Running against time

Home minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula has given all agitating groups in the Tarai 15 days’ time to come for talks before the government “embarks on a definite course of action” in restoring peace and tranquillity ahead of the November 22 constituent assembly (CA) polls. The home minister made it clear that the government would get tough in maintaining law and order afterwards. Sitaula made this call after Saturday’s meeting of the parliamentary Constituent Assembly Election Monitoring Special Committee, which discussed the continuing violence in the Tarai. He said when the electoral code of conduct comes into force it will be impossible for the government to address any of the demands of any faction “at a political level”. About a dozen groups are now active in the Tarai to push their demands mainly through violence, including the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), which, though, claims its movement is ‘peaceful’. MJF has, however, welcomed the Sitaula appeal.

In the past, the government made more than one appeal but the agitating groups did not show much interest in talks. Recently, MJF sat down twice for talks with the government delegation led by peace and reconstruction minister Ram Chandra Poudel. Though the dialogue was reported to have made much headway, its outcome is not clear as yet. In fact, the government has already resolved virtually all key demands raised by MJF through constitutional amendment, such as the commitment to embrace federalism, to reorganise the constituencies on the basis of population, and to adopt proportional representation for the CA polls (this last one has been met half-way through a mixed electoral system). Indeed, the government should give negotiated settlement a chance till the last. But that does not mean that it should compromise on security in the meantime.

Sadly, laxity is what the government has been famous for and this explains why it has been perceived to be a poor performer on the law and order front. Negotiation and strict maintenance of peace should go hand-in-hand. The government cannot just afford to give one deadline after another, vowing that it will be tough on security after at a later date. It should also differentiate between what is to be left for the CA polls to decide on and what demands are genuine and to be addressed with immediacy. Sitaula has rightly echoed what Koirala has repeatedly vouched, that the government will not succumb to demands that will “compromise the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the nation”. Given increasing signs of a separatist streak in many of the Tarai groups, the government may not be able to clinch a deal with some of them, at least before the CA polls. But it should go to great lengths to reach an agreement that has to do with ending all forms of discrimination among the Nepalis on the basis of race, caste, religion, gender, and geography. At the same time, it should be ensured that another kind of discrimination is not started, say, on the divisive notion of whether one belongs to the hills, the Tarai or the Inner Tarai.