Simple amendments in the constitution can pave the way for meaningful dialogue and peaceful resolution of the conflict. The onus lies upon the ruling regime
Janakpur (Nepal): Located at a distance of about 125 kilometres south-east of Kathmandu, Janakpur is barely a 20-minute hop in a mid-sized aircraft. The empathy gap between Nepal’s centre and the periphery, however, is so large that there is almost no appreciation of the agonies of each other between these two cities.
The monsoon has receded, but the autumnal air is yet to cool the hot and humid flatlands around Janakpur. During the day, the sun gets blindingly bright. The evenings are balmy, but mosquitoes still sing and sting in unison, making excursions out into the narrow lanes of the town irksome. It’s much better in the morning when the rays of the sun are strong enough to drive away insects but not yet so fierce as to steam the dumps of rotting fruit that begin to attract hordes of flies at the teashop. Regardless of the season, conversations are always animated when more than two people meet at the Janak Chowk.
The Madhesis – natives of the Nepal plains who share familial, cultural and linguistic ties with people across the international border in India – began to protest soon after the process of promulgation of the constitution began in early August. When the Constituent Assembly (CA) adopted the text by voice vote in late-September, there was jubilation in parts of Kathmandu valley. Meanwhile, the statute was burnt with indignation in most of the Madhes plains.
The Madhesis claim that the new constitution curtails their citizenship rights, reduces the positive discrimination opportunities that were there in the interim constitution, delineates provincial borders in such a way that their homeland gets divided into at least five political units, and fudges with electoral constituencies to lower their representation in the central legislature.
These are serious charges. Instead of defending their position or explaining the constitution, the state struck with full force at protestors – issuing prohibitory orders against public assembly. Curfew was imposed wherever there was an agitation, and demonstrations were fired upon at the slightest provocation. In the resulting violence, almost four dozen people, including eight policemen, have lost their lives.
Hotbed of revolt
Political agitations have a long history in the Madhes and Janakpur has always been the epicentre of dissidence. It began with the formation of the state of Nepal through the conquest of Gorkhali forces from the mid-hills of the country in the late-18th century. During the Anglo-Gorkha wars of 1814-1816, the people of the region supported the East India Company in the hope of winning freedom from the stranglehold of the Gorkhalis. The victorious English forces reneged on their promise of ensuring justice for the non-Gorkhali population of the region and returned the territory back to advance their own geo-strategic interests.
Between 1816 and 1950, Janakpur rediscovered it religious roots. It is celebrated as the seat of King Janak, father of the Goddess Janaki in the Ramayana – and emerged as a centre of pilgrimage for the pacifist Vaishnava cult. The politics of petitions thrived as Hindu scholars collaborated with the ruling regime in Kathmandu. After the 1940s, it evolved as the cradle of oppositional politics.
In the general elections of 1958, the Nepali Congress – which was opposed to the ruling regime in Kathmandu – swept the polls. When the king dismissed the government despite its two-third majority in parliament and put the entire cabinet behind bars in 1960, Janakpur once again became the hotbed of revolt.
The armed rebellion of the Nepali Congress against the autocratic monarchy began here in January 1962 when Durganand Jha, aged 22, threw a homemade bomb at the car of King Mahendra. The monarch survived the attack and Jha easily escaped across the border through the narrow streets of the town. However, he later surrendered on principle, stating that his attack was political rather than an act of terror and he was prepared to face the consequences of his decision. Till that time, Brahmins in Nepal were exempted from capital punishment according to the law of the land. However, the vengeful king enacted a law with retrospective effect to confer the death penalty upon the young revolutionary.
In early 1970s, security personnel killed two school children – known jointly as Kameshwar-Kusheshwar in nearby Yadukoha village – for protesting against the excesses of the police. Their sacrifice has inspired a whole generation that continues to be active in oppositional politics.
From republicanism to federalism
When a young physician, Laxmi Narayan Jha began to preach republicanism in the 1980s, the police was alarmed enough to whisk him away to Kathmandu. His whereabouts remain unknown to this day. The security forces dealt in this way with dissenters before and after, but it was the “enforced disappearance” of the young physician that brought the abhorrent practice of the Nepalese state to international limelight.
During the People’s Movement of 1990, three rural women and two men from Yadukuha were once again shot dead for objecting to the highhandedness of the security forces. This gave rise to the commonly held belief even in Kathmandu that no political movement in the country can move forward without claiming innocent lives from the vicinity of Janakpur.
At the height of the armed insurgency in October 2003, five youngsters were picked up from a picnic spot, taken to the ravines, killed in cold blood, and then buried on riverbanks on the suspicion of being Maoists. Their remains were later discovered with the help of international investigating agencies. No action was taken against the perpetrators.
The first Madhes Uprising in 2007 flared up when Maoists shot at a student demonstrating against the constitution that had failed to incorporate federal provisions. The Second Madhes Uprising in 2008 too was announced from this region as people poured out into the streets to claim representation proportionate to their share of the population.
In the protests that have taken place over the past one-and-a-half months, at least nine people have lost their lives from the neighbourhood of Janakpur – all of them peaceful demonstrators or silent bystanders. In Jaleshwar, a teenager was shot dead while he was returning from his tuition classes. His grandfather was caught and shot while shopping for the puja material needed for the last rites of his grandson. In the main town itself, a cowering youth was pulled out of some bushes where he was hiding to avoid teargas shells and shot.
The deaths of innocents added fuel to the fire of agitation. In the days which followed, the protests intensified but the regime in Kathmandu refused to take note of the situation on the ground. In response to what it called “unrest” in Madhes, all that the government did was deploy more security forces. Perhaps it was in sheer desperation that agitators decided to close supply lines to Kathmandu by occupying major entry points along the border.
In a landlocked country, the disruption of supplies through roads throttles normal life. Kathmandu is still reeling from the effect of what apologists of the regime call an “Undeclared Indian Blockade”. India insists that disruptions have been caused due to disturbances on the Nepali side of the border. The truth, perhaps, lies somewhere in between.
It’s likely that Indians are not happy about the way constitution-making was rushed through a “fast-track” process throwing all norms of constitutionality to the winds. In the Madhes Uprisings of 2007 and 2008, Indian interlocutors had acted as facilitator and guarantor of settlements reached between the protesting party and the state. There is a reason Indian diplomats feel that they have been scorned: They have lost face with Madhesi politicos that they consider to be potential allies in a federal and republican order. It is likely that the Indian machinery has simply tightened security at the border in response – reducing regular supplies to a trickle.
The way forward
The political demands of the Madhesis are legitimate in their own right. Equality in citizenship, federalism based on homeland, positive discrimination as a measure of reparation for past injustices, and proportionate representation in the legislature are some of the fundamental features of any modern democracy. But what had added pain to the Madhesi misery is the disdain with which the Permanent Establishment of Nepal – or PEON – has dismissed their claims. It has given rise to sense of desperation in Janakpur where even the chair of the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Shiva Shankar Shah Hira, representing the business community that suffers most when everything is closed down in town, thunders with conviction: “It’s now or never agitation for the rights of Madhesis and we are ready to make any sacrifice.”
On the eve of International Day of Non-violence – October 2 – almost a million protestors lined up holding hands to form what has been claimed is the longest human chain in the world. In Kathmandu, there is still nothing more than derision in the outbursts of mainstream politicos that have used the nationalistic bogey – “Unofficial Indian Blockade” – to ride roughshod over the aspirations of Madhesis. As queues for petrol in the capital get longer, the rage of the people rises correspondingly. The Madhesi Street, however, has little sympathy for the suffering of fellow citizens that have failed to show compassion in their misery. The communal divide was wide before, now it has begun to deepen.
In villages and towns across Madhes, civic organisations have sprung up to support the movement with free food for those most affected by the prolonged shutdown. There is a steely determination in the air, which is preventing politicians from making compromises that can even remotely be interpreted as capitulation. This stand-off makes the role of India even more crucial. Ironically, a constitution that the PEON thought it had made by ignoring the concerns of India has ended up making the Indian position in Nepal’s politics much stronger.
Fortunately, positions have not yet become intractable. Simple amendments in the constitution can pave the way for meaningful dialogue and peaceful resolution of the conflict. Fresh elections after that can be an honourable way out of the political stasis. The onus of taking the initiative lies upon the ruling regime. Meanwhile, Madhesi protestors need to keep calm. India will probably keep a close watch on the unfolding events in Nepal and calibrate its response accordingly. New Delhi need not worry too much about anti-India sloganeering on social media; what really counts is stability in Nepal – which can’t be ensured without amendments in the constitution to make its provisions equal, just and acceptable to all sections of the country’s population.
C.K. Lal is a journalist and political commentator from Nepal