Mainstreaming the Madhes
Mainstreaming the Madhes
How plain speaking found a platform
In the summer of 2002, I took a break from college in Delhi. I had begun interning with a new local daily, but my sole aim at the time was to get published in Nepali Times– a paper I had read, admired, and wanted to be a part of since its inception.
I sent the editor a badly written, incoherent column on discrimination against Madhesis, which was rightly edited down and published as a letter to the editor. I realised an armchair rant would not get me a proper byline, and decided to visit Rajbiraj – notionally my hometown but a place I’d barely spent any time in – and did a story on the town’s decay relative to neighbouring urban centres. The editors got interested, polished and used the story. Mission accomplished, I headed back to university.
My real immersion into Nepali politics began as the king took over, democrats and Maoists started talking, and a lot of politics shifted to Delhi. Jawaharlal Nehru University, where I was doing my Master’s, emerged as a hub. Nepali leaders were to be seen hanging around dhabas; Nepali students provided them with logistical support; mid-level Maoists started making public appearances; and there was a concerted political and media challenge to Indian policymakers to dump their twin pillar theory.
During that period, I contributed sporadically to Nepali Times and some Indian papers on the evolving politics, while working with Himal Southasian magazine. Covering events revealed the emergence of Maoists as the principal game changers, the necessity of a sustained democratic consensus, and for an Indian policy in tune with the aspirations of the broadest segment of Nepali opinion.
In January 2007, as the Madhes movement shattered the old precepts of Nepali nationalism, Kathmandu was shellshocked. This paper gave me space to convey through a personalised piece how having a Madhesi background, even if one was from a privileged, upper middle class Kathmandu-based family, invited insinuations about nationality. The need at that time, and even now, is for established interests to empathise with those who have been deprived of dignity and rights simply because they come from a certain race, gender, caste, ethnicity, or class – not in a paternalistic, patronising manner, but as equal citizens.
After a brief, and unhappy, foray into the world of international NGOs back here, I returned to journalism in mid-2007 with a regular column in Nepali Times, initially called ‘Tarai Eye’. Clashes between the state and Madhesis, Maoist and Madhesi parties, and Pahadis and Madhesis had increased. There was a fundamental realignment in all parties. The armed movement had picked up. Spending time on the ground in the Tarai, and with militants across the border, was a crash course into the exploitative Kathmandu-Madhes relationship, the intimate cross-border links, the stratification within the Madhes, the crushing poverty, and the blurring between politics and crime.
Of course, one cannot understand Madhesi party politics without getting a handle on national level dynamics. The elections were another lesson (perhaps forgotten) on the Maoist skill in building up a multi-class and multi-ethnic alliance. Given the fragility of the process since then, most writings have inevitably turned towards looking at Maoist ambition and dogma, the fear and insecurity of the other parties, the reversal in Indian attitudes towards the Maoists, the NA’s rehabilitation, and the lack of progress in either constitution making or the peace process.
There have been downsides. I have got many things wrong- from specific election results, to how events in Tarai were expected to play out, to why a certain actor behaved in a certain way. The column has also earned me multiple, contradictory, labels I could do without – RAW agent, anti-India, Maoist sympathiser, pro-army, anti-UNMIN, UNMIN stooge, Madhesi chauvinist, pahadi dalal!
But writing for Nepali Times has been a delightful experience, not least for the paper’s weekly dose of pluralism, and the fact that not one of my columns has been censored, even if they went against the editorial line.
The language of public discourse will continue to be Nepali. But English journalism cannot be dismissed as a sideshow anymore, given the importance of the diplomatic and donor community, the middle class, the diaspora, business elites, and some bilingual national policymakers. As Nepali Times celebrates its tenth anniversary, here’s hoping for another decade of pluralistic, progressive journalism that will report and analyse events as honestly as possible. Nepal needs it more than ever before.
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