External Affairs

Four Madhesi Deaths in Police Firing Further Complicate the Crisis in Nepal

Riot police in Nepal run for cover as Madhesi protestors hurl stones at them. Credit: Reuters

Riot police in Nepal run for cover as Madhesi protestors hurl stones at them. Credit: Reuters

The police firing on March 6 on Madhesi protestors, in which three died and one succumbed to his injuries on Wednesday has further split an already divided society. The protestors were trying to disrupt a mass gathering of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (CPN-UML) in Saptari district of eastern Nepal. Details of what happened on that day, why things unfolded the way they did, and who was responsible for it, depends on whom you ask.

The basic outline of the sequence of events is clear enough. The Madhesi Morcha—an alliance of small Madhes-based parties that has been protesting against the new Nepali Constitution since it was promulgated in September 2015—had made it clear that it would not allow UML to hold it planned election rally in Saptari, which lies at the heart of the proposed province 2 in the new federal setup. This is because UML, and especially its chairman, KP Sharma Oli, is seen as ‘anti-Madhes’. Oli is the leader of a party that is most strongly opposed to amending the constitution to accommodate Madhesi demands and he is someone who has in the past made statements that have hurt the sentiment of Madhesis.

But UML nonetheless decided to go ahead with its rally, which was part of its campaign for the local election slated for May 14. Madhesi parties wanted amendment before they agreed to any election. But putting off elections indefinitely was not an option either. According to the new Constitution, all three sets of elections—federal, provincial and local—must be held by January 2018. Thus the government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, also under pressure from the Supreme Court, had declared the first of the three elections, for the local level, without the consent of Madhesi parties.

Yet Prachanda did try to take the Madhesi parties into confidence before announcing local elections. Three months ago, his government tabled a bill to amend the constitution to incorporate some of the Madhesi demands. But any amendment requires two-thirds majority in the national parliament, which is difficult to muster without the support of UML, which has nearly a third of all seats in the 601-member parliament. The UML is strongly opposed to any amendment of the new Constitution, which the party thinks is already among the most inclusive in the world.

With or without you

UML is also keen on timely elections, with or without the support of Madhesi parties. Its leaders have publicly said that the proposed second amendment of the Constitution is being done at India’s behest and that such an amendment won’t have the support of common Nepalis. The Madhesi parties chafed at the trivializing of their genuine concerns and their characterization as no more than ‘India’s stooges’ in Nepal.

Thus the stage was set for a clash when UML announced, on the eve of the proposed local election, that it would undertake a ‘Mechi-Mahakali campaign’ whereby its top leaders would visit and hold rallies in major settlements of the 22 districts comprising the Tarai-Madhes belt. The stated purpose of these rallies was to “strengthen democracy and national unity” and build a climate for local polls.

So when the UML rally reached Saptari on March 6, the Morcha was determined to foil it. Its cadres surrounded the place where the rally was supposed to converge for a mass meet. As a confrontation was feared, around 2,000 police personnel had been mobilized to prevent violent clashes.

The details of what happened next are murky. UML leaders, organizing a press conference on March 7, accused the Morcha of trying to “assassinate the party leadership by encircling us” the previous day in Saptari. In their reckoning, they were lucky to escape with their lives.

According to the Morcha however, its protests to oppose the UML rally were largely peaceful and even if things had started to get a little heated, there was no need for the police to open fire. It also pointed out how police bullets had targeted the heads and chests of protestors, which would apparently not be the case if they were firing in self-defense. The video images of police entering people’s homes and beating up common Madhesis as they were chasing away protestors surely didn’t help. These events only reinforced the perception among many Madhesis that the Nepali state only belongs to the elite caste groups from the hills who have always ruled Nepal.

Despite the March 6 deaths, the UML has said that it will continue with its mass rallies in Madhes. The Morcha, and the broader Federal Alliance it is affiliated with, has meanwhile given a week’s ultimatum to Prachanda’s government–if the planned local election is not cancelled and concrete steps are not taken to amend the constitution, it will withdraw its support to government.

The coalition government of Prachanda, which includes Nepali Congress, the largest party in parliament, will still have a majority. But if the Morcha pulls out, its legitimacy is sure to come into question. It could also lead to the exit of other crucial coalition partners like the Rastriya Prajatantra Party.

The legitimacy of Prachanda’s government will be in doubt because he had replaced KP Oli as prime minister precisely because the UML chairman was seen anti-Madhesi and as not ready to amend the Constitution to the liking of Madhesi forces. But Prachanda too has been unable to get the parliament to pass the second amendment of the Constitution.

Half and half

The arguments and counter-arguments between the Morcha and the UML have, in turn, divided the whole country, into two distinct camps. Those belonging to the first camp ask how the Morcha or any other entity that calls itself a democratic force can prevent peaceful political gatherings on Nepali soil. Morcha cadres were wrong to try to disrupt the UML rally and when they started lobbing petrol bombs on police, the police had no option but to fire in self-defense, goes this argument. So Morcha is solely to blame for the killings.

Those in the other camp ask why the UML went ahead with its rally even though the Morcha had vowed to disrupt it. And didn’t Oli know how unpopular he is in Madhes, especially in province no 2? Hence Oli and company went to Saptari with a clear plan of inciting Madhesi parties, something which goes down very well among UML’s ‘nationalist’ constituencies.

Meanwhile, the Madhesi parties have declared two days of Madhes bandh followed by a nationwide bandh on March 10. The UML seems as determined to press ahead with its election campaign. More clashes look imminent.

The March 6 killings has also snuffed out any hope of holding local election on May 14, which was always going to be a tall order with so little time to prepare. This raises another troubling prospect. If the three elections cannot be held before the January 2018 deadline, there will be a big question over the legitimacy of the new Constitution. The parliament’s tenure will then expire and there could be a political and constitutional vacuum in Nepal.

The problem right now is that there seems to be no room for reconciliation between the UML and the Morcha, two of the four major political actors in Nepal, along with the Congress and the Maoists, which have been instrumental in cementing the changes after 2006. That was the year monarchy was abolished and a republic proclaimed. But the incident in Saptari showed that it will be well nigh impossible to hold elections of any kind in Tarai-Madhes without the consent of Madhesi parties. Forcing it could lead in more bloodshed.

Amending the Constitution and accommodating Madhesi demands will be anathema to many Nepalis in this deeply polarized country. But what other realistic option is there?

Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets @biswasktm.