TEXT BY ARPIT PARASHAR
PHOTOGRAPHS COURTESY NAGRIK
IIt is an unusually sunny winter morning in Birgunj, a border town in Nepal, minutes away from Bihar. The people are out in greater numbers on the streets than in recent weeks. The Ghantaghar (clock tower) in the middle of the town is seeing more traffic than usual, with rickshaws jostling for space and bikers yelling out or honking; all except the clock are in a hurry. The urgency is palpable.
Mahavir Dharamshala on the main road running through the old town is eerily quiet. Built by an enterprising Marwari for traders and businessmen who frequently visit town, it was a bustling point for social and political discussions till a few months back. There is not even a receptionist here now. As one walks through the empty corridors to the terrace, Mahendra Yadav, local head of the Sadbhavna Party led by Rajendra Mahato, is having an intense yet studiedly calm discussion with six other people. Some are party members, the rest are men leading local units of other Madeshi parties. Two of them—Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum (Nepal), and the Tarai Madhesh Loktantrik Party—are led by Upendra Yadav and Mahanta Thakur, respectively.
For the last three months, the Madhesi parties—representing the demands of Nepal’s terai or plains—have been on dharna, a blockade at the border with India barely 4-5 kilometres from the town. The leaders are anxious. Protesters who sit on the small bridge, in the no-man’s-land between Nepal and India were beaten up on December 23. Two days before that, 20-year-old Tabrez Ahmad was killed in police firing on protestors in Ghor town. On January 21, three more people died in police firing by police on unarmed workers of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF), under whose banner the Madhesi parties are agitating, in the Morang town 400 kilometres east of Kathmandu. After every such attack, the protestors have been harassed continuously by locals, mostly in the night.
“There are leaders and workers from all the parties on the spot, as well as villagers and volunteers who are apolitical but support the cause because it affects them directly too,” Mahendra Yadav says.
“The day the police attacked protesters, thousands of people gathered within hours,” he says. The people of the district only need a call from the loudspeakers installed in every village to come together. “It is the sowing season so the villagers are busy. Otherwise they gather in large groups whenever they find the time. Support is coming from every corner.”
Some of the party workers live barely 350-400 metres from the bridge. They or their family members are quick to pass on news of any mishap and any “oppression” can be swiftly dealt with.
Nepal’s population was 2.65 crore according to the 2011 census. The Madhesi-majority districts constituted 51 per cent of it—1.35 crore. Of this, close to 50 per cent population is of ethnic Madhesi castes such as Kishan, Gangai, Jhangar, Tajpuria, Tharu, Danuwar, Dhanuk, Dhimal, Meche/Bodo, Rajbansi/Koche, Satar/Santhal, etc. Ethnic hill tribes and migrants with Nepali ancestry constitute another 12-15 per cent of the population. Rest of it consists of castes that are found in both India and Nepal like Yadavs, Telis, Kushwaha, Kurmi, Musahar, Paswan, Brahmins, Baniyas, Dhobi, Rajput, Thakurs, Kayastha, etc.
Use of force against protestors has been frequent. Mahendra Yadav says there have been at least 200 incidents of assault by police. The attacks also come mostly from adjoining villages and the culprits work for black marketing mafias. Since the curfew came into place they have lost business; bribing officials does not suffice now. Given traditionally friendly relations between India and Nepal, the border exists only on paper and has never meant much on the ground. After protestors started sitting on the bridge that is part of the so-called no-man’s-land, the insistence on border controls became strict in a way it has never been.
Nepal’s population was 2.65 crore according to the 2011 census. The Madhesi-majority districts constituted 51 per cent of it—1.35 crore. Of this, close to 50 per cent population is of ethnic Madhesi castes such as Kishan, Gangai, Jhangar, Tajpuria, Tharu, Danuwar, Dhanuk, Dhimal, Meche/Bodo, Rajbansi/Koche, Satar/Santhal, etc. Ethnic hill tribes and migrants with Nepali ancestry constitute another 12-15 per cent of the population.
Mounds and mounds of coal and other raw material from India lies dumped along the bridge, which connects Birgunj and Raxual in Bihar. The hundreds of trucks coming from Bihar and West Bengal carrying supplies are stopped by the protestors occupying the small, narrow bridge. Governments on both the sides do not consider the bridge their responsibility and consequently, it is filthy, and dogs and pigs roam around freely scouting for food. “We are sitting 100 steps from the board which says ‘Welcome to India’. Nobody is troubling India,” a party worker says apologetically.
On the ground, people like Shakoor Miyan hold the fort. Almost 70, he has not left the spot for six months now, living in tarpaulin tents that threaten to fall apart. Dogs run around inside the tents too, sniffing for leftovers. Stoning is common now and people sleep with lathis by their side every night. For protection, political parties have made sure that at least a handful of young cadres who are experts in wielding lathis, sleep on the bridge every night. People who yell abuses at the protestors and harass them are mainly black marketers who have lost business because of the blockade. But in the night, gunfire comes from invisible figures hiding in the dark; from police and the people working for them. The holes in the tents protecting the protestors, grow by the day. Most people get scared and leave after a few days at the bridge.
But Shakoor won’t. “I was sitting alone here in protest even before the politicians woke up to realise that something was wrong. I will keep sitting till I see everyone here smiling.”
Karima Begum, ex-MP and member of the Constituent Assembly, has also been on the spot for almost five months now. Nepali police have beaten her up so often that her backbone has been fractured in several places. She now wears a permanent hard belt without which she cannot move. Yet she sleeps on the bridge every night to keep the women protestors inspired. She does not shy away from taking her clothes off to show the signs of police’s attack on her. Men look away but she yells with agony, anger and teary-eyed pride while standing half-naked, that the rights of the Madhesis need to be given to them.
“Everyone is supporting us. Indian people come across here in great numbers quite often. Yet we suffer. Why can Kathmandu politicians not feel our pain? Had we been anti-national we would have called for a separate Madhesh country, and not just a state within Nepal.”
Some leaders like C. K. Raut, however, have called on the people to fight for a separate Madhesh Desh (country), which has politicians from Kathmandu in jitters. While Raut’s is an extremist opinion, the hill politicians have termed statements by such people as the ‘real intent’ of the Madhesi people. Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli called the Madhesi movement anti-national and a threat to Nepali unity. This led to a surge in nationalistic sentiment among youngsters. Mohan Thapa, a student in Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University, says, “India is implementing this blockade to help Madhesi people so that it can take over their land and then attack Nepal. We will not let it happen.”
Birgunj never saw curfews as harsh as the ones imposed in November 2015. Even during the protests against the monarchy, the police didn’t stop milk deliveries or vans carrying newspapers. Even though the strictest curfew lasted only four days, the action was symbolic of the authorities’ hard-nosed approach, newly elected and basking in the glory of the international community’s accolades for passing the Constitution.
Official figures say that on one day alone the police fired 1,460 rounds at protestors armed only with lathis. People on the streets of Birgunj say there was at least four hours of non-stop aerial firing, using 5,000 rounds. “The view of the area seen from nearby localities was as if Ayodhya was celebrating the return of Ram after exile, bursting crackers and lighting up the night skies.” It terrified people and the town came to a standstill. Six political activists have been killed while 47 civilians, including a visiting Indian teenager, have lost their lives in police firing.
The funeral of the first victim saw more than a lakh of people on the roads. The 40-feet wide road leading to the cremation ground outside Birgunj was choked. Hungry television cameras could reach the spot only after the ceremonies. “We were begging and requesting the crowds to stay calm and respect the occasion. Had we instead instigated them, not even a barrack full of soldiers could have stopped the people,” Mahendra Yadav says.
People were distributing water, food, and even providing medical aid to tired protesters and marchers on the roadside those days. They took it upon themselves to provide amenities and would request protestors to have at least a sip of water on the way. “It was their way of showing support for the cause.” Birgunj is a predominantly Madhesi town, much like other districts in the terai region.
Local leaders claim they only call upon people when the situation goes out of hand or their political unity in the name of the people of the Madhesh region, which borders India along its length, is challenged. This unity has only come about in the past few months, although people, especially youngsters on the streets still talk about the glorious period seven to ten years ago.
Yet it is the disconnect with the young generation of Nepal that has resulted in a crisis that has seen economic losses worse than those inflicted by the twin earthquakes that rocked the country last year. By the first month of 2016 one estimate held that it was twice the loss caused by the quakes.
While the rising cost of living is angering people in the upper reaches of the country, particularly the Kathmandu valley, the suppression of aspirations and the historic discrimination against people of Madhesh, known in earlier times as Madhyadesh (middle country), is giving birth to a rift that borders on civil strife ,waiting only for a spark to ignite it.
“There have been days when my office received as many as 400 calls from agitated youngsters asking for guns to fight the police; they say you just give us guns and step back, we will handle everything the (security) forces have to offer,” Mahendra Yadav says, almost helplessly. “We are holding tight.”
The numbers of relief camps for people displaced by the earthquakes last year, have gone down drastically. Most are now inhabited by people who are not only homeless, but also unemployed. Yet the numbers of the displaced are roughly the same—almost two lakh. The only change international aid has brought is that there is food to eat, even if it is just rice and lentils.
The employed do not necessarily have a home; they only managed money to build a dwelling wherever they found vacant spaces, sometimes along gaps in the walls of buildings, but mostly just in the open, like the one right across Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu. The traffic police outpost across is now surrounded by around 20 makeshift dwellings, which the locals have started referring to as slums. The park around it sees kids and daily wage workers sleeping or wandering about in the hundreds every day.he numbers of relief camps for people displaced by the earthquakes last year, have gone down drastically. Most are now inhabited by people who are not only homeless, but also unemployed. Yet the numbers of the displaced are roughly the same—almost two lakh. The only change international aid has brought is that there is food to eat, even if it is just rice and lentils.
Mongolian Mona is a 19-year-old college student who lives in one such slum. Her real name is not known to people except in college, the name of which she never reveals. The present name has stuck because her looks are Mongolian and she offers sexual services; she is known mostly as a part-time prostitute in hotels around the airport. It helps her fund her education and send some money back home in the upper Himalayas close to the Tibet border. Mona, who worked in a local hotel, took up the sex trade after the earthquake when she found herself on the streets. Returning after a week at the makeshift camp following the first quake, she found her rented house in ruins. There was no food. She found shelter in a nearby refugee camp for 10 days. Then, along with other employed people, she was turned out. The hotel was almost out of business and the owner told her that he could not afford to employ her.
While she manages to earn her meals many are not so privileged. Since the border blockade the prices of fuel and essential commodities have sky-rocketed. Petrol sells at Nepali Rs 320 per litre (Indian Rs 200)—it cost Rs 800 (Rs 500) till a few months back—while kerosene is even costlier. People mostly depend on firewood now. Even hotel kitchens use firewood as an LPG cylinder costs Nepali Rs 10,000 in the black market. Mukesh Bhandari, owner of the Civil Hotel in the Manpower Bazaar across the airport, says, “My kitchen has been blackened by smoke and the exhaust fans have to be cleaned every day but this is the only way I can keep my business running.”
The street is called Manpower bazaar because it has the highest number of placement agencies in Nepal. The men go across the world, including the Gulf countries, Russia and even Europe, mostly as cooks, guards or factory labourers. The men who come to Bhandari’s hotel earlier booked rooms for 15-20 days while they waited for visas. They would buy drink and food, spending good money. All that is in the past. Now hotels compete to offer cheap meals and a comfortable bed, reducing prices as much as possible.
“I myself sleep in the corridor at times to accommodate customers. Prices are so high that customers cannot afford to spend basic money on a room and we cannot afford to let any bed stay vacant.”
A vegetarian meal known as thakali (thali) at a cheap restaurant costs around 800 rupees. The only welcome change is that the numerous sekuwa (barbeque) places in the city now actually barbeque their meat over coal/firewood rather than gas-powered stoves. But firewood prices too have been going up consistently. One kilogram costs Rs 60 , and street fights over cutting trees are becoming increasingly common.
Bus rides that earlier cost 3-4 rupees now cost around 18-20 rupees. Taxi fares have tripled. Queues outside fuel stations extend for up to five kilometres. Truckers, bus owners and taxi drivers sometimes spend three nights in the queues, sleeping in their vehicles or on the pavements, for refuelling.
Other businesses are on the brink too. Madhusudhan Mahto, who works with a textile manufacturer in Jalandhar in Punjab, says, “Usually our supplies to Nepal have been 4-5 quintals of cloth and ready-made garments per month. But this time it was hardly 50 kg, which I brought on the flight as my luggage. There is no way to transport it to Nepal without either doubling the price or selling at a heavy loss. My owner loses his market in both the cases.”
He sold the supplies in Kathmandu and headed to his ancestral village in Jhapa district on the border with Darjeeling in West Bengal. He plans to spend a few months hoping that the current crisis blows over and business resumes. Till then, he will make do with his savings over the past few years in India and with the produce from his family’s farm. “It will be local vegetables and country meat now. It is almost like returning to my childhood; life seems to have come full circle.”
As per the 2011 census there are more than 1.2 crore Nepali Indians in India at present, although the figure fluctuates frequently due to seasonal migrations for work. It is estimated that around 4 crore Nepalis live in India. According to the Nepal Rastra Bank, the Nepalis living abroad sent in remittances of $426.2 billion by mid-2015, a 7.1 per cent increase compared to the previous year. At the same time, Nepal’s growth rate was barely four percent. Some estimates say that of this 30 percent could be from India alone. Bilateral trade between India and Nepal in 2010-11 was close to $4.21 billion, out of which Nepal’s imports amounted to $3.62 billion and exports to India were $599.7 million.
The political elite in Kathmandu have turned against the Madhesi movement and India. Nepal’s annual trade with India is 90 per cent of its overall trade and they see the blockade as an Indian conspiracy. According to the Nepal Rastra Bank, the country’s exports have fallen 25.4 per cent while imports have tumbled 31.9 per cent since the blockade began. The people, who welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he visited Nepal and addressed Parliament, are now against him, since he “promised the world but instead has brought only misery”. This sentiment is echoed by the leadership of all mainstream parties, including the Left led by ex-Maoist (UCPN) chief Prachanda and current Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli’s Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). The parties refuse to be quoted citing the “political situation”, but blame India for interfering in the democratic process and supporting the Madhesi movement.
Nabindra Raj Joshi, a member of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal and on the central committee of the Nepali Congress, says, “The friendship between India and Nepal is so deep that differences only lead to some taunts and then we get on with life. Nepalis could not imagine such a harsh response from India. While a federal system is being implemented here, how can a friend take sides and pressure an elected government to look into issues of people (Madhesi leaders) who have not even got their own people’s mandate?”
Joshi is not off the mark. Only two of the present coalitions of four leaders who claim to represent Madhesh have been elected through direct voting—Upendra Yadav and Mahendra Yadav. They were part of the team that met External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi when the constitution issue had heated up in the wake of protests.
There is, however, a history of marginalisation of Madhesis that has led to the current crisis. It starts with the formation of Nepal as a single state with a common identity.
While there are various theories on how the word “Nepal” came into usage, it was first used when Gorkha dynasty ruler Prithvi Narayan Shah annexed the adjoining kingdoms one after another till he had unified almost all areas of present-day Nepal by 1769. When he attacked the triple-city state of Kathmandu valley, Lalitpur, and Bhaktapur, then ruler Jay Prakash Malla led a much smaller army against the superior forces of the Gorkha king. He then called upon the armies of the terai region for support. A 12,000 strong Madhesi army, known then as the Tirhutia army, came to his aid and inflicted heavy losses on the attacking forces but could not win*.
After taking over the region, Shah who was a Rajput, disbanded the Madhesi army and discontinued representation from the region. He went on to attack Madhesh and captured large areas of then Awadh region and at one point is said to have reached as far south as Patna. The advance was stopped after his armies lost to the Chinese in Tibet and suffered heavy losses against the British in the Anglo-Nepalese war. This brought Shah to the negotiating table and led to the consolidation of the boundaries of Awadh under British rule, as well as of Nepal as a separate kingdom. Nepal got political recognition and autonomy similar to that awarded to Kashmir and Hyderabad.
As the monarch consolidated his hold over the captured lands under British protection and patronage, the people of Madhesh remained subjugated and exploited. The tradition of excluding Madhesis from all government departments or benefits has continued since. The figure quoted by the Nepali weekly Jana Astha on the caste and ethnic representation of various populations of Nepal in 2004 shows not a single officer in the Royal Nepalese Army(RNA) of Madhesi ethnicity, while marginalised ethnic tribes also found nominal representation. The hill Brahmins and Chhetris (Kshatriyas), form the bulk of the RNA,
Prithvi Narayan Shah insisted that the British recruit soldiers among the Gorkhas, a practice followed religiously by the Indian armed forces, too. This was an extension of the imperial view that only the royal martial clans be recruited into the army. Democratic Nepal continued this policy and India too has benefited from Gorkha recruits, and cheap labour from ethnic hill tribes and Madhesh.
The Ranas, who held prime ministerial posts after grabbing power from the Shah dynasty in the middle of the 19th century, reduced the Shahs to royal symbols. The Ranas introduced an aristocratic system based on absolute monarchy, Nepali language, Hindu ethos and centralised politico-administrative structure under a unitary political system. Nepali, spoken by the ruling elite, is a mixture of Nepal Bhasha, spoken in and around the Kathmandu valley and Newari, spoken in the region west of Kathmandu. It is only one of the almost 100 languages or dialects spoken throughout Nepal but was adopted as the national language.
Subsequent monarchs, even while dallying with controlled democracy, insisted that every Nepali leader wear only the traditional warm dress worn in the hills, speak Nepali and pledge loyalty to the monarch. Madhesis were short-changed since their language is closer to Hindi/Urdu than Nepali, and a majority of them were illiterate, as is the case even today.
Madhesi people have not been able to overcome these barriers in the decades after independence. Their ethnic identities were diluted and lands usurped systematically since the early 1950s by the ruling elite under various schemes, most infamous being the “birta” grant (bravery grant) of land in the inner terai (lower hills and adjoining plains) and the outer (plains bordering India), which meant only groups serving in the armed forces—Chhetris, Gorkhas and hill Brahmins, benefited.
The Rapti valley development plan (1954), Nepal Resettlement Company (1964), Jhapa Resettlement Company, Kanchanpur resettlement project, Nawalparasi resettlement project, etc. were implemented by clearing forest land in Madhesh over decades. Migrants from Burma, Assam, Sikkim, West Bengal and Bhutan were encouraged to settle to keep a check on the demographic structure.
While half the region was under forest cover in 1927 as per British records, by 1992 forests stood only in national parks and protected regions. Landless labourers from Madhesh were hardly ever granted land, which has resulted in large-scale migration year after year. While Madhesh happens to be the main industrial and agricultural belt, contributing around 65 per cent of the total GDP and with 70 per cent of the total cultivated area, it received only 15-20 per cent of the development budget till 2011-2012. Migrants and resettled communities own most of the businesses in the region, while Madhesis remain a predominantly agrarian community.
“Racism is rampant in the higher echelons. Any person with a dark skin is looked down upon and not considered worthy of any top position in the government departments, leave alone political circles. Even though we form 51 per cent of the population, our representation in government jobs, civil services, police and the army is negligible if not non-existent.”
Upendra Yadav says an apartheid-like situation exists. “Racism is rampant in the higher echelons. Any person with a dark skin is looked down upon and not considered worthy of any top position in the government departments, leave alone political circles. Even though we form 51 per cent of the population, our representation in government jobs, civil services, police and the army is negligible if not non-existent,” he says.
Yadav was a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu till 2006, when the first Madhesh movement demanding equal rights and representation was launched. He formed his own party, then called Madhesi Jan Vikar Forum Nepal and joined the movement, which was also demanding a democratic and federal system in the country. Even though the Madhesi parties were not ideologically close to the Maoists led by Prachanda, they found common cause in agitating for a system where every citizen could have equal rights and socio-political representation.
“The terai people are part of an ancient civilisation that dates back at least 5,000 years. We are Mithila people who have inhabited this land since much before the present ruling elite–hill Brahmins and Kshatriyas. The denial of rights to indigenous people (the region includes the greater Mithila Pradesh) is nothing short of internal colonisation.”
It is known that the Gorkhalis, the larger Gorkha clan, are a mixture of hill races and migrants from Rajasthan, Gujarat, Kumaon and Garhwal valleys. They fled their homelands during the expansion of Mughal rule in India and intermingled with the hill populations, consolidating the tribal Gorkha identity into that of a warrior race. They also diversified into other Rajput clans in Nepal today, like the Chhetris and some offshoots of indigenous Gurung tribe.
The first major push for democracy came in 1990, when the Left parties and the Nepali Congress united against the regressive panchayat system of King Mahendra. While the system was supposed to show the world, specifically India, that a democratic system was in place, it was stage-managed by confidants of the king. He had absolute control over the leaders and could remove anyone at his whim. It degenerated into a feudal enterprise run by the king’s loyalists and hardened into a regressive machinery against which, the political parties and youth eventually rose.
Yugnath Sharma Pundel, editor-in-chief of bilingual newspaper Commander Post based in Kathmandu, was a student leader when Ganesh Man Singh, considered the greatest pro-democracy and human rights leader of Nepal, gave the call for uniting against the monarch.
“The call was simple: hold elections and elect people’s leaders directly to a parliamentary system. The king could no longer decide who represented the people.” Most leading politicians in Nepal today were part of the movement as student leaders but split into different groups thereafter. The strongest came up in 1996 under the Maoists who, armed by China, launched an insurgency. Pundel says Indian policy was to side with the monarch since the time of Nehru, under whom then king Tribhuvan was given asylum in India while the Ranas took over control. India also quietly backed the Ranas to buy their allegiance and keep China at bay. The government followed the same policy when the Maoists were gaining strength in Nepal.
Back channel talks and diplomacy led to a truce in 2003-04 after intense deliberations but Pundel claims the Nepali Maoists were always closer to India. India also kept arming the forces to fight the insurgents. After the assassination of King Birendra in 2001 in the royal palace massacre, the Maoists assumed greater power and a deal was brokered in New Delhi with Prachanda, facilitated by Indian intelligence agencies. The communists have had a strong influence on Nepal politics since then, because India’s acceptance has always been looked at as the final approval for leadership, from all quarters.
In 2006, however, when the first Madhesi movement broke out, the balance of power started shifting. The majority Terai people asserted their identity and pressed for their rights, and were eventually promised a democratic system with equal and equitable representation in all fields, including in government jobs. When the movement picked up pace again in 2008, the elected government, led by Girija Prasad Koirala held detailed talks with Madhesi leaders.
The leaders at the meetings were Sadbhavna Party leader Rajendra Mahto, Madhesi Jan Vikar Forum Nepal leader Upendra Yadav and the leader of the then newly formed Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party, Mahanta Thakur. Prachanda of the UCPN, Madhav Kumar of the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) and then prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala were the others. More significantly, though, the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Rakesh Sood, was also a part of the meeting, which meant India had taken a direct step to intervene and broker a formal deal.
The meeting agreed on eight main points to be included in the interim constitution before elections to be held the same year. Among them were:
Federal system under which Nepal and Madhesis will be given their right to self-rule in state or region (name was not decided upon).
Group-wise inclusion in Army, Civil services, etc. E.g. 10,000 Madhesis were to be inducted with special vacancies created for them immediately.
Swayatt Madhesh (Madhesh ruled by its own people within Nepal) to be created separately, which would give the people their social and cultural identity within the federal system.
Equal rights through citizenship. A commission was to be constituted. Equal representation in every field and departments in the country
Seats to be decided based on population and not just geographical area of a constituency. This was done keeping in mind the huge gap in the population densities of the plains and the hills in comparison to the areas they were spread in.
This deal—and its non-implementation—is the root cause of the troubles that have descended upon Nepal today.
The deal was seen as a great victory for Madhesis as well as for the country. They had forced an interim constitution to be brought in and kick-started the transition to a democratic federal structure. Madhesi leaders became heroes overnight and were garlanded as demi-gods when they returned home, while public opinion in other regions was also in their favour.
In the elections held in 2008, Madhesi leaders won overwhelming victories in the 20 constituencies in Madhesh while writing in other regions as well. Other parties cashed in on the pro-Madhesi sentiment and fielded many Madhesi candidates who won by large margins. While the Madhesi parties won close to 100 seats, the total number of candidates of Madhesi ethnicity in both houses of parliament touched nearly 400 out of the 601 mark—a two-thirds majority which could help them pass any bill, including a newly-framed Constitution.
Their supporters flooded the streets and slogans expressing pride in their identity were heard all around. ‘Garv se kaho ham Madhesi hain’(Say with pride that we are Madhesi) and ‘Bhagoda nahi Nepali hain ham’ (Not deserters, we are Nepalis) were among the calls reverberating in Nepal. The Singh Durbar, or Secretariat, was full of Madhesi faces. Birendra K.M, who works for a leading Hindi news channel from India, says, “As a Madhesi I could not believe my eyes. The personal assistants of non-Madhesi leaders too were predominantly Madhesi. It was as if Madhesis had stamped their authority on the country and reversed the past in which we were only subjugated, exploited and discriminated against.”
Upendra Yadav emerged as the biggest Madhesi leader. One of the main reasons was that he had defeated Sujata Koirala, daughter of Girija Prasad, by a huge margin. But he also eventually became the symbol of arrogance and disconnect from popular issues. Madhesi parties formed an alliance with the Nepali Congress and Girija Prasad Koirala became prime minister again while they got plum posts. Upendra Yadav became foreign minister—he stayed in Nepal only for 13 days in the three years the coalition lasted, spending only three days in his constituency.
With the top leadership missing, frustration and anger among the junior leaders, especially those elected for the first time, grew, as did their high-handedness. The communists say that their leaders were even stopped from moving freely at times since the writ of Madhesi leaders and their cadres ran everywhere. Shree Prakash Das, a Tribhuvan University student leader who supported the Madhesi cause but has since joined the CPN (UML), says, “No leader was available on call, leave alone on email. People’s issues are solved by being among them. I felt suffocated since I too am a Madhesi but the leaders were betraying us.”
The promised constitution was nowhere in sight as the deadline of 2010 expired. A new deadline was set for 2011, which too lapsed . During discussions on the final framework of the constitution, Madhesi MPs from non-Madhesi parties stuck to their official party line, while MPs from the Madhesi parties were in disarray in the absence of their top leadership. After the second deadline lapsed, the Supreme Court of Nepal ordered a fresh election.
By election time, the three Madhesi parties had split into 36 groups, each forming their own party. The turnout was historic, with both Madhesi and non-Madhesi citizens voting in record numbers. However, Madhesi leaders lost in as dramatic a fashion as they had won in the previous election. Leaders like Upendra Yadav and Vijay Kumar Gajhdar, who had already aligned with the Congress, fought two seats each. They won only one, that too with low margins. The results of the elections were delayed by a day, which some observers claim was to ensure sightings of at least a few Madhesi faces in the Constituent Assembly.
Of the 36 Mahdeshi parties, only nine registered wins, mostly one seat each. The total number of directly elected Madhesi leaders fell to 11 while the total number, including the ones elected on the basis of population ratios, came down to 37.
The Nepali Congress had lost one of its greatest leaders in Girija Prasad Koirala two years before the elections, and Sushil Koirala had taken over the reins. The communist parties allied with the Congress and formed the government. For most of them it was time for payback to the Madhesi leaders.
Political gimmickry could not be observed in a starker atmosphere. Madhesi faces disappeared from the Singh Durbar as fast as they had appeared. The new government then set about the task of framing the new constitution. Many drafts were discussed among various stakeholders but the Madhesi leaders were hardly ever invited.
Seizing an opportunity to become the strongest Madhesi leader, Upendra Yadav approached two fringe parties that represented tribal communities. The Magarat Party represents the indigenous Magar tribe and the Sanghiya Samajwadi Party merged with his party to form the Sanghiya Samajwadi Forum (Nepal). Upendra Yadav became the leader of the largest Madhesi party with 18 seats, one more than that of Vijay Kumar Gajhdar.
In March last year, an all-party meeting was convened to discuss the new constitution. Madhesi parties protested the exclusion of the eight points agreed upon and included in the interim Constitution in 2008. Most vociferous was Rajendra Mahato, who had lost the election but represented his party. K.P Sharma Oli, the present PM, is said to have told him to demand his rights in UP or Bihar where Madhesis were in some power; Nepal was theirs to rule and Madhesis had no role to play whatsoever.
This remark angered the leaders, who felt their identities, loyalty and nationality had been questioned. The parties boycotted the meeting and leaders went to their respective constituencies to organise the voters again for a mass protest. But it was an uphill taskas the leaders had lost their credibility. Kanaka Singh, who claims to have been a student leader in Kathmandu in 2006-07 but now runs a cycle shop in Birgunj, says, “These leaders exploited power and earned money through various sources. People united under them since they had no options. The exploitation of Madhesi people is a recorded chapter in history and the people understand that, whether they are educated or uneducated. Supporting them is the only option since they are the so-called credible faces in Kathmandu.”
The new constitution gave them the chance to bounce back in strength. “Where in history have rights already awarded to the citizens been taken back? It is nothing but the arrogance of the present government. They are following the same agenda as previous governments. Ruling elites including the Shahs and the Ranas consider Madhesis as outsiders. It is but an extension of that racial and social discrimination,” Mahato says sitting in Birgunj. He has decided not to go to Kathmandu or be part of any meeting until the points agreed upon in the interim Constitution of 2008 are included in the new one.
While the protests were slowly picking up in Madhesh, orders from the ruling coalition were to deal with the protestors sternly. Barely two days before the constitution was finally passed on September 19 a protestor was killed in police firing. It gave a new lease of life to the Madhesi movement. The brutality of the police crackdown fuelled the anger of the movement.
India intervened at this moment and foreign secretary S. Jaishankar rushed to Kathmandu. Most political parties and observers say this was a spoiler. Jaishankar insisted that adoption of the constitution be delayed till the Madhesi leaders were also taken on board. At this point India was seen as siding with the Madhesis and interfering in the politics of Nepal. Sudhir Sharma, editor of the largest selling Nepali daily Kantipur, says, “Politicians felt offended at the way Indians were pressuring them.” Jaishankar was told they would only wait two days for the Madhesi leaders to come to the negotiating table, which did not happen.
Sharma says this was an unprecedentedly bold step. He is the author of a book called Prayogshala, which translates to “laboratory”, in which he has written on the role of the Indian Embassy and the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) in shaping politics in Nepal. He claims Nepal has been used by RAW as a place to experiment with various forms of democracy and even monarchy to keep a tight control over political leaders. He claims India insisted that the word “secular” be removed and instead the concept of “religious freedom” be inserted to protect Nepal’s identity as a Hindu nation; the pressure has been immense since the Bharatiya Janata Party came to power in 2014. Since the word was introduced into the Constitution in 2007, the Nepali government tried to address India’s demand by inserting lines explaining the definition of “secularism”. The explanation roughly means that there will be religious freedom but that Nepal is culturally a Hindu country.
But there is another reason why this explanation was inserted. Kamal Thapa, leader of the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP), has always demanded that Nepal become a Hindu Rashtra and his party has been loyal to the royal family—ex-King Gyanendra and his son Paras. This explanatory paragraph lends credibility to Nepal’s identity as a Hindu Rashtra. While monarchy could not be reverted to at any cost, Thapa was allowed to present a note of dissent when the constitution was passed. He was offered the post of deputy PM and the foreign portfolio in exchange for his support which he promptly gave. The new constitution thus came into being.
Similar deals were made with other leaders too. Madhesi leader Vijay Kumar Gajhdar was offered deputy premiership in return for his support. The demands of coalition politics and the desire to become prime minister induced K.P Sharma Oli to appoint six deputy PMs—none would settle for a lower portfolio than their competitors. Apart from Thapa and Gajhdar, C. P. Mainali, Chitra Bahadur, Bhim Rawal and Top Bahadur Rai Manjhi–all from different parties–are deputy PMs.
On the day of the final voting for prime minister, Madhesi leaders–66 in all–chose not to boycott the voting on the insistence of Sushil Koirala. Asked whether the vote meant that Madhesis accepted the new constitution, Upendra Yadav declared, “We would have voted against (K.P.S) Oli even if it was a dog contesting against him.”
The clampdown on protestors across Madhesh was severe after that. Many people died in police firing in various districts.
Sensing that the situation was getting out of control, India tried to save face by opening up trade posts at other places along the border. Sushma Swaraj welcomed the few points the Oli government agreed to address. The Indian government has not made any comments since. Madhesi leaders, however, rejected the step outright. “What has she welcomed? We have rejected the carrot. Either all demands have to be met or the agitation will go on,” Upendra Yadav says, adding, “And why is it being called a blockade in the first place? A blockade is when there is absolutely no movement across borders. It is not so here. These are disturbances caused by people agitating for their rights and they have every right to do so.”
In the midst of all this, China maintained a studied silence on Nepal, even as it is the biggest beneficiary from the near-freeze in Nepal-India relations. Since the blockades, various delegations have visited China and foreign minister Kamal Thapa has personally requested fuel supplies, the response to which has been prompt.
Siddharth Gautam, president of the Lumbini Foundation based in Kathmandu, has been an avid activist for the cause of Tibetan freedom from China.
He has stopped using cell phones. “Sadhu-type logon ko koi zyada dekhta nahi hai na” (People don’t notice saint-like people much). He is a lonely person in Kathmandu nowadays. While politicians would earlier respond to his requests to travel to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, or to Dharamsala in India where the Dalai Lama lives in exile, no one comes any more.
He used to organise Nepali MPs under the banner Parliamentarian Friends of Tibet and Nepal and arranged trips to Lumbini and to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama. In 2013, he took a delegation of six, including three MPs, to Canada for an International Parliamentarians’ Conference on Tibet. The Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu wrote to the government protesting the trip. No politician has responded to his calls or letters since.
“China wants to make sure that Tibetans stay a marginalised group in Nepal. India needs to step up its game in tackling the pressure and tactics Chinese use here. We try to bring Indian and American lobbies together since they are both democracies but the Indian lobby’s popularity has been severely dented by the economic blockade. I’m amazed that India is letting this happen here; it is a big failure of the embassy and the staff present here. It is India’s own foolishness.
“Nepali communists too were cultivated by Indians but as a policy they have stayed pro-China. Ideological will power against China is not present in Nepal. The present generation has become anti-Indian and will not forget this economic crisis for years to come.”
He says relations between India and Nepal have been irreparably hurt. “A change of guard is needed at the embassy here for a new beginning and repair work. The problem is also that ambassadors from India come on three-year postings whereas Chinese defence attaches are posted for 8-10 years and get a better understanding of situations on the ground.
“As soon as the present (Madhesi) issue flared up the defence attache was called back to Beijing for a detailed report. They quietly keep making inroads and get praise too while Indians get only brickbats.”
Fountain Ink sent a detailed questionnaire to Indian Ambassador Ranjit Rae through his press secretary Abhay Kumar but received no response.
In Birgunj, meanwhile, as in other regions of Nepal, the industrial area has seen factories shut down in the past few months. Fuel supplies and raw materials procured from India lie across the border in Bihar’s Ruxaul district. The trucks that supply the material from ports in West Bengal or from Delhi have to pay excise on the raw material if they hold it more than a week. As a result the suppliers do not take the risk anymore. Some industrialists, like Giriraj Singh who runs a rubber tyre manufacturing unit, have extended support to the movement.
“I too am a Madhesi so I back the cause and support the protestors in the hope that the government will relent and our businesses will resume.” Upendra Yadav has a different view on the economic situation. “When a revolution begins it obviously brings pain from many quarters. But like a mother forgets all the pain when she looks at her newborn child, the result of this revolution will eventually bring happiness in the form of rights to the people of Madhesh.”
The black market, especially in diesel, has become a lucrative business. But it is not new to the border areas of Nepal. There are families whose only profession, apart from some local farming, has been black marketing goods from across the border; and business is booming.
“People are keen to marry their daughters into such families as it is a highly paying business with hardly any punishment. They demand the highest dowry in this region,” says a local shopkeeper. The ingenuity of the tricks employed by the small-time black marketers knows no limits. Diesel is smuggled in on motor bikes whose tanks are filled with diesel while a makeshift arrangement through a plastic bottle and pipe is used to supply petrol directly to the engine. An average sized tank of 10 litres fetches almost six times what it costs in India, which means that two trips mean a profit of around 8000 Nepali rupees, whereas before the blockade the margin used to be 1000 Nepali rupees on a good day’s trade. Pathways through fields and kutcha roads are comfortable routes for cycle and bike riders and they are making full use of it. Except industrial materials, every commodity is being smuggled into Nepal, albeit with much more difficulty than before the blockade. “When thieves were hanged in the open in earlier times, some men picked pockets even among the crowd that gathered to watch the executions. This is human nature, it cannot be helped,” Upendra Yadav says.
Support from the Indian side has been consistent and is steadily growing. While leaders like Yadav and Rajendra Mahato say there is only moral support, party cadres claim trucks are being stopped much before they reach the checkposts. “All parties are helping us on their side of the border. The support has been immense,” says Mahato. He himself joined many local leaders on the Indian side and travelled to trade points like Biratnagar from where supplies were previously coming in even as Birgunj, from where 70 per cent of the India-Nepal trading happens, remained blocked. Leaders from various parties, Raghuvansh Prasad Singh of the JD(U), Pappu Yadav of the RJD and Mangilal Singh of the BJP have all held rallies along the border districts and pledged full support to Madhesi leaders.
As Kathmandu and other interior regions suffer heavily due to the economic crisis and shortage of fuel and essential supplies, Madhesi leaders are not ready to relent. “For two months till November only Madhesh suffered since we closed our businesses and shops. But the government left us to die since it hardly cares about our rights. Now that they too are suffering, I hope they understand what we want and the government concedes our demands. Till then we will keep provoking. That is how revolutions are won,” declares Rajendra Mahato.
Leaders like Yadav and Mahato now find themselves at the point of no return. The promises they made mean they have to achieve a victory or perish trying. “Do you think the present generation will live without obtaining the rights they already had? Hundreds are ready to pick up guns and kill for the movement. There is only so much leaders can do to hold them. Patience is running out,” Mahato says.
If the agitation takes a violent turn, the porous border will no longer be confined to “roti-beti ka rishta”. As Siddharth Gautam points out, “If this border turns violent and gun-wielding men start moving in and out of either country at will, it will be a bigger problem for India than even Pakistan. It will cost billions of dollars and years of strife along the peaceful UP-Bihar region. It is time India acted sternly with this government.”
(Arpit Parashar is a freelance journalist based is Delhi)
Published from the February 2016 issue of Fountain Ink