South Asia

Nepal is Nearing a Point of No Return

The longer both sides don’t compromise on the Madhes deadlock, the more the radicals’ hands will be strengthened.

Members of Federal Alliance, a coalition of Madhesh-based parties and organisations, protesting the new Constitution near the Prime Minister's office in Kathmandu. Credit: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters

Members of Federal Alliance, a coalition of Madhesh-based parties and organisations, protesting the new Constitution near the prime minister’s office in Kathmandu. Credit: Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters/Files

Kathmandu: Nepal has never been more polarised. The main cause of this polarisation, ironically, is the new constitution that was promulgated by an overwhelming majority of the sovereign constituent assembly. With over 85% of lawmakers in the 601-strong assembly in favour of the constitution, there is no questioning the legality of the new charter. If so, why has the new document been vehemently contested, especially by the political parties representing Tarai-Madhes, the fertile flatlands of Nepal?

These parties, along with some other small ethnicity-based outfits, believe that the new constitution perpetuates discriminations against traditionally marginalised groups like Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis. They object to a host of constitutional issues: from ‘unequal’ citizenship provisions and a lack of proportional electoral representation to an ‘exclusionary’ state apparatus. But these are all secondary concerns. At the heart of the current dispute is the demarcation of new federal boundaries. If the federal boundaries are settled to their satisfaction, Madhesi leaders have repeatedly told this correspondent, they are ready for compromise on all other fronts.

The Madhes-based parties want two contiguous, east-to-west plains-only provinces spanning the whole of the flatlands bordering India. Only in such provinces where native Madhesis and Tharus are in a majority, they reason, will there be no discrimination against them. Madhes-based parties are demanding that there be one state with Madhesis in the majority and another state where the Tharus are in a plurality. (As per the 2011 national census, Madhesis make up around 36% of the national population while Tharus constitute around 7%.)

But the three major political parties – Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxists-Leninists (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre) – who were behind the new constitution, were of the view that such Madhes-only provinces are impossible. Such demarcations, they believed, would have been resisted by other ethnic groups who also claim these areas. Nor were such plains-only provinces economically viable, they argued.

A middle-way solution could have been to break up disputed districts like Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari so that hilly settlements fell under hill provinces while the settlements with major Madhesi/Tharu settlements came under the two proposed Madhes provinces. But that would still entail creating two contiguous Madhes provinces, which meant that the two provinces would effectively control Nepal’s access to India.

Many top Congress and UML leaders openly feared that such Madhes provinces could use their geographical advantage to blackmail the centre. These fears have been heightened after the recent border blockade that the Madhesi parties imposed with India’s support – or the other way round, as many in Kathmandu believe – and which brought the country to a standstill. The three big parties would like the hill provinces to have at least one point of access to India, which is not an unreasonable demand. But the Madhesi parties contend that such ‘gerrymandering’ will once again put the marginalised Madhesis and Tharus at a disadvantage in their calculus with the centre.

The inconvenient truth

So this is where the federalism debate has been stuck. There is now more talk of an imminent government change as other political parties, even those in the government, are increasingly unhappy with Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli. His government has become synonymous with corruption and misrule; he has failed to tame runaway inflation, officially pegged at around 10% but unofficially many times that; earthquake victims are yet to get substantial help; and there has been no headway in talks with the protesting Federal Alliance that includes the Madhesi parties. In fact, of late it has appeared that Oli’s only goal is to somehow keep his coalition intact.

This deliberate delay in settling outstanding constitutional issues could prove expensive. With each passing day, the level of polarisation between the Pahadi (hill) and Madhesi (plains) communities is increasing. The inhabitants of the hill regions have been told by Oli and company that the Madhesi parties are intent on dividing the country, in cahoots with the Indian establishment. In this narrative it is only Oli’s resolute stand not to compromise on national sovereignty that has kept the country intact thus far.

The Madhesi people of the plains, meanwhile, increasingly feel that it is futile to talk to Oli, who is “anti-Madhes”. As the deadlock continues, the radical forces in the Tarai are rousing locals with tales of the callous Kathmandu establishment that continues to treat Madhesis as second-class citizens. Attitudes are hardening on both the sides.

The more the state has tried to crack down on these radical elements in the Tarai, the more their popularity has increased. The inconvenient truth for Kathmandu is that the secessionist movement in Madhes spearheaded by Madhesi-intellectual-turned-radical, C.K. Raut, continues to gain in popularity, even though Madhes as a separate country is an impractical idea. Impractical because the Madhesi population is unevenly distributed among the 22 districts that comprise the Tarai belt. Even in the Madhes province that Madhesi parties have been campaigning for, while native Madhesis make up 70% of the population in the seven districts from Parsa to Saptari, in the easternmost triad of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari, 65% of population are non-Madhesis.

But even though he is impractical, Raut pushes all the right emotional buttons, often by appealing to the basic instincts of Madhesi people.

In these contested times in Nepal, perception has become more important than reality. The native Madhesis have been convinced by radicals like Raut that ultimately they have no option but to have a country of their own where they can decide their own fate, where they are not treated as second-class citizens and where they are ruled by those who look and talk like them. The longer the constitutional disputes linger, the stronger this secessionist sentiment will be, making a viable constitutional settlement that much more unlikely.

Where there is will

The fact is that the federalism dispute is not as intractable as it is being made out to be. One of the problems is the ruling UML party, whose core constituency is up in the hills. Since it does not have much stake in the Tarai – unlike Congress which has a big base in Tarai-Madhes – the UML can safely play the anti-India nationalist card to cultivate its Pahadi constituencies. The UML has tried to project itself as the one and only defender of Nepal’s territorial integrity and sovereignty. It also tries to paint the protesting Madhesi and Janajati outfits, in ways both subtle and obvious, as secessionist forces working for India.

Not that the Madhesi parties are blameless. They too have fanned anti-Pahadi sentiments among Madhesis, often trying to deflect the blame for their own failures. After all, the Madhesi parties could not do much for common Madhesis during their repeated tenures in government. The sight of protesters affiliated to these parties taking to the streets with spears and axes during the recent Madhesi uprising also gave a lie to their claim that their protests were completely peaceful. Their relationship with the Indian establishment also remains murky.

If and when Oli goes, the person replacing him as prime minister will certainly be a more acceptable figure for the Madhesi parties. It will also give them the perfect alibi to return to the talks table.

But leaving the UML out of the proposed constitutional settlement is not an option either. The new constitution cannot be amended to the liking of Madhesi and Janajati forces without the support of the UML, which has nearly a third of all seats in parliament.

This is why a government of national unity, including UML, has become vital. Only such a government will be able to work out the  remaining constitutional issues. Oli believes that it is still possible to expand his communist coalition into a government of national unity. That’s why he keeps sending out feelers to the Federal Alliance to come back to the negotiating table. But the alliance feels it will be negotiating from a position of weakness if it sits down for talks immediately. The alliance also isn’t sure that Oli is serious.

Both sides could do more to build trust. The Madhesi parties should give up their insistence that the government commit to two Madhes-only provinces even before the start of the talks. (Of late there appear to be cracks within the Federal Alliance on whether to unconditionally sit for talks.) The ruling parties can show their seriousness by appointing either Oli or Maoist chief Prachanda as the leader of the government talks-team, something the protesting parties have been demanding.

If and when such talks start, the big three can categorically commit to breaking up existing districts to accommodate the demarcation demands of Madhesis and Tharus. The protesting parties, for their part, could commit to giving the upper Pahadi states at least one point of contact with India. There can be no breakthrough in the prolonged crisis without such substantive give and take.

Wrest the initiative

If the Oli government feels that the Madhesi agitation will simply fizzle out, it is mistaken. For it’s not just about the Madhesi parties now; it’s about the aspirations of the common Madhesis and Tharus who long to live in a free and equal society. If they feel the mainstream parties can’t deliver, they will increasingly gravitate towards radical forces.

Not that the Madhesi society is a monolith. Rubeena Mahato speaks for many Madhesis when she faults the ethnicity-focused strategy of Madhesi parties. “Tearing communities further apart by dwelling on differences and past injustices is not a solution,” she writes, echoing the sentiments of many of many Madhesis who, like the rest of the country, are also divided.

But whatever the reasons behind the prolonged deadlock – the callous Kathmandu establishment unheeding of marginalised groups or the ‘divisive’ ethnic agenda of Madhes-based parties, or both – one thing is for sure: the longer the deadlock continues, the more the hand of radical forces in Madhes will be strengthened. The moderate forces should be mindful that if they hand the initiative to radical forces now, they might never get it back.

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

  • kaliya

    Nepal now has 2 choices. 1) conceed to demands of madheshs and destroy Nepal forever. or 2) fight for the right of future generation to have a country of their own.
    choose wisely.

  • K SHESHU BABU

    Madhesi problem has been neglected by mainstream right as well as left parties. They have dominated over the terai regions of Nepal and trampled upon the rights of marginalised communities. Since these sections have a major hold on the eastern parts of Nepal, they should be given due political importance in framing of Constitution. Otherwise, Nepal will be in chaotic condition for long.