Awaiting Nepal’s second liberation

Nepal’s liberation from self-serving opportunistic politicians cannot even begin until the issue of federalism and justice to the Madheshis is dealt with satisfactorily.

Published : May 25, 2016 16:00 IST

Members of Federal Alliance, a coalition of Madhesh-based parties and  organisations, protest against the new Constitution near the Prime Minister's office in Kathmandu on May 15.

Members of Federal Alliance, a coalition of Madhesh-based parties and organisations, protest against the new Constitution near the Prime Minister's office in Kathmandu on May 15.

The title borrows a theme from Africa’s Third Liberation , co-authored by Greg Mills and Jeffrey Herbst. Africa’s first liberation, they point out, was from colonial and racist governments. The second was from the liberators themselves, who, for various reasons, became the new despots, sometimes worse than the erstwhile colonisers. The third, and ongoing, liberation is “the change in focus of politics itself”.

Nepal is on the verge of its second liberation. The first was the liberation from the autocratic rule of the monarchy and the Ranas, characterised by successive despotic regimes which ensured that Nepal’s masses remained isolated, poor and subjugated. It began as a hiccup in 1950, for the first time allowing the winds of change to enter Nepal. Stymied in 1960 by Mahendra, it resurrected with greater force and impact in 1990, and reached its culmination in 2006, with the second, decisive aandolan (movement) succeeding in ousting the monarchy and ushering in Nepal’s first real and unfettered opportunity to draft its own social contract which was inclusive and just.

In the decade since 2006, the euphoria has descended into despair and hopeless cynicism, and the people of Nepal, who successfully ousted an entrenched 250-year-old monarchy and mainstreamed an armed and violent insurgency, watch sullenly, angrily, as their dream dies, as the leaders of that struggle squabble and fight for the loaves of office, and brazenly choose self-serving opportunism and rampant corruption over even a semblance of attention to governance. Each leader wants his shot at the “gaddi”, and hence the series of bizarre coalitions, shady deals for power-sharing, not for the empowerment of all segments of a very diverse society, but for the sharing of spoils amongst themselves, their cronies and their camp followers.

The earthquake experience

Nothing illustrates this better than the performance of the political leadership during and after the earthquake that devastated Nepal just a year ago. They were nowhere to be seen during the disaster which killed and maimed thousands and made millions homeless, when the international community and, most of all, neighbouring India mounted a Herculean effort to provide urgent relief. Over $4 billion came in from India and other donors, delivered or committed. The leadership responded with alacrity, not to help the people in their hour of desperate need but to push through a deeply flawed Constitution, ensuring the pecking order of the spoils of office and the permanent ascendancy of the Bahun-Chhetri-Pahadi elite over the Madheshis, the Janjatis and the Dalits. They then announced the setting up of a reconstruction authority to deal with the relief and rehabilitation efforts. But the lure of the donor billions, and fighting over who would have access to this golden kitty, meant that this was set up eight months of squabbling later. The people affected still languish in abject misery. One year later, not one home has been built or rebuilt by this authority, and three-quarters of a million are needed. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and even individuals who started to build their own shelters were forbidden from doing so on the grounds that the authority had not yet finalised the new building norms.

Ten years after the beginning of the peace process and eight years after the elections to the first constituent assembly, Nepal’s second liberation is yet to happen. For the people of Nepal, the despotic rule of the kings and the Ranas has simply been replaced by the dysfunctional rule of the greedy new democrats, the Bahun-Chhetri-Pahadi self-appointed elite. Even among the Maoists, eight out of the top 11 leaders were Bahuns. The earlier despots drew their legitimacy from a “divine” dispensation and/or brute force; the present leadership derives it from, admittedly, free and fair elections. The use of brute force and the contempt for and blatant discrimination against the Madheshis, the Janjatis and the Dalits remain the same, as is the recourse to ultranationalism—always equated with anti-Indianism—to pass the buck to big-brother India for all the failures of the rulers. The present Prime Minister, K.P.S. Oli, has actually surpassed the worst of the Shahs and the Ranas in the shrillness of his rants against India.

True, the transition from a feudal autocracy to a functioning democracy was bound to be a difficult one, given Nepal’s history, its poverty, the lack of resources available to the state, and its enormous diversity. The rising expectations from the revolution would have daunted even the best of governments. We need to look no further than India itself for an illustration of how difficult it is to erase the iniquities of the past, of religious, ethnic, caste and class divides, and to ensure equality of opportunity and an enlightened, inclusive polity. Yet, there is a difference. Indian democracy had the fortune of enacting a Constitution that was probably the most liberal and enlightened of its time. It stands as a red line to attempts to undermine the fundamental principles enshrined in it, and stands as a bulwark against the majoritarians, the obscurantists and the communalists. It has been a role model for countries that were decolonised and liberated after us. Nepal’s rulers, on the other hand, throwing “inclusive” democracy to the winds and pandering instead to deeply entrenched prejudices, promulgated a Constitution that is dangerously flawed—unique in its denial of women’s rights and its transparent attempt to relegate virtually half its population to permanent second-class citizenship.

Core problem

And this brings us to the core of the problems besetting Nepal today, without resolving which Nepal’s second liberation, a liberation from the liberators, will not even begin, let alone succeed. And that is the issue of federalism, at the heart of which lies the issue of the Madhesh, and the Pahadi-Madheshi (the hill-people and the people of the Terai plains) divide.

What is the Madhesh and who are the Madheshis?

It is commonly believed that the word “Madhesh” comes from “Madhyadesh” or the “middle country”. For our purpose, it is sufficient to say that Madhesh is the name of the Terai plains and the inner Terai region of Nepal, stretching east to west, along the India-Nepal border.

The people of the Terai, the Madheshis, have lived there for millennia, as indigenous a people as any on the planet. The changing of the borders between Nepal and British India does not alter this fact. A third of the land of Nepal, wholly falling in the Terai, was wrested by the British following the Anglo-Gorkha war of 1814-1816, and then much of it returned as a reward for the military help that Nepal gave the British in 1857. The fact of the Madheshi peoples always being where they are is incontestable. The elite, all Pahadi and Kathmandu-based, especially after Nepal was unified under Prithvi Narayan Shah, never trusted the plains people. They were seen as migrants from India, alien to Nepal in spite of living in Nepal, as interlopers who were systematically discriminated against and treated with contempt. Jung Bahadur Rana’s Mukluki Ain, Nepal’s first legal system, described the Janjatis as “alcohol consuming enslavable people”. This discrimination reached its zenith in Mahendra’s time, especially after he ousted Nepal’s fledgling democratic government in 1960 and ushered in his Panchayati Raj. As the Terai became progressively habitable with deforestation, Mahendra encouraged the migration of Pahadis to the Terai, with more than three million now settled there. The land they lived on was forcibly grabbed from the Madheshis, especially the Tharus, who were first made landless and then enslaved as bonded labour. Almost all government officials in the Terai were Pahadis. With the Terai becoming the industrial and agricultural heartland of Nepal, the oppressive and exploitative hand of the state became heavier. The Madheshis were conspicuous by their absence in the bureaucracy, the police and the army. A Madheshi had to get a special permit if he wanted to visit Kathmandu. His “praman patra”, or citizenship identity card, was invalid unless he was dressed in the daura-suruwal of the hill people. The anti-India card, used to cover up the rulers’ failures, and the distrust of the Madheshis as India’s fifth column, fed on each other.

Policy of exclusion

In a survey done in 1999, out of 39 posts of chiefs of administrative departments, 29 were upper-caste Bahun-Chhetri, seven were Newari (another privileged class), and three were hill Janjatis. There was not a single Madheshi among them.

In a 2004 survey, out of 141 posts of senior police and army officers, there was not a single Madheshi.

The same story was repeated even in the field of communication—Madheshis in government and private media associations numbered two out of a total of 33 posts and three out of 131 posts respectively, the rest being Pahadi appointees.

Although the struggle for Madheshi rights began as far back as 1950, it was the 2007 agitation which finally succeeded. A politically aroused Madhesh, fresh from the aandolan against the monarchy, launched an agitation that culminated in the then democratic dispensation in Nepal agreeing to Madheshi demands for autonomy, inclusive constitutional safeguards, proportional representation, and federalism. This agreement was signed by Madheshi leaders and by the then Prime Minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, on February 28, 2008. These commitments were duly incorporated into the interim Constitution. But after the earthquake, when the government moved in haste to promulgate the Constitution, the final draft threw out the commitments made in writing to the Madheshis, to recover some of the “face” the government lost due to its invisibility during the quake. Moreover, it couched citizenship requirements that discriminated against women marrying a non-Nepali, a brazen provision to protect Nepal from the contamination of the “Indian seed”, as pointed out poignantly by Manjushree Thapa, who burnt the new Constitution in protest. Most importantly, the new Constitution tried to ignore the long-standing demand for a just federal structure and, instead, tried to impose provincial borders which had been blatantly gerrymandered to ensure that the Madheshis, more than a third of the population (and along with the Tharus, Janjatis, Dalits and Muslims of the Terai, half the population), would remain a permanent minority in all future parliaments.

The inevitable agitation followed, as did the response with brute force, in which more than 40 people were killed and the Madheshi blockade of the major crossing points of the open border, which the rulers promptly and shrilly blamed on India. Anti-Indian and ultranational rhetoric was ratcheted up along with the flaunting of the “China card”, which no longer impresses India as it did in the 1960s. There have been critical comments on India’s handling of the crisis. True, there may have been misjudgements in the timing, emphasis and clarity of our messages. More worryingly, rumours swirl in Delhi among Nepal-watchers about senior politicians, in government and outside, seeking the return of Nepal to a “Hindu Rashtra”, back from its new secular status. One hopes that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not smiling on this dangerous and silly thinking, should this be true. This is an illustration of the problem every Indian Ambassador complains about: the multiple layers of interlocutors between the two countries who complicate and aggravate already sensitive situations. Some damage control has been done, with a couple of amendments on proportional representation in government sectors and the principle of inclusivity (both amenable to being stonewalled by a willing bureaucracy) being endorsed, but the all-important issue of demarcation of provinces in a federal structure has been ignored. Bad faith is evident as even the upper castes have been included in the affirmative action principle underlying the inclusivity proposal.

The Madheshi blockade has been lifted. The Madheshi leadership gives various reasons, including sympathy for the hardships endured by the common man, and the killings. It promises a revival of the agitation, this time in Kathmandu itself, if its just demands are not met. There is no doubt that the unity of the Madheshi Morcha was weak, that not much was done to bring the Janjatis and the Dalits on board to form a united front, and that the leaders sometimes broke ranks for personal glory. They would do well to remember Benjamin Franklin’s words to the American Revolution leaders: “Gentlemen, we must hang together, or assuredly we will hang separately.” Madheshi politicians who are part of the mainstream parties, the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), or CPN (UML), and even the Maoist party, will have to decide whether to continue in these parties or resign with dignity and join the Madheshi movement. Fence-sitting time is over. They will simply have to choose between continuing as fellow travellers and joining the struggle for their place in the Nepali sun. The example set by Madheshi Ministers in different coalition governments in avidly jumping on the gravy train has not gone unnoticed in the Terai, and these leaders would do well to be on the right side of the struggle and eschew personal agendas.

India’s role

For India, this is no time for aggressive diplomacy; nor is it profitable, tempting though it is, to turn the screws on the Oli government. The cold reception given to Oli during his recent visit to India and the refusal to issue a joint statement should be enough of a clear message to the Nepal government that India means to stay the course and that the triumphalism being displayed for domestic consumption in Nepal about India “backing off” is misplaced. Programmes for development cooperation should continue. It is essential that we carefully and sensitively differentiate between the people of Nepal and the venal, dysfunctional elite that rules Nepal at present. The elite and their cronies cannot hit back at India, so they simply target the Madheshis. To quote the Canadian journalist Daniel Lak, who served for years in South Asia and for four years in Nepal, in a recent article: “When Nepal’s manipulators of public opinion—be they Maoist, monarch, or democrat—play this (anti-India) card, they inevitably and deliberately unleash ugly forces of racism against Madheshis…. Second-class citizens with second-tier citizenship, the Madheshis are regarded in their own country as Delhi’s fifth columnists, using the revenge of the cradle and the wedding to push India’s land-grabbing agenda. You see this dangerous attitude reflected in the new Constitution, unique in the world for its denial of rights to women and others born on the ‘wrong’ side of current prejudice.”

Nepal’s people are second to none in their potential, their human values, and their capacity for punishingly hard work. The human and material resources augur well for rapid development once true democracy overcomes the present blinkered governance. It is in India’s interest to stand by, always ready to help constructively, until such time as the people of Nepal, especially the hitherto downtrodden Madheshis, Janjatis and Dalits, achieve their dream of a Constitution that all Nepalis can be proud of. For all their hollow and petty rhetoric, and the drumbeat of anti-India fulminations that fool nobody, not even the fellow travellers, they know full well that the remittances of the six to eight million Nepalis working in India, treated as Indians with no need for work permits, and the pegging of the Nepali rupee at a constant equivalence to the Indian rupee, are the two lifelines that keep the Nepali economy afloat, in spite of the political rape inflicted by successive Nepali rulers. It is to India’s credit that not a single incident has been reported of any harassment of Nepalis in India, even in areas contiguous with the open border. Our government will hopefully remain firm in its stand, not blaming the Nepali people for the sins of their rulers.

On security grounds alone, a friendly government in Nepal is crucial for India. Pakistan has always used the open border to push fake currency and infiltrators into India. With China now expanding its political space, and with the existing China-Pakistan nexus, our diplomacy has its work cut out. While I continue to stress patient and constant engagement, the present rulers may need reminding of the overwhelming leverages that India can use if their policies go beyond pinpricks to become a threat to our security.

Nepal's advantages

Africa’s second liberation took an average of around 30 years after the first, give or take a few years (saving the much longer anti-apartheid struggle). Nepal’s will take much less, just a few years: it has the advantages of being an open society with a number of successful people’s struggles under its belt, a civil society that can pull its weight effectively once it gets rid of its ambivalence, a relatively free press which has demonstrated courage in the past and can do so again, a Madhesh that has been thoroughly aroused politically, an international community (except, predictably, China) fed up with Nepal’s corrupt rulers, and a democratic and friendly neighbour like India, with no axe to grind save that of Nepal’s stability and prosperity. And above all, a people the majority of whom will not settle for less than a true and just democracy.

The time is over for political games of making and unmaking coalitions, each as unholy as the previous one. Just a few days ago, we saw Prachanda (chairman of the Unified Communist Party of Nepal) threatening to team up with the Nepali Congress to unseat Oli; it was followed by a U-turn by the Maoist leader once he was assured by Oli that he would be made the Prime Minister after the Budget. And this time, the Chinese hand was visible. The “musical chairs” game continues, reminding one of the words of a former United States Ambassador about Nepali politicians in Kathmandu: “….like a family fighting over who will have the master bedroom when the house is burning”.

The writing is on the wall—acting on it sooner rather than later will save Nepal a whole lot of grief.

Shiv Mukherjee is a former Ambassador to Nepal and a distinguished diplomat.

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