Managing Madhes: A litmus test for SPA

The ills afflicting Madhes are very old, but one incident brought them to the fore like no other event. The killing of a boy at Lahan, Siraha, triggered a series of protests all over the southern plains. About 42 persons of Tarai origin lost their lives in police firing at different places.

Though arrests of a few leaders of Madhesi Rights Forum (MRF) in Kathmandu were mentioned as the main reason behind the protests, its nature was spontaneous. It was not a sudden occurrence, rather the culmination of centuries-long tradition of discrimination and domination of the Madhesi people at the hands of a few in top government posts. Most remarkable part of the protests were that they galvanised people of different classes, cultures and religions of Madhes into taking a political action.

In spite of their diversity, they have united for power, participation and recognition. They want to uphold their honour and to be recognised as equals. They want to overcome the obstacles that have kept them the underdogs even after the restoration of democracy in 1990. The psychological impact of the protests is that it has removed the state of fear among people of Tarai origin, leading the region gradually towards administrative dysfunction.

Surprisingly, within a few months of upsurge of discontent, Madhes has undergone transformation from being a backwater to the most burning issue of national and international concern. However, debates generally organised at national forums on Tarai issues about the steps to be taken in the future give the impression that the talks are participated by only the representatives of one half of the population, thereby inconclusively ending in half-way solutions. Besides a few overexposed Madhesi participants, scholars of Tarai origin are deliberately left out.

As a result, the political parties in power are misreading the movement. On the one hand, they do accept the cause and concern of Madhes genuinely, but at the same time some self-opinionated scholars and leaders paint the movement as divisive, misconceived, sponsored and provocative. Reciprocally, people of Tarai origin are also getting suspicious of the intent of those in the government. Tarai issues, from this angle, will only weaken the foothold of mainstream political parties.

After all, the demand of the struggle is convergent with the spirit of Jana Andolan II. It was to eradicate discrimination and deprivation of every kind and establish an egalitarian society where there will be equitable sharing of power and benefits. Maoists in this regard deserve credit for raising the causes of Madhesis, Janajatis and Dalits effectively and making their voices strong. There is no doubt that there have been magnanimous gestures like distribution of citizenship, incorporation of federalism in the interim statute, compensation for the families killed during the Tarai unrest and reservation of seats for Madhesis as per civil service act, and in police force, subsequent to Jana Andolan II and following the agreement signed by the government with MRF and Janajatis.

Ironically, these government steps have not been successful in removing the suspicion of Tarai leaders as they label these steps vague and have come up with variegated interpretations. Everybody should be aware of the fact that the absence of rule of law is creating a dangerous vacuum in Tarai. The situation is getting more alarming by the day. Ethnic cleavages are being exposed. No place is safe. In this context, urgent action is needed. The SPA should not, therefore, take too much time in trying to find out the underlying motives of the dissidents. On thing is very clear: Madhesis, at large, do not want to slip their moorings from the nation and drift out. They are, at heart, for national glory and integration. However, national integration is not a one-time job. It is a continuing process that requires careful building up.

Fortunately, the country is once again geared up for the election to the Constituent Assembly. General impression is that CA polls will bring the marginalised groups on the right path and into national mainstream. No major dissident groups have opposed CA so far. But for meaningful and peaceful CA election, a conducive atmosphere has to be created by ending policy dilemmas.

The SPA should try to bring all groups in Tarai at a place rather than trying to impose specific solutions from above. Armed groups in Tarai should also understand that they cannot reach any meaningful solution through arms alone. Neither side can be defeated through the use of force. To see the end of turmoil in Tarai, all stakeholders should sit together to talk, discuss reforms and cooperate for nation building. A widely held view is that all types of conflict see definite ends at some time. Why not bring that day forward through negotiation. Peaceful negotiation is always less costly and yields high returns.

Prof Singh is former rector, TU