In the Heart of Nepal's Madhes Movement

The Madhesis continue to struggle to amend the constitution, even as they long to feel like they belong in Nepal.

The Madhesis continue to struggle to amend the constitution, even as they long to feel like they belong in Nepal.

A street in the Rajbiraj bazaar.

A street in the Rajbiraj bazaar. Credit: Peter Gill

On June 10, the air was hot and humid in Rajbiraj, a city in Saptari District in the southeastern Terai, or plains, of Nepal. The bazaar’s dusty streets, lined with pungent open sewers, were largely treeless, and dogs scrounged for shade.

Inside an air conditioned hotel hall, a group of Rajbiraj’s civil society leaders, journalists, academics and local politicians gathered for a discussion convened by Kantipur, Kathmandu’s leading newspaper. During the discussion, which was broadcast live on Facebook, there was a certain tension in the air. Many Madhesis – a minority group in Nepal who make up over 90% of Rajbiraj’s population – have developed a distrust for the national media, which many see as controlled by hill elites unsympathetic with their struggle for a more inclusive constitution. This struggle has been ongoing, in fits and starts, since the country embarked on the process of drafting the constitution in 2006. It has taken on earnestness since September 2015, when a new constitution was finally ratified. Currently, some Madhesi leaders are seeking to block local-level elections, which are being held in three stages across the country for the first time since 1997, unless a constitutional amendment to address their demands is passed.

A street in the Rajbiraj bazaar. Credit:

A street in the Rajbiraj bazaar. Credit: Peter Gill

Sudheer Sharma, Kantipur’s editor-in-chief, began by explaining that the purpose of the discussion was to gain a deeper understanding of Rajbiraj people’s views ahead of elections. “How does Rajbiraj view the country? National politics? Society?” he asked.These questions are important to ask in Rajbiraj if one wishes to understand Madhesi sentiments. The city is economically depressed, and Saptari has seen some of the strongest demonstrations in support of the Madhes movement, as well as the harshest state crackdowns, in recent years. If Biratnagar, roughly 80 km to Rajbiraj’s east, is the eastern Terai’s economic capital, and Janakpur, 120 km to its west, is its spiritual center, then Rajbiraj is the Madhes movement’s political heart.

On the eastern edge of Rajbiraj is the Raj Devi temple, from which the city’s name is derived. Though its most recent incarnation (which someone chose to paint a flamboyant pink) is in the Kathmandu pagoda style, the original temple was built by the Sens of Makwanpur. The Sens ruled over the eastern Terai until it was conquered by the country’s Shah monarchs in the 1770s and incorporated into the new nation of Nepal. Although the Sens’ genealogy is unclear, the Tarai population at the time consisted of a variety of indigenous ethnic groups, the Tharu being the largest among them, and speakers of Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. This latter group – Madhesis as they came to be known – were often encouraged by the Nepali state to migrate from British dominions in order to increase agricultural production and thus tax revenue. (At the time, few hill people were willing to migrate to the lowlands for fear of malaria and the newness of the environment.) Some Madhesis, especially business families, continued to marry across the border, thus maintaining familial ties in India.

Raj Devi temple, from which Rajbiraj’s name is derived. Credit: Peter Gill

Back at the Conversations with Kantipur event, the first guest to speak after Sharma was Amarkant Jha, a retired professor. He clutched the microphone and spoke in a commanding voice, calling Nepal’s constitution “discriminatory and racist”, and compared the struggle of Madhesis to the struggle of black South Africans against apartheid.

Although the Madhes movement is more often compared to West Bengal Nepali speakers’ struggle for a Gorkhaland state than to the South African freedom struggle, the feeling of racist victimisation that Jha expressed is nonetheless widespread in Rajbiraj. This is felt most acutely by men who have spent time in Kathmandu for work or en route to the Middle East or Malaysia, where millions of Nepalis migrate for employment.

Laxman Kumar Rahi, 30, a bus conductor who travels frequently to Kathmandu, says, “If we go to a restaurant [in Kathmandu] and ask for water, they say, “eh Madise, eh, dhoti (derogatory terms for Madhesi), we don’t have water.”Is this humanity?” He adds, “We are Nepali.  If I have to, I would take a bullet for my country…Madhesi doesn’t mean Indian.”

Yet Nepali identity has frequently been defined in contradistinction to India, so Madhesis’ allegiances have perpetually been suspect. As Frederick Gaige discusses in his Terai classic, Regionalism and National Unity in Nepal, Madhesis required passports to travel to Kathmandu as recently as the 1950s.

King Mahendra Birendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev, who reigned from 1955 until his death in 1972, helped to define Nepali nationalism in its current form. Mahendra seized power in a royal coup in 1960, overthrowing the first democratically elected government headed by the Nepali Congress party. Mahendra imprisoned some Congress leaders, while others fled to India, from where they had staged a democratic revolution in 1950, and from where they again began a brief insurgency in the early 1960s. Fearing the influence of democratic India, Mahendra sought to impose a monolithic, hill-based Nepali identity. A new national curriculum forbade local-language education, and high-caste hill attire like daura suruwal became national symbols of identity. Madhesis, with their cultural and familial affinities with India were seen as suspect. When Durganand Jha, a Madhesi democratic activist, attempted to assassinate the King in Janakpur in 1962, these suspicions solidified.

Mahendra implemented a land reform program in 1964 that was seen as disproportionately targeting Madhesi landlords. Simultaneously, the government encouraged hill-origin people, and even Nepali-speakers from West Bengal and Northeast India, to settle in the Terai following malaria-eradication campaigns. As a result, today’s Terai population is roughly one-third hill-origin. Mahendra also embarked on an ambitious project to connect the country from east to west by road. Instead of improving a pre-existing hulaki marg (postal road) that ran through the major Madhesi-majority cities of the southern Terai, the new highway was sited in the northern Terai, where hill-origin populations were greater. Southern towns like Rajbiraj, which also lacked a nearby railhead in India, were bypassed by the road and the prosperity it brought.

Although an early generation of Madhesis, who studied in India at a time when education was restricted in Nepal, fared well in obtaining government jobs, subsequent generations faced more difficulty. As education spread in Nepal, Madhesis had to compete with a broader pool of hill-origin educated professionals.

Pankaj Kumar, 28, who declined to give his last name, runs an aryuvedic shop on the edge of Rajbiraj’s Krishni Radha temple, a busy area filled with vegetable vendors and small shops. He opened his store after completing a master’s degree but failing the civil service exams, a source of frustration.

When he took the exams, he says, the proctors allowed the hill-origin examinees to cheat but prevented the Madhesis from doing so. He explains, “They think that every home in the hills deserves a government job because agriculture is difficult there and they should be sent to administrate the Terai.”

The experience attracted him to the ideas of C.K. Raut, a Cambridge-trained Madhesi engineer who has called the Kathmandu’s relationship with the Terai “colonial” and advocates an independent Madhes, or Terai, albeit through peaceful means. Raut returned to Nepal after working for the American high-tech company Raytheon, and has written several books, including a history of the Terai.  Though he remains peripheral to the mainstream Madhesi movement, he has a small but growing appeal in the Terai, especially among educated youth.

Although C.K. Raut has not achieved widespread popularity in Rajbiraj, the feeling that Madhesis are excluded from government jobs is common. Over the last ten years, only two Madhesis have served as Chief District Officer – the highest-level bureaucrat for the district – while there have been over ten of hill origin. In 2014, Madhesis made up just 14.2% of civil service employees, mostly at the lower rungs, whereas Madhesis make up roughly 20% of the nation’s population.

Moreover, the army and police remain largely off-limits to Madhesis through de facto practices that favor various hill ethnic groups but not Madhesis. Madhesis make up less than 1.5% of the army.

Currently, the Madhesi parties and mainstream activists are pushing for an amendment to the constitution that would do several things. First, two states would be created that would cover the entire Terai, as part of a shift to federalism enshrined in the constitution. Second, the process for children of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers to become citizens would be eased. Currently, such children are eligible only for naturalised citizenship, which can be hard to obtain and does not confer all the rights of citizenship by birth. Third, the size of parliamentary voting constituencies would be based on population rather than geography. Because the Terai is smaller in terms of area but has a denser population than the hills and mountains, it stands to lose political representation if constituencies are based on geography. Fourth, the parties are calling for an increased number of local government units in the Terai. Currently, a disproportionately low number of rural and urban municipalities are in the Terai, which activists fear will endanger the Terai’s access to government budgets. And fifth, seats would be reserved for Madhesis and other marginalised groups in the army and police, mimicking a law passed in 2007 that reserved seats for new civil service vacancies.

Madhesi leaders have indicated some willingness to compromise on certain demands, especially around state borders.

Support for the amendment has been voiced by the current Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition government in Kathmandu, but the government does not have the two-thirds majority necessary to pass it. The law has been opposed by the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist Leninist or UML), the main opposition, which has led many Madhesis to see the party as a primary antagonist of the Madhesi movement. (The UML’s rhetoric does not help, either. UML President K.P. Sharma Oli has compared Madhesi protesters to insects, and party secretary Shankar Pokharel has poked fun at Madhesis’ dark skin on Facebook.

But support for the amendment is widespread in Rajbiraj.

Whatever the amendment might say, it has come to symbolise something important, especially among younger people. “Once the Madhesi demands are met, we will be able to say with pride that we are Madhesi”, says Om Prakash Sah, 22, who owns a local liquor store.

Brahma Dev Iswhor, 30, who runs an education consultancy, says, “This isn’t just about what’s happening today. It’s part of a 200-year old story. We’re at the finish point.”

Others would agree with this sentiment, even if they disagree about the start date of the Madhesis’ rights struggle. Many Madhesi activists date their struggle to the 1950s, when a party called the Terai Congress contested the country’s first national elections. The party fared miserably – even its leader, Vedanand Jha, reportedly lost his election deposit – but it was the first time a political party openly advocated for Madhesi rights. In a second democratic opening in the 1990s, a former Nepali Congress leader from Rajbiraj named Gajendra Narayan Singh tried again, forming the Sadbhavana Party to advocate for Madhesi rights. The party won six seats in parliament in 1991 and three in 1994, though it was not until 2007 that the Madhes movement really gained force.

At that time, the country was just emerging from the Maoist insurgency, which had opened up political discourse more broadly to issues of inclusion and exclusion. When an interim constitution was promulgated that seemed to renege on many of the Maoists’ progressive promises, the Terai went into revolt. For months in 2007, and again in 2008, Madhesis took to the streets to protest what they saw as the major parties’ indifference to their plight. In response, the then-Congress government agreed to revisions to the interim constitution.

But in September 2015, as the country was still reeling from the April and May earthquakes, a Congress-led government pushed through a new constitution that was regressive compared to the interim constitution. Madhesi leaders and activists called for the amendment, and again Madhesis took to the streets. This time the effects were disastrous. Protesters blocked borders, tightening the supply of petrol and slowing earthquake recovery. India lent unofficial support to the blockade, leading to icy relations with Kathmandu. Although an initial amendment was passed in January 2016, it failed to meet most of the Madhesis parties’ demands.

Meanwhile, police and army used excessive force to disperse protesters, frequently shooting into crowds and hitting people above the waist. Thirty-four protesters were killed during the anti-constitution protests from August 16, 2015 to February 5, 2016, including seven in Saptari. However, when India pulled support for the blockade in February 2016, it quickly fizzled.

Tensions again became inflamed in March this year after a particularly bloody incident in Maleth, a village on the northern outskirts of Rajbiraj. Top UML leaders, as part of a campaign ahead of local elections, stopped in Maleth to hold a rally. Locals gathered outside the event compound to protest, but the police again fired into the crowd, killing five and wounding dozens.

Today, in Rajbiraj’s central traffic circle, known as Gajendra Narayan Singh Chowk, a banner with pictures of the Maleth deceased droops from a fence. In the centre of the traffic circle, a bust of the Sadbhavana leader himself, who passed away in 2002, stares stoically into the bazaar, a constant reminder of the struggle for Madhesis, and what remains to be accomplished.

A bust of the Sadbhavana leader at Gajendra Narayan Singh chowk.

A bust of the Sadbhavana leader at Gajendra Narayan Singh chowk. Credit: Peter Gill

Currently, one Madhesi party, the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPNN), is boycotting the local-level elections, which must take place for the constitution implementation process to move forward. Due to the boycott, elections were held in a first phase in May in only the hill-based provinces 3, 4, and 6, which were supposed to be followed by a second phase in provinces 1, 2, 5, and 7 on June 28. (Because of political disagreements, provinces have not yet been named). But due to the ongoing RJPN boycott, the Congress-Maoist coalition on June 15 announced that the elections would be postponed till September, but only for Province 2, which is the largest province in the eastern Terai and the one which contains Rajbiraj.

The boycott has been accompanied by bandhs, or general strikes, throughout the Terai. Shops are forced to close and few vehicles other than ambulances are allowed on the streets.

Bandhs have crippled the Terai economy, particularly Rajbiraj’s, and tested the strength of the Madhesi movement.

Shiv Hari Bhattarai, a senior hill-origin journalist who hosts a popular Maithili-language radio show, explains that the bandhs started in earnest with the first round of Madhesi protests in 2007. At the time, a variety of secessionist armed groups also proliferated, including one founded by a former Maoist leader from Saptari named Jaya Krishna Goit. Due to the bandhs and extortion by armed groups, many local business families, particularly hill-origin people, moved away to Biratnagar or Kathmandu.

Many Marwari families also left, says Thansing Bhansali, 65, who owns a store near Gajendra chowk. Since most of his cloths are imported from India, Bhansali says that the four-and-a-half month blockade in 2015-2016 totally shut business down. Moreover, the effects continue – shoppers who got in the habit of going to Indian bazaars during the blockade have continued to do so.

Still, Bhansali sees the bandhs as a necessary evil in order to exact demands from the government. “For the country, we need to suffer”, he says. “It’s a peaceful movement, and we need to participate.”

Many people in Rajbiraj support the bandh. Others, however, feel that the bandhs are unproductive towards bringing about the amendment.

At the ‘Conversations with Kantipur‘ event, Gita Yadav, a Congress politician, reminded the audience that the current government simply does not have the votes to pass the amendment. “Our friends in the movement should understand, if we don’t hold elections, the constitution will be damaged”, she said.

The bandhs have completely disillusioned others. Rickshaw drivers and laborers can be among the most hurt by the strikes, since they have few savings to fall back on.

RJP activists burn tires in Rajbiraj.

RJPN activists burn tires in Rajbiraj. Credit: Peter Gill

Dukhi Mali, 53, squats in the shade of a building south of Gajendra Chowk, among a group of day laborers waiting for work.  Though he has skills as a gardener, he says he usually does construction these days. Mali doesn’t think the amendment is necessary. He says, “If I don’t have income, and the government doesn’t do anything for me, if we’re suffering, why do we need an andolan (movement)?”

Although there has been little continuity in governments over the past ten years, with the prime ministership shifting 10 times between the Maoists, Congress, and UML, a consistent pattern has emerged in dealing with the Madhesis’ demands – to delay action on them.

“This Prachanda, Sher Bahadur Deuba, or KP Sharma Oli, these are the faces you see again and again as Prime Minister or party president,” says Sudha Dev, the editor of a local all-female-run newspaper. “What they do, is they play internal politics. They say they’ll help the Madhes, but then once they become Prime Minister they say, oh, he isn’t letting me, the opposition. What can I do alone?”

Pitambar Yadav, a historian at the local university campus, says that the long delays by the government in addressing Madhesi demands have led to splits in the movement. “If all the leaders sat together and raised their voice in unison, the government would be forced to listen”, he laments.

The time of greatest Madhesi political unity came in 2008, when an alliance of three major Madhesi parties – Sadbhavana, the Madhesi Janaadhikar Forum (MJF), and Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party (TMLP) – rode the wave of energy generated by the popular protests of 2007 and won 84 seats, becoming the fourth  largest party in parliament. However, the coalition soon fell apart over disagreements over how to handle a coalition with the Maoists, the largest party in the assembly. The first constituent assembly failed to ratify a constitution, and by the time of the second constituent assembly elections in 2013, the Madhesi parties had split into dozens of groups.

As Prashant Jha carefully details in his book, Battles of the New Republic, multiple factors caused the splits. Initially, India played a major role in dividing the Madhesis parties in order to weaken the Maoists, who they feared would subvert democracy and seek closer ties with China. But egotism of leaders also caused parties to divide, and then subdivide again.

This egotism has frustrated many people in Rajbiraj. Bhola Mandal, 42, a local vegetable vendor and a vocal proponent of the Madhes movement, puts it succinctly: “Which party do we call the Madhesi party now?”

In addition, long-standing divisions within Madhesi society helped weaken the movement. Similar to Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, rivalries exist between middle-cast Yadavs, high castes, and Dalits.  Furthermore, Tharus – the indigenous group that also calls the Terai home – resented being subsumed under the identity “Madhesi”, as did some Muslims.

So, many Madhesis were optimistic when the Sadbhavana Party, TMLP, and several other parties announced the joint formation of the RJPN, to be led by the august Mahantha Thakur, in May this year. However, the MJF refused to join the RJPN’s boycott and is fielding candidates in the elections – an act of betrayal in the eyes of many RJPN supporters.

On June 15, the RJPN was dealt another blow when the Congress-Maoist coalition government announced that polls would be delayed until September, but only in Province 2. The party maintains its call for a boycott of the June 28 polls throughout the Terai, but RJPN leaders from outside of Province 2 have started to defect to other parties or registered as independents. In addition, the government has arrested a number of RJPN leaders. This has put the strength of the fledgling RJPN to the test. To some, it appears that RJPN is doomed to the same fate as the Madhesi party alliance of 2008.

Meanwhile, the fate of the constitutional amendment remains uncertain.

Asked what he believes will happen if the amendment is not passed, Shiv Hari Bhattarai, the journalist, says, “If we can’t get this feeling of ownership, where everyone says that this is our constitution, this is our country, this is our national flag, then the separatists will gain strength. Jai Krishna Goit, or C.K. Raut, what they are saying, that will become more powerful.”

Pitambar Yadav, the historian, agrees. “I don’t agree with C.K. Raut – I don’t think that we need independence. But if the government continues to suppress like this, one day, because of lack of alternatives people will go that way.”

Peter Gill is an American journalist based in Nepal. He tweets at @pitaarji. Bhola Paswan is a Nepali journalist who focuses on Madhesi and Dalit issues. He writes for Kantipur, Nagarik, and Naya Patrika. He tweets at @paswanbhola.

Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that over 50 protesters were killed during the four-and-a-half month blockade. The number has been revised.