Madhes rises

The Janakpur airport is crowded. There is a four-day general strike across the eastern Tarai plains. The highway is blocked, and road travel is impossible. People are keen to catch a flight to Kathmandu, but there are no seats available. Directly outside the one-floor ramshackle building that serves as the Janakpur terminal, the local teashop owner, Jainath Sah, senses a business opportunity, and turns entrepreneur for the day. Using his contacts, he books a chartered flight to Kathmandu, and converts his shop into an airline counter. Sitting on a charpoy under a tent, he proceeds to charge potential passengers – mostly migrant workers who have international flight connections in Kathmandu – double the normal fare, enough to pay the aircraft operator and make a tidy profit. Tickets are instantly sold out.

There are low-key murmurs about how everyone has to end up spending so much more because of a bekar bandh, an unnecessary strike. A young man dissents loudly: "This is not bekar – Madhesi groups have announced the protest. These bloody pahades [hill people] call us dhoti, and bully us everywhere, even when we go to work in Malaysia. We need to show them our power!" There is a call in response from the other end: "You should slap them when they abuse you. Give it back to them and they will learn. That is what we are doing here now."

Raw anger characterises the mood in the Tarai, Nepal's southern plains, which forms about a quarter of the country's total area. Grievances accumulated over decades (or centuries – to be precise, Madhesi activists point out that the situation has been building for the 238 years since the Gorkhali conquests that created present-day Nepal) have this year found a strong, albeit fractured, political voice. Madhesis are people with plains-languages as their mother tongue. They often share deep cultural, linguistic, family and religious ties with people across the border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. 'Madhes' is preferred by Madhesi activists to the term 'Tarai'. While both are geographical terms, 'Madhes' has a distinctive political connotation, and is generally used to refer to the eastern and central Tarai.

Excluded from the strongly hill-centric nationalism of Nepal, Madhesis have often been seen as Indians. They are discriminated against and remain under-represented across all spheres in Nepal, even as their resources have been used and exploited by the national political elite. The April 2006 People's Movement gave rise to expectations among Madhesis that they would finally be recognised as equal citizens, and find space in the national polity. This encouraged them to mobilise politically. But with the January promulgation of the interim constitution – which was silent on Madhesi concerns such as federalism, and did not provide for equitable electoral representation – Madhesis decided that it was time for confrontation.

The unprecedented January-February Madhesi movement saw close to 40 people killed, most of them in police firing. Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala promised to fulfil Madhesi demands, but the government failed to capitalise on the moment and bring protesting groups to the negotiating table. Neither did Madhesi groups such as the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) – a cross-party intellectual forum that was at the forefront of the movement, and that has now turned into a political party – show political acumen. Instead of trying to institutionalise the gains of the movement and engage in serious dialogue, the MJF went back to the streets. Meanwhile, the Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), an armed splinter group of the Maoists that has since fractured into two (headed respectively by Jai Krishna Goit and Jwala Singh), continued its violent rebellion already in progress.

The political landscape in the Tarai today is characterised by uncertainty and a confrontational mood. There is virtually no state presence across the eastern plains, and the Kathmandu leadership, across the political spectrum, is perceived as insincere. While there has been a complete collapse of trust between the government and most Madhesis, the plains political groups themselves remain divided, and face a serious crisis of leadership. They have not been able to channel the demands for respect and recognition that lie at the heart of the Madhesi protests into a coherent political agenda. Several armed groups have subsequently come up, many of them criminal outfits eager for a political cover. In essence, what has emerged in the Tarai is a vacuum of power – established parties have lost support, but the newer Madhesi outfits are yet to fill the space. In a political landscape characterised by violence, frequent strikes and state inertia, the Madhesis are suffering. Inter-community relations have also deteriorated between Madhesis and people of hill-origin living in the Tarai. Madhesi moderates face difficult choices amidst a process of rapid radicalisation.

Trust deficit 
There are multiple fault-lines in the Tarai: the Madhesi-state divide, the conflict between Madhesi groups and the Maoists, the rift between Madhesis and pahades, and Madhesi outfits lethally vying for political space. Some conflicts are as yet incipient, especially that between the Madhesis and the Tharus living in the Tarai, the latter of whom claim a distinct identity (see box). Each layer of division has the potential to flare up into greater violence and confrontation.

The distrust of the government stems from several factors, including the belief that the pahade leadership's attitude towards Madhesis changed little in the democratic era after 1990, or even in the past year. As proof that their concerns do not matter to the establishment, Madhesi politicians point to the retention of Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula in the cabinet in this particular portfolio, despite an overwhelming demand for his dismissal after police atrocities during the movement over the winter. Across the Tarai, with a mix of anger and resentment, people are quick to draw a list of other government insensitivities: They still have not declared those killed during the struggle as martyrs – a Madhesi's life has no value for the pahade rulers. It took them four months to form the commission to investigate police atrocities, and even that had a pahade majority and included the police chief in charge at the time. Look at the way they increased constituencies in the Tarai, gerrymandering in favour of pahade candidates even amidst the movement. The government will not give us anything substantive; all it is interested in is manipulating and weakening us.

There is little doubt that, instead of reaching out, the Kathmandu government has further alienated the people of the Tarai over the past few months. This stems as much from an unwillingness to engage and share power as from a historically distanced hill perspective and a failure to understand the true nature of the Madhesi movement: that the protests are not about a few additional electoral seats or token representation. Rather, the Madhes struggle is one for samman and nyay, respect and justice. For this reason, even substantive concessions on the electoral system and the introduction of federalism in the constitution failed to assuage sentiments in the Tarai. "For one, the government made it appear that it was doing Madhesis a favour, instead of recognising this as rights due to them," says Birgunj-based journalist Chandrakishore. "Then, the ruling parties failed to communicate even the positive steps that were taken, effectively leaving space for all kind of doubts. And to top it all off, the Kathmandu politicians act as if they have done their bit to address all Madhesi grievances, and have closed their minds to voices, suggestions and demands."  

A similar trust deficit and bitterness stems from personal rivalries, as well as intense competition for political space, between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) on the one hand and the MJF and JTMM factions on the other. MJF leader Upendra Yadav, as well as the militant Jai Krishna Goit and Jwala Singh, were all members who left the Maoist organisation, an act not taken to kindly by the Maoist leadership. The latter have felt cheated ever since, claiming that the empowerment of Madhesis was a demand first raised effectively by them, now taken advantage of by pretenders. Madhesi leaders respond that the almost entirely pahade-dominated leadership of the CPN (Maoist) merely used the Madhes issue to mobilise support, and deserted the cause as soon as it achieved power.

The Maoists provided the trigger for the winter revolt in the central and eastern Tarai when they killed an MJF protestor in Lahan on 19 January. Dubbing the agitating groups criminals and terrorists, they subsequently asked the government not to engage with them, and to suppress the movement. It can be said that the Maoist stance as a partner in government obstructed Prime Minister Koirala's hand in resolving the Madhes problem quickly and politically. These acts have eroded Maoist support and credibility in the Tarai among the populace, and help to explain the tension between the Maoists and the Madhesi groups.

In August 2006, the Maoists had declared a war against the JTMM. Sporadic clashes between the Maoists and the MJF also increased, culminating in the Gaur massacre in March 2007, in which MJF activists allegedly killed 27 Maoists, possibly with the help of goondas brought over from across the border. While denying the accusation publicly, MJF leaders were privately not unhappy about the Gaur carnage. "They had it coming," says one party leader from Lahan. "Our struggle is directed as much against them as against the state. We are the only ones capable of giving the Maoists a taste of their own medicine, and finishing them off from Madhes." The Maoists, in government since the beginning of April, have continued to press for a security crackdown against these groups, though lately there seems to be a willingness to consider a political outreach together with the other seven parties in the interim government. Clashes have continued, and activists on all sides have been killed. Though the Maoist death toll is higher than that of others, the party has been relatively restrained until now, and has not retaliated on a major scale, even after the Gaur killings.

Pahades comprise one-third of the Tarai's population. To their credit, Madhesi groups did not allow their movement for rights to descend into a communal clash. But there is little doubt that communal relations have been adversely affected in recent months. In a recent meeting, a Birgunj-based Madhesi businessman and activist begins by making the right noises about the need to take pahades along on the path to progress. But as he gradually opens up, he comes to argue, "I have pahade friends and clients. I don't like violence, but it is important to drive some of them out to drive home the message that the rules have changed. We are in charge now." A short walk away, across from Ghantaghar, the clock tower at the centre of Birgunj town is the Hotel Heera Plaza. A Madhesi journalist hesitates to have a conversation in the restaurant, instead asking for a closed-door meeting. "There are pahades present; we won't be able to talk openly," he explains.

In the evening, a group of middle-aged pahade businessmen are having a loud conversation over drinks in the Heera Plaza's bar. Striking up a conversation, they tell this reporter about the good old days of communal amity. "I was born here, and speak fluent Bhojpuri," says one. "I enjoy my paan, and have many friends across the border in Raxaul. This is my home – I feel like a Madhesi, and am at a loss in Kathmandu. Today, I am being told I am an outsider." The others nod. A drink later, the same man turns back, "You know what, though, Madhesis need to do one thing: give up these dual loyalties. Most of them support India over Nepal. Why can't they only be Nepalis, like us? The government should really suppress the natak, the drama, they are up to, if they continue like this."

Tensions are clearly on the rise. The exclusivist discourse of some Madhesi groups is coupled with rising anti-Madhesi prejudice among plains-based pahades, who see their dominance slipping away. Pahades are insecure, which is making some of them belligerent and aggressive, further polarising the situation. Some others, especially in the towns of Rajbiraj and Janakpur, have reportedly sold their property and moved to Kathmandu. A communal riot at some point in the Tarai is possible – the ingredients are present, and it may benefit extremist groups to incite unrest. If the agitation does turn communal and go too far, there could be a backlash in the hill towns where Madhesis have settled – though it says something about the legitimacy accorded to the Madhesi revolt even in the hills that it has not happened so far, and probably will not in the days ahead.

What is definitely not on the cards, as was pointed out in a recent report on the Tarai by the International Crisis Group, is an all-out ethnic conflict, due to the presence of other balancing forces. India and some mainstream political parties, which continue to be powerful players, would step in before such a conflagration could take place; in addition, both pahades and Madhesis are scattered throughout the country, and the fear of backlash elsewhere will be a deterrent to both; most Madhesis oppose converting the present agitation to a communal fight, and even the most extremist outfit does not have the capacity or appetite for a drawn-out conflict; and finally, there are professional, civic and social linkages between pahades and Madhesis, as well as strong incentives on both sides to retain the peace.

The political theatre
Madhesi politics are in flux. The stranglehold of the mainstream parties, particularly of the Nepali Congress, over the eastern half of the Nepal Tarai is over. The Maoists, who had succeeded in building a limited base, have lost out, though they retain pockets of influence, especially among the underclass. The oldest Madhesi outfit, the Nepal Sadbhavana Party, has a limited base and is faction-ridden, though it may gain a bit from the heightened identity consciousness promoted by others, by virtue of it being the only organised Madhesi party. The MJF gained instant brand recognition for its leadership of the January-February uprising, but has failed to capitalise on the movement's achievements. Both JTMM factions have a political core, and have gained strength; Goit is more widely respected as a politician, but Jwala Singh is more energetic, and has rapidly expanded his organisation, though at the cost of including people with a criminal past. There has also been a proliferation of other armed groups, including the Tarai Cobra, Madhesi Tiger, Nepal Defence Army and JTMM (Bisfot Singh), which remain fringe players and do not appear to have either a political agenda or a support base.

Religion and caste are important factors in Madhes politics. Most groups are dominated by Yadavs, thus breeding resentment among other castes. There is some resentment against the decision to introduce secularism into Nepal, and there are reports that this was used as a rallying cry during the movement to fuel anger against the government. But Hindu extremist groups are neither strong nor organised enough in the Tarai to either build or capitalise on this sentiment.

Pitamber Dahal was inspired by statesman and Nepali Congress leader B P Koirala to join politics 45 years ago. Today, he is among the local Nepali Congress (NC) party bosses in the Koirala family's hometown of Biratnagar. Dahal says he speaks to Prime Minister Koirala every morning at four, to brief him on the previous day's developments in the district. Dahal is a worried man these days, and is struggling to deal with the current identity upsurge. He maintains that the Nepali Congress has not lost out, but admits, "We will need to change our strategy, relentlessly promote Madhesi candidates and take symbolic steps to respect their sentiments." This indeed is also the formula offered by seasoned political analysts in Kathmandu as a means to address Madhesi anger.

The NC cadre have had a difficult time representing their party in the Tarai since the movement. Sitting in the NC office in Rajbiraj, Umesh Jha, a district committee member of the party, complains that the leadership ignores the sentiments of Madhesis. "We had warned them that the Madhesi consciousness was rising," he recalls. "Even now, they don't listen to us. Some of us may choose to fight for Madhesi rights within the party, but they should remember that other activists have other options now."

Across the ideological divide, a young man named Saddam Hussein is in the same boat. The Parsa trade-union secretary of the Maoists, Hussein is a young activist who was born and named during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Having spent three years underground as a rebel fighter, his party loyalties are strong. At a time when being a Maoist and fighting for the Madhesi cause appear contradictory on the surface, Hussein has carved out his own formula. "See, I will vote for the Maoists but will support any group, including the MJF and JTMM, if they organise pro-Madhesi activities," he says. "Our leadership messed up, but I am a Madhesi as well as a Maoist, and will do my bit for both." But Hussein adds that his party chairman's speeches on the Tarai have made life difficult for activists on the ground. "Why does Prachanda need to say that we should use force, or announce, as he did, that he can solve the problem in 15 days? People ask us to explain what this means, and we don't know what to say!" Even as the Maoists have lost out, they have the advantage of a strong organisation, committed and trained party leaders, and support among marginalised communities.

The Madhesi movement catapulted the MJF to the forefront. But the Forum, as it is popularly known in the Tarai, made a major tactical blunder when it decided to resume its agitation in the middle of February, asking for Home Minister Sitaula's dismissal instead of talking to the government. This created doubts about its political judgement and goals, and took away precious time that could have been used in building up the organisation. After the Gaur massacre, the leadership feared for its life and fled to India. The Indian authorities are believed to have then put pressure on the Forum to talk with the Kathmandu government in return for some minimum guarantees on security. The MJF's main demands include a fully proportional representation-based electoral system, and pre-guarantees on federal structure before the November 2007 Constituent Assembly elections. Privately, the Forum leaders say they have little expectations from the talks, and are using the time they have bought themselves to expand and prepare for the next stage of confrontation. They are also convinced that elections will not in fact take place in November – which may suit them fine, as the incipient party organisation is not yet in a position to win a substantial number of seats in the Tarai.

Goit and Singh
Jai Krishna Goit is a long-time communist activist from Saptari. After having been a part of various communist factions that appeared for short periods during the Panchayat years, he joined the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) following the introduction of democracy in 1990. He subsequently quit, and shifted to the CPN (Maoist), where he was appointed the head of the party's Madhesi front. Goit formed the JTMM in 2004.  

An old, bearded man with a professorial look, Goit is sitting in a small hotel room, calling for breakfast. "How will the Tarai revolution take place without eating?" he laughs pleasantly. As he often does with new visitors, he then takes close to two dozen books out of a canvas bag. For the next three hours, he meticulously cites references from each of them, slowly narrating the evolution of the Tarai from pre-historic times to the present. "The Tarai became a part of Nepal after the 1816 and 1860 treaties with British India," he explains. "According to the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty, which is registered with the UN, the older treaties stood annulled. Nepal just does not have a legal case over the Tarai. Our ancestors should have raised the issue then, but why should we lose out because of their mistake?" Goit says that he is neither a Nepali nor an Indian, but wants an independent country. "It might not happen immediately, but I am laying out the theoretical foundations for the next generation to take it forward," he says calmly.

Other armed leaders neither rely on books, nor are as committed to the idea of independence. For them, the call for separation is merely a bargaining chip. Jwala Singh says his aim is the creation of an autonomous Madhes from east to west; most other extremist groups have not come out with political stances. While Goit has suffered from weak health and splits in his party, Jwala Singh has used the vacuum of the past few months to build up his outfit. Responding to accusations that their leader has encouraged criminality, JTMM (Jwala Singh) sympathisers ask: Who will join an armed movement when it is starting out – armchair intellectuals? Those may sympathise, but we need fighters on the ground who are comfortable with weapons and know how to persuasively communicate a message. That does not mean that this is a criminal group.

Both Goit and Jwala Singh have declared that they would not allow the Constituent Assembly elections to go forward in the Tarai, although any such boycott would only have an impact in the eastern and central plains. Their activities revolve around attacking government posts, targeting businessmen (both pahade and Madhesi) for extortion, and attacking pahade administrators and development workers. However, they say they are willing to halt their activities and talk, and admit to feeling let down that the government has not responded to their overtures in the past. "The government needs to create an environment for talks," says Jwala Singh. "Through the media, they call us for talks, and on the other hand, they deploy the Armed Police Force to suppress us. Stop playing games and be sincere." Both leaders ask for full personal security, a ceasefire and a withdrawal of cases against their activists as minimum pre-conditions for talks.

In this maze of Madhesi politics, the moderates are found to be a bit bewildered by the pace of events and the changed landscape. Some are worried about the increase in crime and killings. "Ultimately, Madhesis are killing Madhesis and we are suffering," says Chandrakishore. "The pahades will be happy to see us divided and at each other's throats. Our leadership needs to realise this." Others point to a radicalisation of the mood and, like many Kathmandu progressives who, in the late 1990s, justified the Maoist politics of violence, have a sneaking sympathy for the armed groups. "But for them, the government would have suppressed the Madhesi issue," argues one Rajbiraj intellectual.

There is also a popular feeling that the government's actions have shrunk the space available for those who want to speak up against the extremism. "Kathmandu does not understand the mood here. If I say 'Girija babu' in a speech, people shout at me, and say 'Call him bloody Girija!' Give me something symbolic and substantive, and only then can I go back to calm my people," says Atma Ram Sah, a Birgunj civil-society activist. While there is no doubt that the government's actions have not helped, moderates themselves need to take responsibility for the situation as well. It is how they answer the critical questions on which they have not yet taken a stand that will shape the future of Madhes: the politics of violence, the nature of the demands and the impact on communal relations. For those who claim that, in the end, it is only violence that is heard by the authorities, it must be said that it was the largely peaceful mass movement of January-February that got the Madhesi demands heard nationally, and put Madhesi concerns indelibly on the national agenda.

India remains the most important outside player in the Tarai. The relationship between New Delhi and the Madhesi groups is complex and multi-layered. There is deep resentment across districts of the eastern Tarai with regard to India's role – most believe that New Delhi has always sided with the Kathmandu ruling elite, and even now has not done enough to put pressure on the government to concede to Madhesi demands. There is sympathy for the Madhesi cause across political players and bureaucrats in Patna, Lucknow and Delhi, who are happy to see an effective counter to the Maoists emerge right at the border. Some of the leaders of Madhesi armed groups live in Bihar, and may be receiving some assistance from local-level politicians – and, possibly, select intelligence agents. But Indian diplomats point out they would not like to see the Madhesi agitation derail the entire national peace process, a rapprochement they have helped to create. While New Delhi has not yet used all of its leverage to lean on the underground leaders, it is unlikely that they have the support of the Indian government as a planned strategy.

On the horizon
In early July, the Kathmandu government decided that it would use the Armed Police Force to deal with the security problem in the Tarai. Home Minister Sitaula has subsequently given a 15-day ultimatum to protesting groups: come to the table or face action. The government may think that it is time for a law-and-order approach in the Tarai, but it is clear that a security crackdown will only further exacerbate the problem – causing further radicalisation and deepening the communal divide.

At one level, the government's dilemma is understandable: there is anarchy in Tarai. But Kathmandu needs to be extremely careful, and must seek to strike a balance. First, it needs to get the political groups on board. Then, it needs to intensify engagement with Madhesi politicians and activists, and to build trust. This will marginalise the fringe groups and give the government the moral right, based on community consent, to perform its duties, including the use of legitimate force to quell crime and extremism. As things stand, Home Minister Sitaula is seen as a Maoist sympathiser who lacks proper sensitivity for the Madhesi cry for respect and recognition.

If sequencing is important, timing is critical. There are four months left until the scheduled Constituent Assembly elections. Unless there is a breakthrough on the Tarai situation in the first half of August, it will be difficult to stick to the electoral timetable, as the environment will simply not allow the holding of polls. Elections are possible, though – most Madhesis know that the Constituent Assembly is their best chance to gain the rights they have been historically denied. The problem right now is not that Madhesis do not want elections, but that they are convinced that the major parties in Kathmandu are uninterested in holding them – and in search of excuses not to.

If there is political certainty emanating from Kathmandu, and if all actors move determinedly towards polls, Madhesi groups would not want to risk being seen as spoilers, even as the Madhesi population participates enthusiastically. But a lot of the responsibility lies in the hands of the government – and particularly Prime Minister Koirala, who needs to step in personally, start backchannel communications with Madhesi groups, and initiate a genuine negotiation process. It is not clear how much the Peace and Reconstruction Minister, Ram Chandra Poudel of the NC, who has been given the responsibility of heading negotiations, holds the trust of the Madhesis.

If the government is sincere, it should not be difficult for it to create an environment for talks, and provide face-saving opportunities for Madhesi groups. A few specific steps could go a long way in bridging the current trust deficit and paving the way for a peaceful political settlement: honouring the Tarai movement as one that helps strengthen Nepali nationalism as a whole; implementing promises already made on the declaration of martyrs; assigning Home Minister Sitaula to another post or ministry; setting up a technical research commission to do homework on issues of federalism; and appointing Madhesis immediately to some important positions, such as ambassadorships, memberships of statutory bodies, and as chief district officers in some Tarai districts.

On the electoral system, while rhetoric currently favours a full proportional-representation set-up, Madhesis on the ground still have a deep attachment to the idea of having a direct personal representative. If there is fair delineation of constituencies, a pre-guarantee by the larger parties that they would select Madhesi candidates in the first-past-the-post process (besides the stipulated reservation in the proportional part), and an effort to give Madhesi groups a sense of ownership over the electoral system, an understanding is clearly possible. These steps would also give strength to mainstream Madhesi politicians and moderates, who would be able to exert more influence on the radical groups to refrain from actively opposing the polls, even if they do not actually participate.

Judging from the state's track record, however, many doubt whether there will be a change in the official attitude anytime soon. If the government continues to believe that it can deal with the Tarai problem by buying off groups, engineering splits in Madhesi outfits, not translating promises into action, and cracking down with brute police force, the situation will fester and flare up in an even more dangerous form in the future, irrespective of what becomes of the Constituent Assembly elections. A true communal divide would then begin to emerge between the hills and the plains of Nepal, and the blame at that time would largely fall on the short-sightedness of the authorities in Kathmandu. The Madhes problem can still be addressed at the moment, when not as many lives have been lost and the radicalisation is only on the surface. While Madhesi groups must have a sense of responsibility, the onus lies on Kathmandu's political elite to ensure that Nepal is not put through yet another long and violent conflict, this one based on issues of identity that would therefore run much deeper than the 'class warfare' of the Maoists.

~ Prashant Jha is a freelance journalist based in Kathmandu

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