Interview with Paramananda Jha
Dunham’s interview with Paramananda Jha
May 18, 2009
The career of Nepal’s first vice-president pivots on a single initial event that became a national lightning rod of controversy; the result was verbal contrition, then silence and finally near invisibility.
Paramananda Jha hails from the Saptari district of eastern Terai, the breadbasket of Nepal that extends across the Indo-Gangetic Plain. It is also known as Madhes. The vice-president’s Madhesi roots explain part of the controversy. There is an ongoing argument among Nepalis as to whether or not the Madhesis are Indian or Nepali. Culturally and linguistically, they are certainly bound to people on the Indian side of the border.
Paramananda Jha’s qualifications came readymade with controversy. He was a former Supreme Court judge who resigned in December 2007 following allegations of drug smuggling. But the matter seemed to have evaporated, especially after he joined politics by becoming a member of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, which eventually led to his appointment by the Constituent Assembly as Nepal’s first vice-president.
Instead of taking his oath of office in Nepali, Jha spoke in Hindi, the official language of India. The nation was shaken to the core. Demonstrators poured into the streets for seven days, deepening the rift between Indian-origin Nepalis and others. Transportation and education strikes effectively shut down the nation. Property was destroyed. Protesters demanded his resignation and/or a public apology. Neither came, although he did express his regret in a statement, adding that he had signed the oath document, which was written in Nepali.
For many, he seemed suitably chastened and, in any case, there would be a myriad of other more pressing problems that would leave the vice-president’s dust-up forgiven if not forgotten. His role has been one of obscurity ever since.
I spoke to Jha – two weeks before Prachanda stepped down from office — in the old Rana palace that serves as the Vice-Presidential headquarters. He granted me the interview on the condition that I would steer clear of anything that might aggravate the public sore spots he had come to know so well.
JHA: “Madhes” is not a new word. It was mentioned in the regulations of the Madhesi Sawaal Act — an act that came into being during the Rana rule. Terai is the word for any plain. So in the past, people in the government sector only used the Terai word. But a few years ago, “Madhes became more common usage. Some people say Madhes and some people say Terai, but what is clear is that, ever since Prithvi Narayan Shah conquered and unified Nepal two-an-a-half centuries ago, the southern part of Nepal has been the only place in Nepal where rulers went and took the income and the agriculture production of the land, but failed to provide help or relief of the people of that land. There has always been discrimination in Terai. And that is the main reason for the present situation of hostilities and discontent. Even after the panchayat system, the situation remained the same. Then after 1990, after democracy returned to Nepal, the succession of governments—Congress, UML, etc—the government didn’t make any moves to help the people of Terai. The people of Madhes remained discriminated against and overlooked and neglected.
Then, during the recent insurgency, the Maoists very successfully penetrated and permeated the Terai region and awakened the people about their basic rights and what could be done to better the welfare of the Madhesi people. So the primary credit of outlining the problems in Madhes goes to the Maoists.
But when the Maoists actually took control of the government, the feeling of the Madhesi people was that the Maoists had completely forgotten about them. Their support of Madhesi issues was fifty-fifty, actually. Sometimes they supported Madhes and sometimes they ignored them.
Upendra Yadav, the leader of the Madeshi Janadhikar Forum, which began in 2003, took Madhes issues throughout the Terai. And he told the people “We are like people in a colony. So this is the right time to fight for our rights. Fight for your rights to have property, water and jungle. Fight against discrimination from the hilly people and government.”
Then there were the general elections in 2008. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum ran candidates just like the other parties. And it became quite clear that we were a group to be reckoned with.
I would like to give you a picture of the discrimination –- what it is like to live in Madhes as a Madhesi. Madhesis are the majority in southern Nepal and yet we are not treated like a majority. Hilly-people landlords own 81% of the fertile land in Terai. Only 19% of the land is controlled by Madhesis. Even in government services, people from Madhes are only represented by 4-5% involvement. In the military, we are not represented at all. In the police sector, there are very few Madhesis. If you look at the Gorkhas, Nepal’s most famous armed personnel, who are renown and serve all over the world, the Madhesi have never been allowed to join. Zero persons. Our land is so fertile, but everything we are growing — fruits, rice paddy, wheat – is sent to the hilly regions. We Madhesi people are used by the rest of Nepal – used like tenants.
These are the factors that the people of Madhes are feeling and experiencing from the very beginning and up to now.
DUNHAM: And now, since the Maoists have take control of the government, is there better representation of Madhesi people in the police, the army and the other sectors you mentioned?
JHA: Actually, in terms of the Madhesi and other indigenous groups in Terai, the government has signed some understandings or agreements. In the agreements, there is one clause that stipulates that government services—equal proportions on the basis of the population in Madhes, they will get proportional representation in government, military, everywhere. We have a public service commission. And the government has made an amendment in the public service commission regulation that is inclusive of Dalits, Madhes, women, backward tribes, etc. So I think now it has been included in the rules, but in practice, it hasn’t changed much.
DUNHAM: Then it still has a long way to go before there is true proportional representation in Terai.
JHA: Definitely. It will take — we are very much hopeful, because this time the government has made the promise — but in practice it may or may not be actualized or effective before a few years from now. But some things should be changed sooner than that. The Chief District officers, for instance — the main administrators of the districts: the question is that why aren’t Madhesis appointed in the districts? But so far the government hasn’t found Madhesi people to fill these positions. Why? Because prior to the present, the Madhesi weren’t allowed the opportunity to take leadership roles — to serve in responsible positions. That situation remains a total vacuum. From the other sectors — the educational, agricultural sectors — they have not brought in people from Madhes either.
These are the problems with this government. But as I said before, it will take time. We must hope that everything will go in a good way.
DUNHAM: This is a time in Nepal of unprecedented transition. Never have things changed so quickly, so radically. Please talk a little bit about the problems and challenges that this rapid transition has created—how the government hopes to overcome these problems.
JHA: I think the first thing is that the mindset of the people of Nepal is that this is the perfect time to make their various demands. The constitution is being written. Remember, before Prithvi Narayan Shah unified Nepal it was divided into many, many principalities — from Mustang to Madhes. Now that the government has announced a federation, the various groups of ethnic backgrounds are demanding their own states. They see the opening for this kind of discussions and they want to discuss it now. The main problem with that is that all these demands are coming in from all sides at the same time. It has become an overwhelming number of demands from the people. That is the main thing we are struggling with.
The other thing is that the previous government of Nepal under GP Koirala — that government made various agreements with the Maoists — the way in which the peacemaking process would unfold, for instance. The government agreed to the PLA integration with the national army. It included conditions and terms for that integration. But these things are still in dispute.
What happened was that during the period of the Maoist insurgency, the infrastructure of the country — schools, VDC offices, electricity powerhouses – all of the infrastructure was destroyed. All of that destruction must be developed yet again. So from every corner of the country, groups are demanding that the infrastructure – and in many cases there is no infrastructure — in their area be addressed immediately. Security forces were concentrated in stations, but during the war, everywhere, the security moved to district headquarters. So now people are demanding that that pattern be reversed, for instance. How can the people feel secure, if they don’t see security in their remote villages?
Another problem is that the people gave the mandate for the members of the CA to write the constitution in the allotted amount of time. But I think that every political party has a different mindset – they are using this time for their own benefit, to strengthen their bases. And the clock is ticking. The parties are allowing themselves to be diverted from the main focus. I still believe that they will write the constitution in time, but even the intellectual community is not assured of this and they remain skeptical.
DUNHAM: Do you think it would be better for the government to get the constitution written before they attempt to solve all the various issues you have been discussing? Would that be better in a perfect world? The Tharus, the Madesh, everyone wants their demands met now, but is this the proper time to expect that to happen?
JHA: The problem is that the people in the remote areas are illiterate. They don’t know what should be in a constitution. They only know that they need education, health and food and, therefore, their only real concern is that education, health and food should be mentioned in the constitution. So this is the first problem – the limited scope of understanding within the groups of people of the remote areas.
In the intellectual sector, we used to say that the first thing that needed to be decided was whether or not our constitution would be lengthy or brief. Thus there is a provision that has created numerous committees to go out and collect the data and opinions of the people. And these committees have scoured the countryside to collect this information. But the information – “we want education, health and food” – has not proved to be very helpful input. It’s a long way from the original plan to, first and foremost, decide how long the constitution should be, as well as other basic questions that still need to be determined.
DUNHAM: What is the best way to assure the people that the constitution will, in fact, be completed by the 2010 deadline? I’m thinking about the inter-fighting between parties, which is obvious to anyone who cares to examine the situation.
JHA: Yes. The only obstacle is lack of cooperation between the parties. The results of the election showed that the Maoist got a majority of the votes, but not a mandate. The other parties – Congress, UML and the others – have used this against them and have therefore called this “an interim government”.
This government must focus on the main problem: to write the constitution. They don’t have the right to make major agreements with other countries or to make big promises to the voters of this nation. We have to write the constitution. But that’s not the reality. The parties are utilizing the time to strengthen their party bases. And we will all suffer for it.
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