CA Poll No Solution to Madhesh Problem

February 6, 2008 at 4:23 am 2 comments

CA Poll No Solution to Madhesh Problem!

Sukhdev Shah

Much hope is centered on the successful holding of election for The Constituent Assembly (CA) scheduled for April 10 this year. This election is seen as a sort of panacea for solving Nepal’s many-faceted problems ensuing from country’s recent troubled history epitomized by the near-triumph of Maoists in their struggle for abolition of monarchy and its replacement by a republican State. The best way for accomplishing this transition, the argument goes, is to have a new constitution drafted by people’s representatives elected to the Constituent Assembly from general franchise.

Election for Constituent Assembly had earlier been opposed by Maoists who wanted that interim parliament formally abolish the monarchy, and declare the country a republic, before any such election can take place. For showing their seriousness, Maoists withdrew from Government and made abolition of monarchy as a pre-condition for them to take part in any CA election, the last one scheduled for November 22, 2007.

Because of the importance of Maoists taking part in the election–to impart a measure of legitimacy and ensure peace with Maoists—Government chose to postpone the election and negotiated a compromise solution with Maoists to make them agree to a new election date. The compromise was that new parliament, elected from CA poll, will vote to formally abolish the monarchy during its first seating, regardless of the make-up of new parliament in terms of party-strengths and stance of individual parties if they supported keeping the monarchy.

The Madhesh hurdle

However, soon after a new date for the CA poll was announced early in January, new challenges faced the Government, whether it can hold a free and fair election without addressing the on-going agitation in Madhesh, which had slowly been growing in strength since its start early in 2007. The agitation attracted national attention after street clashes in several of Madhesh towns in which, reportedly, hundreds of people died in street clashes, followed by police firing live bullets to control rampaging crowds of protestors.

Madhesh rebellion was led by a new generation of leaders who had a stronger feeling for the plight of Madhesis within a state infrastructure largely manned by ethnic pahade. The uprising ignored Madhesi leaders aligned to national parties where they held key positions but worked largely within guidelines set by their pahade bosses which prevented them from showing their solidarity with on-going agitation for madhesi rights. Many of them later chose to break away from the national-level parties, either to join the existing Madhesh parties or to start their own parties, to press ahead with demands for equal rights and opportunities for region’s population who had long suffered from neglect and discrimination from ethnic-based government and its exclusionary policies. Madhesi parties further contended that CA poll cannot be conducted in the uncertain situation prevailing in Madhesh, as is evident from a growing incidence of ethnic clashes and its unwise handling by local authorities who are not trusted by local population because of the ethnic reason.

A further issue, no less serious, involves the electoral boundaries and proportional voting system that are highly discriminatory for the Madhesis. For example, even if Madhesh population, comprising almost half of country’s population, unites to vote only for their own ethnic candidates standing from Madhesi parties, Madhesis can not win more than a quarter of seats in new parliament. For any measure of fairness, Madhesi parties contend, electoral system must guarantee that outcome of the election reflect representation in proportion to region’s population, and not be distorted by specific considerations designed to increase representation in favor of certain ethnic groups or regions.

Finally, there are procedural matters in dispute. Most election officials are government appointees who, as expected, are made-up largely of ethnic pahades. Personnel providing security for election will also be almost all pahades. Final counting of votes and checking it for fairness and accuracy—all of this will be handled by officials who will be overwhelmingly pahades. Given this perception of election details, most Madhese leaders should know that “the system” is heavily staked against them.

First, it is difficult to believe that polling will take place in a fair and free manner. There is more than an even chance that voters in Madhesh region will be intimidated by the pahade election and security officials.

Second, how will the ballot boxes get transported and stored? Again, because officials handling the ballot boxes will largely be non-madheses, there is a large chance of vote-rigging—ballot-stuffing, disappearance and substitution of ballot boxes can be expected.

Third, under an environment of doubts and mistrust, who will guarantee an honest counting of votes and appropriate tallies?

Finally, pressures will be applied at every point of the election process to change the outcome in the way favored by election officials.

Ethnic voting

Democracy has been described as both the best and worst form of government, depending on the country’s specific circumstances but, generally, in ethnically divided societies there is more than an even chance of democracy turning into a sort of ethnic dictatorship. This can be observed in countries such as Fiji, where I have lived for the past five years. Until about 20 years ago, the country was ethnically divided about evenly between indigenous Fijians and immigrants Indians, the latter group first coming to Fiji in the 1870s as indentured laborers. Indians here make up a vibrant business community and most farming is done by Indians but they have largely been excluded from politics and government of the country.

After the British left Fiji in 1970, there has been several experiments with democracy but all have failed, largely because Indians have claimed their fair share in a democratically-elected Government. However, any such “concessions” to Indians—based on their numbers and seats in parliament–had been adamantly refused by indigenous Fijians, who want to rule the country without the Indians. As far as Indian population is concerned, Fijian democracy—if and when this has existed during the intervals of so far four coups—has been of, for, and by indigenous Fijians, with Indians left out on the sidelines, neglected and exploited.

The fact that democracy has not helped Fiji Indians to gain equal status—or any status—consistent with their numbers (this has declined, because of discrimination, from a slight majority about 20 years ago to just 37 percent currently), is due to the ethnic-line voting, backed up with vote-rigging by powerful Fijians, that has produced a slight majority for Fijians in parliamentary elections, the last held in 2006. Since the winners-take-all outcome mandated under democracy—even in cases when majority represents no more than a 51-49 mandate—democracy, has been practiced as a ethnic dictatorship by the native Fijians. Despite being a “substantial minority” in the country, Indians have been given few concessions in terms their participation in politics and representation in government which, however, has been difficult to dispute because Government has a democratic mandate. As a result, Indians in Fiji have been legally excluded from representation in the Government and, generally, from the national mainstream.

Pahadiya democracy!

There is no reason to believe that Fiji experience will not be repeated in Nepal if the election is held today or soon. With new awareness about ethnicity and related dangers to domination by supposedly an “alien” group, people—madhese as well as pahade– will most definitely choose to vote along ethnic lines. Ethnic feelings will likely be much stronger with pahade population, who seem frightened by the prospect of losing their absolute control of government and administration to unfamiliar madhesis. Ethnic Madhesis can also be counted to act similarly, especially in a charged environment that places so much emphasis on ethnicity and separateness, although there are reasons to believe that Madhesh voting will less be on ethnic lines than voting by pahade population.

First of all, it has become more or less an accepted part of Madhesi mind-set that sees only ethnic pahades as genuine claimants to government authority, in the same way as Indians once viewed the British. For example, most of Madhesi people have not come across an ethnic (Madhese) police officer and if, by some miracles, an ethnic Madhesi visits the village in police uniform, people will not take him/her seriously or even recognize as such. Similar sentiments prevail elsewhere concerning the government presence in Madhesh—for legitimacy and authority in people’s eye, a military officer, a district administrator, a judge, a banker, or an important political figure must be an ethnic pahade. Then, for most Madhesis, it will just be a matter of habit and tradition to vote Pahade.

Second, given the diversity of Madhesi community, one can say that there are more things that divide them than what unite them. Caste consciousness still runs supreme in Madhesi society this tends to supersede ethnic differences with pahadiyas. More often than not, high caste Madhesis will align with pahades to maintain power over lower castes Madhesis.

Third, pahade politicians elected from Madhesh are often admired by their Madhesh constituents, for compassion and benevolence and their rapport with government officials, whereas they view Madhese politicians as arrogant and unhelpful, having a demeaning attitude towards the low-caste Madhesis.

Fourth, Madhese politicians of national parties led by pahades will continue to carry a following, despite much discontent they have generated among their fellow Madhesis—labeling them as stooges of pahade politicians.

And the fifth, there is the issue of name recognition. Most people know of the established parties (NC, UML, RPP) and that most of them grew up hearing about them. At the same time, only a few of them would have heard of new Madhesi parties getting registered and, more importantly, people will be confused by the symbols they would carry. Awareness of party symbols will be critical for illiterate villagers for them to cast their ballots in the right way. Established parties then–all of them pahade-led– are expected to draw a large share of Madhesi votes, just as a matter of default.

Given such deep divisions—aided by misinformation– in the Madhesi community, it can then safely be expected that at least one third of ethnic Madhesis will be voting for pahade candidates, while pahade population will vote exclusively for their own ethnic candidates. Even including the results from proportional voting, and with pahade population having a slight majority overall, it can safely be said that new parliament will contain 70 to 80 percent pahade majority, including the loyal madhesis who will win seats from the pahade parties .

Specter of ethnic chauvinism!

While one can almost be sure of a pahade-win in the CA election—most likely with a decisive majority—there is considerable uncertainty about how the new mandate will be read by victorious pahade leadership, in terms of mending fence with the rebellious madhesis. If the sentiments of magnanimity and generosity take precedence over narrow interests of ethnic domination and exclusionary practices of the past, this will help open almost unlimited possibilities for a shared-prosperity and peaceful coexistence which, unfortunately, has long remained illusive. A larger chance is that the new mandate will give legitimacy to the suppression of agitation in Madhesh, in the name of safeguarding democracy and taming of separatist tendencies.

Democratic government in power could then claim international support for its handling of Madhesh rebellion and for its use of whatever means it considers appropriate to assert rule by the majority as established by the CA polling. The more fearful scenario would then be of a security force, made up almost entirely of ethnic pahades, facing protesters all comprising ethnic madheses. The level of violence and carnage ensuing from such confrontations can be expected to be immense and ruthless, compared to when pahade security forces faced pahade Maoists during the decade-long insurgency. This is because, in the absence of natural restraint linked to a shared ethnicity, it is hard to conceive of a rag-tag army of Maoists insurgents, not much liked by general population, defeating a much larger size well-equipped army that had been fanatically loyal to the regime and has a history of taking extreme measures against regime’s opponents.

Coming Madhesh Revolution!

Maoists were correct in demanding the abolition of monarchy as a pre-condition for them to agree to the CA election. The point is that the earth-shaking changes like the abolition of monarchy are not—and cannot be—decided in a court of law or in the hall of parliament; such issues are decided in the street by mass agitation and rebellion, often accompanied by violence.

Something like that happened in April of 2006 when almost the entire population of Kathmandu, and in most of Nepal, came out on the street demanding ouster of the King and abolition of monarchy. There is no parliamentary or CA approval needed to validate people’s will expressed through a revolution, which is what the events of April 2006 represent. The logical step for current parliament to follow would have been to “implement” revolution’s mandate–not to redefine it or, worse, scuttle it. Unfortunately, the parliament in session, as until now, has been misled behaving this way.

Coming to Madhesi demands, it need not be a matter of legislation as regards to concessions that are needed to be made “to pacify” the rebellious Madhesis. As matter of fact, Madhesis do not want concessions or gifts bestowed upon them by a compassionate regime or caring legislature—pre- or post-CA. Madhesis have expected all of this for over past 60 years and they have received nothing—in terms of civil rights, citizenship, and equal sharing of the institutions of State. All of these remain as distant a dream for most Madhesis as when they first demanded it generations ago.

The CA Poll—whatever its outcome—is unlikely to intervene in a way that could change the course of history for the better; most likely, it will institutionalize discrimination against Madhesis, using their presence in the country in no more than a symbolic way—just to make Nepal look a respectable size territory, having a large population. This will bring benefits for the ruling ethnic group—in terms of foreign aid and other recognitions that come with the country’s size—while Madhesi population will continue to count for nothing. This is the way Nepal has been run for as long as it has existed and the CA election or not, Madheses’ lot will not change.
By insisting on pre-conditions before going into election, Madhesh leaders are not being selfish or reckless; on the contrary, they are trying to avert or pre-empt a Madhesi backlash that can also turn into a Revolution. They correctly perceive the dangers of government stone-walling after the CA Poll which, for reasons enumerated above, will be highly unfavorable to Madhesis. This is because, with the election mandate at hand, there will be no pressures or allures for Government to conduct Madhesi

Entry filed under: Articles.

Lessons from Birgunj episode Geopolitics of Madhes: Ballot or Bullet in Nepal!

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. subhash  |  February 9, 2008 at 3:13 am

    great written
    keep it up sir

  • 2. Sanjay Sah  |  February 14, 2008 at 9:00 pm

    Great combination of ideas and realities of the people of present madhesh and madhesis.
    Our demands should be met.
    Thank you very much.

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