Tarai-Madhes Searching for Identity Based Security

November 2, 2009 at 6:01 pm 1 comment

Situation Update:                                                                    88 October 14, 2009

Tarai-Madhes :Searching for Identity Based Security

  • Bishnu Pathak, PhD*
  • Devendra Uprety**

Peace, justice and freedom must be major components of any future security in Nepal. However, Nepal’s transition is deepening in crisis due to the growing ranks of rebel forces, particularly in the Tarai-Madhes. While the State fails to deliver security to the ordinary people, particularly in countryside, the peace process of Nepal is endangered, justice is delayed, and freedom is restricted. The migration of hill-and-mountain dwellers out of the Tarai-Madhes has not stopped. The people who remain in such places have had much to fear. The cases of extra-judicial killings, forceful disappearances, torture, extortions, rapes and so forth continue. To understand this unfortunate state of affairs, it is necessary to delve into a brief history of the region.

Understanding the Tarai-Madhes

Nepal is divided into three areas topographically; Mountains1, Hills2, and Tarai-Madhes3. The Tarai-Madhes, though the flattest and most accessible part of the country, remained isolated until the mid 20th century due to malaria-infestation4. This area stretches from the Indo-Gangetic plains to the Himalayan foothills and connects the plains culture to the hill culture. Constrained between the Mechi River in the east and Mahakali River in the west, it makes up about 23 percent of the total land area of the country. With an average elevation of less than 100 meters (in sharp contrast to the highest Mountains in the world), the average length and breadth of the Tarai-Madhes are about 900 km and 70 km respectively5. The Tarai-Madhes incorporates 20 out of 75 districts, including close to half the 26 million population of the country. The region was annexed into Nepal during the unification period, beginning in the mid 1770s, by Prithivi Naarayan Shah. However, much of the ancient Tarai-Madhes areas, ruled by various kings and principalities for centuries, are now in the Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states of India6. The Anglo-Nepalese war between 1814 and 1816, and the resulting Treaty of Sugauli and subsequent treatieswith British India further reduced the Madhes region. The outer Madhes areas south of Dang and Chitwan valleys were previously under Indian Territory7. Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur districts within this region were once called the ‘New Nepal’ as they were ceded to Nepal by the East India Company in appreciation of the service of Nepali Gurkhas in suppressing India’s independence movement. The label “Tarai-Madhes” is of relatively recent public socio-political discourse in Nepal. The word “Madhes” is derived from the Sanskrit word Madhyadesh8 (middle country), collectively called Madhises or Madhesiyas. Even Manusmriti and Vinayakpitak, have indicated that it is attached to ancient historical traditions9. The Madhyadesh distinguishes the plains from the hill region or Parbat, from which is derived the meaning of Pahade (hill and mountain dwellers) in modern Nepal. A Madhesi, therefore, originally meant an inhabitant of this region10. Similarly, the Tarai (Nawalparasi to Kanchanpur districts) refers to the fertile strip of low-lying land sandwiched between the hills of southern Nepal.

In recent days there has been an issue of severe contention. Tharu, being of native origin, prefer to call the region the Tarai, whereas some others in the region prefer to call it the Madhes. In Tharu language ‘Tar’ means low, leading some to claim that the word “Tarai” is derived from the Tharu language.11 Others obviously disagree, as Wikipedia states:

“The Terai (“moist land”) , or (“foothill”) in Persian language, is a belt of marshy grasslands, savannas, and forests at the base of the Himalaya range in India, Nepal, and Bhutan, from the Yamuna River in the west to the Brahmaputra River in the east12.”

The resolution of this issue is beyond the scope of this update. However, the issue itself serves to highlight one of the overarching socio-cultural conflicts; the struggle for national identity between the indigenous ethnicities of the Tarai-Madhes, and the relatively recent immigrants from India (since the eradication of malaria). Tarai- Madhesi groups interact with each other, immigrants from the hills, and the rest of the country, in different ways.


The Tarai-Madhes is a less recognized area of study than many others in Nepal13; however, there are several works on the Tarai-Madhes that have been studied time and again by non-native and native scholars. Among the non-native scholars, Gaige14 (1975), Byrne15 (1999), Krauskopff16 (2000), Guneratne (2002)17, Anderson (2004)18, Bernando (1999)19, and among the native Bista20 (1991), Dahal21 (1996), Hachhethu22 (2007), Gupta23 (2004), Jha24 (1997), Lawoti25 (2001), Chaudhary (2065 BS) 26, Chaudhary (2064 BS)27, Panjiar28 (2000), Yadav29 (2003), Pathak (2007)30 Yadav (2060BS)31, can help in understanding the multiple dimensions of the region.

History of Discrimination and Injustice

In 600 BC, Shakya kings ruled the mid western Madhes. Gutam Buddha, who was born in 563 BC belonged to the Shakya (Tharu) dynasty. Similarly, Tarai-Madhes kingdoms were established in Simraungarh in the present day Bara district32. Indeed, several kingdoms were established and ruled by many dynasties. These states perished with time and the land was reclaimed by forests33. Gaige writes: “The ancient and medieval history of this region is a cyclic one in which men and forests havedominated in turns34.” King of Mithila, Hari Singh Dev, defeated by Mugals in 1324, arrived in Bhadgaon (present Bhaktapur) and formed an army of Mithila. Approximately 240 years ago, during the unification of the small warring states, Prithvi Narayan Shah defeated the Sen dynasty Kings of Madhes and then captured Kathmandu valley. When Prithvi Narayan Shah attacked Kathmandu in 1774, Jaya Prakash Malla countered with a 12,000 strong Mithila army, that had been known as Tirhoot army. Shah demolished the Tirhoot army upon conquering it. Following this, the dispute with the East India Company and greater Nepal intensified while the post-Prithvi regimes continued to attack weak principalities. Soon, the dispute of Butwal triggered the Anglo-Gorkha War 1814- 1816 AD. It seems somewhat unclear whom the local people supported, but the literature indicates that Madhes dwellers were closer with the British East India Company35. W. Brook Northey writes that a large number of undisciplined volunteers fought against Gorkha during the Anglo-Gorkha war36. The Treaty of Segowlee (Sugauli Treaty) presented on December 8, 1816 states “the Rajah of Nipal agrees to refrain from prosecuting any inhabitants of the Tarai, after its severance to his rule, on account of having favored the cause of the British Government during the war”. So, it seems there was a lot of dissatisfaction among native Tarai dwellers against the ruler of Gorkha37. Though Article 7 of the memorandum on the Sugauli Treaty mandated that the Nepali government would not take any action against the people living in the Madhes, many Madhesi dwellers were, nonetheless, ill-treated, tortured, and punished on the charges of treason. In this way, the consequences of the actions of the elite landlords overflowed to the common Madhesi. The Madhesi were alleged to be ‘followers of British and adversary of Nepali’ and their recruitment into the army was stopped38. It had not been resumed in the later regimes until now. The Madhesi have felt this an insult, as they were excluded from the national security force (and more likely to suffer brutality as a result). Subodh Kumar Sing writes that after the unification, Shah Rulers saw the virgin Tarai as a source of revenue and distributed land to the king’s family members, courtiers, and to army generals and colonels to garner their support39. Just after the Tarai integration into the Gorkha Kingdom (present Nepal), a number of conflicts erupted with the native Taraian people. Native Saptari people seemed to be uncooperative with Gorkhali at the beginning of 1774. A letter of Abhiman Simha from the period states that for salaries to troops and to meet other expenses, the revenues had been collected in the Tarai areas from Ambarpur and Vijayapur40. During the Rana Regime, prior to 1950, because of their strong relationship with the British, the latter was silent about the ill-treatment of the Madhesis. One form of discrimination toward the Tarain-Madhesi at the time was that they had to obtain visas to visit Kathmandu issued by the elite Kathmandu-based government from the Badahakim (Regional Administrator)41. Mahesh Chandra Regmi writes that both the pre-Rana and Rana rulers viewed the Tarai as a colony, and regularly granted large tracts of land to others. Sometimes even whole areas were captured for themselves, their families and their Bhardar as Birta (granted land) to loyal senior officials.42 However, the ruling elites, both Shah and Rana, did not have an interest in developing the Tarai in their long-term perspective. They feared that such development would not only attract a flood of British colonialism, but were also afraid that it would open the door to revolutionary ideas from south India.

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CS Center –C o n f l i c t S t u d y C e n t e r

PO Box 11374, 214 Rohini Marg, Purano Baneswar, Kathmandu, Nepal. Tel: +977-1-6218777

Email: cscenter.nepal@gmail.com/cscenter@wlink.com.np; http://www.cscenter.org.np


Entry filed under: Reports.

Once we were farmers The Begam from Birgunj

1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. freeblog  |  October 2, 2011 at 3:41 am

    I do not disagree with this blog

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