Things fall apart
But that is not enough. The first problem with the Madhesi forces is that their class and caste base is limited. People from various communities died during last year’s movement, but the leadership failed to capitalise on the prevailing sense of unity. Dalits are disenchanted and have started saying that they have no choice but to launch their own movement, armed if necessary. Tharus in the west always felt apart, but now even eastern Tharus who see themselves as Madhesis find little space. Where are the Muslim leaders? Where is the progressive agenda for the landless? They may come out on the streets because of a shared sense of discrimination, but the alienation from the Madhesi mainstream is unmistakable. The leaders surely know that without them the movement will hit the wall.
There are problems with the agenda and strategy as well. Madhesis want and need the polls more than anyone else. If April 2006 had not happened, January 2007 would not have happened. Democracy is a pre-requisite for Madhesi rights. And if polls do not happen, the resulting authoritarianism will not help the Madhes at all.
Madhesi groups fear they will not win, at least not in enough numbers to influence the constituent assembly debate. The major parties could play a role in assuring them of basic electoral prospects. But irrespective of that, Madhesi groups should know this movement will continue even after the polls, both inside and outside the assembly.
The people will not accept any discriminatory clause any more. A confrontation does not help the Madhesi groups right now. They are vulnerable and will only become exposed. They should know the limits of bargaining. Instead, their shifting goalposts only confirm suspicions that royalists and those keen to disrupt the polls are influencing decisions in each party.
Mahanta Thakur defines the problem as colonial and says the Madhes needs a judiciary, executive, and legislature. Federalism is clearly non-negotiable. But what will be the shape of that structure? What will be the integrative mechanisms with the hills and the nature of resource allocation?
Madhesis claim they are close to 40 percent of the population. Why is the aim restricted to only securing power in the Tarai? Shouldn’t it revolve as much around ensuring a share of power in the capital, and demanding that a Madhesi be the country’s prime minister or president? For that to happen though, the leaders need to have a clear vision of how the Madhes fits into the larger national framework. Only the Maoists had that theoretical understanding, conceiving of an alliance of marginalised communities, though they failed miserably in translating it on the ground. Or is the final aim, as many Madhesi leaders privately admit, independence? Won’t such an unviable aspiration only lead to more bloodshed and suffering? These weaknesses should not make Kathmandu think that the Madhesi movement can be crushed easily. Sending the army in would be disastrous.
Instead, Madhesi leaders must be supported, as they provide the only hope for pulling things back from the brink. And that is why it is important that the Tarai leaders get down to some serious homework and introspection.
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