in the Terai region of Nepal who share cultural, linguistic and social ties with people across the border in India. The Madhesis have faced problems of identity and citizenship and have had limited access to government jobs and assistance as Nepal’s earlier governments treated them as ‘foreign migrants’. Terai forms 17 percent of Nepal, and shares the kingdom’s open border with the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Once a malaria-infested jungle area, it is now the most fertile part of the country.

The Madhesis were a major factor in the economic development of Nepal. The Nepalese government had encouraged the people to settle in the plains, and the settlers cleared the shrubs and trees and drained out the swamps to create farmlands. After 1950, the government began to discourage Indian settlers in the region. In the later decades, people from Nepal’s hill regions were helped to settle in the Terai through grants of surplus land.

The Madhesis had long-standing grievances with the Nepalese government over their citizenship rights, their access to government jobs, ownership of land and setting up businesses, and education facilities. A large number of people were without citizenship papers, especially after the ability to read and write the Nepali language became a must for citizenship. The Madhesis only had token representation in the legislature and political parties. The Terai is the most densely populated part of the country, but this fact is not reflected in the number of seats the region has in parliament.

The Madhesis, as the non-hill people living in the Terai region are known, object to being called people of Indian origin though they have strong social, cultural, linguistic links – and familial ties – across the border. Madhesi activists contend that they are original inhabitants of the region, as their ancestors lived in the Terai at the time the British ceded the region to the king of Nepal. Others argue that they are sons of the soil and not foreign immigrants and that the majority of the people living in Nepal were originally from India, settling in Nepal at different times in history.

The Koirala government in November 2006 amended the Citizenship Act, providing that all permanent residents born in Nepal before 1990 be given citizenship papers. The government has made efforts to distribute citizenship certificates under the new criteria. Under the August 2007 agreement, the government agreed to set up a commission to go into the restructuring of the states (provinces) within a federal system of governance, though the boundaries and rights of the new states would have to be decided by the Constituent Assembly.

The government agreed to a three-language formula — of Nepali, English and the local language. It agreed to recognise the Madhesi culture and language and give adequate representation to the Madhesis in government jobs. The government promised to send teams to the Terai to complete the distribution of citizenship papers to all those eligible for them.

In recent times, the Indian government has been more open in referring to the Madhesis problems. It had welcomed Prime Minister G.P. Koirala’s promise, at the time of the agitation, to increase the electoral seats in the Terai region before the elections to the Constituent Assembly. Koirala had also promised that all marginalized groups would be included in all organs of the state machinery on a proportional basis.

Replying to a written question in the Indian parliament on Madhesis, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee had stated that the Indian government maintained regular dialogue with the government of Nepal on all issues of bilateral and mutual interest. India has stressed the need for free and fair elections in the ‘transition to a democratic, inclusive state’.

The two factions of the Jantantrik Terai Mukti Morch have vowed to disrupt the elections while Madhesi Janadhikar Forum’s Kishor Biswas group has joined a call for a general strike later this month. The killing of a local leader has also added to the unstable situation as arson and rioting erupted in Kapilavastu in southern Nepal. The Terai agitation had tremendous support among the people, but the Madhesi cause has been hampered by problems of leadership, and the emergence of a plethora of factions and splinter groups.

(Shubha Singh is writer on international and diaspora affairs. She can be contacted at shubyat@hotmail.com)



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