A country in interim

A country in interim


Caption: Mourning the first 16 killed in the Tarai uprising.
Image: Nepal news

Nepal's mainstream politicians understand both how to fight an autocratic king and how to negotiate with insurgents. But they sure do not know how to deal with agitations for rights by historically disfranchised communities. Partly, this is due to an unwillingness to share political space; partly, it is an inability to show sensitivity to something as dearly held as a community's identity.

Nepal has been on an anarchic rollercoaster since King Gyanendra's autocracy was defeated last April, with the attention of Kathmandu's political class and civil society turned on getting the Maoists to finally relinquish their guns and enter the political mainstream. Even while the community leaders in the Federation of Nationalities, for example, fumed at not being consulted, the politicians and Maoists devoted themselves to writing an unnecessarily detailed interim constitution, to pave the way for the insurgents to join the interim Parliament and interim government. It is now the task of the interim government to organise elections for the Constituent Assembly before the monsoon season in early June, but the many unresolved issues confronting the populace are making that date look well nigh impossible.

The agreement on the holding of a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution was a face-saving move for the Maoist leadership, which had given up its 'people's war' midstream as unworkable. But the need for a new constitution was more deeply felt by the various communities of the diverse Nepali populace – differentiated by class, caste, ethnicity, faith, language, region and even altitude – who had come to believe that the restructuring of the state through a new constitution was needed in order to access the rights and opportunities thus far denied them. The eight political parties in command – now including the Maoists – barely made a show of consulting the leadership of the various communities in the decisions they made over the autumn and winter of 2006-07.

The flare-up in the Tarai plains is part and parcel of a willing lack of understanding and sensitivity towards 'non-establishment' communities by all – including the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which is beginning to look like any other hill-centric pahade party. There are several reasons why the Tarai erupted over the course of January and February, but the most important is that the peoples of plains origin felt that they would be under-represented in the all-important Constituent Assembly elections, and thereby lose yet another opportunity to be counted as full citizens.

Madhes Movement
The mixed-ballot system agreed upon by the eight parties for the Constituent Assembly polls – in which half of the seats would be contested under the traditional direct-voting system, while the other half would be assigned through a system of proportional representation – was not considered adequate because the electoral constituencies discriminated against the densely populated Tarai (also known as Madhes, a more culturally invested name that some prefer). More importantly, the Tarai populace had long experienced candidates of hill origin being given a disproportionate number of tickets come election-time.

The Kathmandu politicians proved unable or unwilling to understand the depth of feeling that united the various communities of the Tarai – from the 'indigenous' groups such as the Tharu, across the caste spectrum to the speakers of Awadhi, Maithili and Bhojpuri, and to the country's normally ultra-docile Muslims. All these communities came together against the reality and perception of hill domination, which had not only denied them access to jobs and opportunities – the army has historically been out of bounds, for example – but even to a national identity that was fashioned around the markers of midhill caste and ethnicity.

Complicating the government's response was the presence of the CPN (Maoist) as a belligerent newcomer to power in Kathmandu, and one still in the process of dropping its arms. A Maoist splinter group was part of the Tarai furore, and so the Maoist command was all for crushing the agitation. In the meantime, even while Kathmandu's politicians sought to blame both India-based Hindutva elements and reactionary royalists, the Tarai rose up in a movement that can only be likened to the People's Movement of April 2006. This was a plains population demanding its right to be part of the Nepali state and mainstream society.

Before anyone knew it, Nepal was ensconced in a hill-plain communal divide. An under-motivated and leaderless police force – which had languished for too long, as Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula focused on his assignment as the main interlocutor with the Maoists – was let loose on the demonstrators. Thirty-one people died, most of whom were of Tarai origin, with neither the rest of the country nor the world taking sufficient notice. Meanwhile, hill people lived under increasing insecurity in the eastern half of the Tarai.

Girija Prasad Koirala, for whom this new stridency and violence linked to identity politics seemed uncharted terrain, made a ham-handed attempt to stop the agitation with a speech that did not even pay respect to the memory of the dead. Another speech followed, promising additional seats in Tarai constituencies to cater to population concentration. This proved a temporary palliative, while the Tarai activists demanded the resignation of Sitaula, which was not forthcoming – the Maoists in particular rushing to his defence.

As we go to press, the Tarai is again gearing up for agitation. There is every likelihood that the organisations of hill ethnicities will make renewed demands for further representation. It is also likely that Dalits from both the hills and the Tarai will be the next to rise. The Maoists have raised unrealistic and impractical hopes of self-rule by calling for 'ethnic federalism' in a country where the castes and ethnicities have largely been geographically inter-mixed over the past century and a half. Following the violence of the Maoists (and now their splinter group in the Tarai), there is a feeling gaining ground that it takes violence to be heard in the power corridors of Kathmandu.

No rest in sight
If the simultaneous – and often violence-prone – risings of suppressed voices and communities were not enough, the situation was compounded by Prime Minister Koirala's government's inability to get a handle on administration and establish a sense of rule of law. While the Maoists have now (it is fervently hoped) handed most of their guns to United Nations monitors, their militarist mindset nonetheless remains in place. How Constituent Assembly elections will be able to take place in the midst of ongoing intimidation by former insurgents is a crucial question just beginning to exercise human-rights defenders.

As if Nepali society did not have enough problems, King Gyanendra seems to think that it will not be long before the confusion and chaos will bring him back to centre stage as something of a national saviour. Though such an assumption would be extremely dim-witted, this is by now his known trait, and is apparently why he tells visitors to the Narayanhiti palace to "wait and see". As if on cue, Gyanendra made an unauthorised, self-laudatory address to the country in mid-February on the occasion of Democracy Day, providing additional ammunition for those who believe that the autocrat in him is still biding its time. It increasingly seems that Nepal's historic monarchy will be done in by the current incumbent – and that there will be few tears shed.

It is impossible to say now how the Nepali polity will evolve in the months ahead, between political elites trying to protect their entrenched interests, an autocratic king thinking he can still make a comeback, a Maoist force hardly humbled by the evaporation of its 'people's war', and communities all over agitated about losing a place at the table. Things seem to be nearly beyond the grasp of the ailing 85-year-old Koirala, who succeeded in besting the king and negotiating with the Maoists. Will he be able to respond to the clamour for inclusion and finally take a well-earned rest?

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Himal Southasian