The ruckus caused by the Madhesi parties is gradually subsiding. The leaders were right in asserting themselves because they were ignored in initial negotiations. They had a point in feeling that the Big Three were not keeping to the spirit of the eight-point agreement. It was natural for them to want greater visibility in Kathmandu and popularity back home.
But the episode has also revealed the nature and drawbacks of the Madhesi parties themselves. They have different public and private stands which sharpens internal divisions, opens space for militancy, results in inept tactics and leaves the cadre confused.
When asked where the Madhesi movement was headed, the head of one of three Madhesi parties said recently: “Let Kathmandu keep sovereignty and give everything else to us. We will rule the Tarai. If that does not happen, then we will go where Goitji is.”
For this school, the problem in Madhes is colonisation, the diagnosis liberation. These isolationists want minimal engagement with Kathmandu, and maximum autonomy. They claim this is what people on the ground aspire for, as proved by the steady radicalisation.
But there is another view which feels federalism has to be accompanied with a more integrationist approach with the Pahad. They feel the problem is of citizen rights and discrimination, and the diagnosis is inclusion. They point to massive Madhesi participation in polls to show that is what the people want.
Both approaches can go together, but their leaders espouse different agendas, and lead to multiple demands. What we witnessed last week was a combination of these views. Autonomy on the ground is what isolationists want. Participation in the army is what the integrationists want. Kathmandu has to address both within the limits of reason and logic.
But reason and logic is what the Madhesi parties do not have on their side when they push for the one Madhes idea. The state imposed a hegemonic oppressive identity on the Madhesis for decades, a small set of Madhesi leaders is trying to do the same with the rest of the Tarai population.
They may fear that dividing Tarai into smaller provinces will weaken their political strength, but they should try to convince the rest of the Tarai to get on board. Until that happens, the Mithila mafia of Yadav, Gupta, Thakur, Mahato and Jha (belonging to three out of the 20 plains districts) can’t arbitrarily speak for the entire belt.
The Tharus may have more in common with Madhesis than the hill migrants, the Tharu Kalyankari Sabha may have been encouraged by the UML to stage protests, and there are prominent Tharu leaders like Bijay Gachhedar in Madhesi parties. But despite this the Tharus, particularly in western Tarai, do not feel Madhesi. The Madhesi parties have done nothing to listen to their concerns and anxieties at being swamped by Hindu Madhesi caste leaders.
Western Tharus have voted for the Maoists, which is in a sense a vote for the Maoist federal map of a separate Tharu province. The Madhesi leaders have done little to assuage the fears of the Pahadis of the Tarai of what a Madhes province means.
Clubbing the hills and Madhes together in one province, on the lines of old development zones, is neither politically feasible nor wise now. But fusing the entire Tarai is as bad an idea given the diverse demography, the administrative issues involved and the resource question.
The Madhesi parties need to figure out a realistic agenda that gives rights, does not derail the national process, and minimises conflict. Kathmandu has to reach out to moderate aspirations, keep to its earlier promises, and understand Madhesi anxieties of being given a raw deal. That is the only way for the centre to hold.