One of my colleagues working in the human rights sector recently told me that these days he has to think twice before visiting a Tarai district on any mission. He has been to almost all the 21 Tarai districts during his nine years with the human rights organization but he doesn’t want to take a chance now. This clearly points to the state of lawlessness there.
“Madhes is burning” is the commonly shared view in intellectual discourses in Kathmandu. The talks spin around the ramifications of the Tarai uprising but fail short of analyzing the reasons for it. Many point out that it is an uprising for identity while some brush it off as a work of criminals but very few analyze the violence in historical context and current political maneuverings.
We should not hesitate to accept that the rulers of Nepal failed to own the Tarai; they misread the place and developed many misconceptions about it. Many rulers even questioned the loyalty of the Tarai people. They were viewed more as Indians and less as Nepalis. Their cultural affinity and engagements with Indians, made easy by the open border, was misconstrued as loyalty towards India. The rulers promulgated various restrictive laws ranging from linguistic and cultural to administrative for their own comfort.
Many people in the Tarai lived without national recognition for years. They couldn’t obtain Nepali citizenship for they could not read and write the ‘Khas’ (Brahmin) language. Then, this was a constitutional mandatory to get Nepali citizenship. Without citizenship, they were deprived from claiming right over their own property, let alone running any business. Meanwhile, the dark-skinned Tarai people had obtained a new identity among Kathmanduites—Madhise (a derogative of Madhesis).
However, the bitter history has changed for good post-1990. The constitution no longer discriminates the Madhesis. Many leaders who came to power post-1990 were born and brought up in the Tarai. Their awareness of Madhes and Madhesi issues contributed to a big change in public perception about Tarai. Kathmandu has understood the language of Tarai and Madhesis now have access to state organs. Their presence can be noticed in many other social sectors, including media and civil society organizations. Madhesis no longer face humiliation. The Madhes has received recognition and respect. Since I was born and brought up in Jhapa, a Tarai district, I have witnessed the transformation of public perception towards the Tarai.
Having said that, some issues of Madhes, including citizenship, are still waiting to be addressed judiciously. The recent upsurge of violence in Tarai, however, tends to go far beyond seeking recourse for these genuine issues. The neo-Madhesis seem to be trying to fish in murky waters. The Madhes, understood by those innocent Madhesi people, is quite different from the one described by Madhesi political leaders and intellectuals. The Madhesi people want a peaceful and prosperous Madhes. They detest extortion, abduction and intimidation, currently unchecked, in the Tarai. Hills and Tarai co-exist peacefully in their hearts and minds.
But academic interpretation of the hills and Tarai amongst the so-called educated Madhesi leaders is laden with discrimination. The prejudiced interpretation is distancing the Tarai from the rest of the country. The Tarai-based political parties are providing fuel to the spiraling violence by maintaining unusual silence over extortion, abduction, killings and intimidation, carried out by various armed outfits in Tarai. However, such politics at a sensitive time and at an equally vulnerable zone may prove costly for the Tarai-based political parties. The delay in singling out the criminal outfits from the political ones will ultimately consume all the Tarai-based parties.
The Madhesi leaders must form a common stance against criminal groups and work hand-in-hand with the government to establish law and order in Tarai. Once law and order is established, parties will automatically find a lot of space to raise their demands.
Our civil society and intellectual groups also have to share the blame for ignoring the chaos in Tarai. Like my friend, almost none of the human rights groups have visited the Tarai since it began to burn. Unfortunately, the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), which is the only national body to protect and promote human rights in the country, has not yet sent its mission (except in special situations) to probe the incidents of human rights violations in Madhes.
Lawlessness has become a reality for the innocent people living in the Tarai. The incidents of human rights violations in Tarai need to be acknowledged and addressed nationally as well as internationally. But the majority of human rights and civil society groups seem to be content by merely issuing statements from the safety of Kathmandu instead of visiting the affected people on the ground. Let’s not ignore the Tarai, else we might have to pay a heavy price for it.
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