Tarai turmoil : Autonomy is the only way out

The Tarai unrest has worried not only Nepali patriots and nationalists but also the international community interested in peace and stability in Nepal. The observation of two prominent Tarai leaders last week is worthy of attention of the government, the eight-party alliance and all others interested in protecting Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The government has to exercise utmost flexibility and respond quickly to the genuine demands of the Tarai leaders in order to isolate the extremists who are challenging Nepal’s territorial integrity.

Ramraja Prasad Singh was the first republican and the first among Tarai leaders to plead for the use of a militant force against the establishment. While vehemently defending national integrity he has pleaded for autonomy of the Tarai people within a sovereign and united Nepal and has expressed his belief in protection of minority rights within an autonomous Tarai authority.

MJF leader Upendra Yadav has, among other demands, reiterated the need for full-fledged proportional electoral system but it seems the negotiating head of the ruling coalition is still reluctant to consider the issue.

Tarai leaders have made it clear that they will not succumb to the pressure being built by elements who are not ready to restructure the state on the basis of administrative units (state, province, district) delineated on linguistic, cultural or ethnic grounds. The main bone of contention, it seems, revolves around two vital matters. One, whether the CA polls should be held according to full-fledged proportional representation system or a mixed system and if the administration should be based on geographical delineation or linguistic, cultural and ethnic grounds.

Those who oppose full-fledged proportional representation have no solid argument except that mixed electoral system provides opportunity for all to satisfy their demands. They ignore the fact that proportional representation which provides opportunity for representation on the basis of percentage of population of respective linguistic and ethnic groups is a better option.

Similarly those who oppose reorganisation of administrative units on the basis of language, culture and ethnic grounds have no concrete argument in favour of geographical delineation except to say that nowhere in Nepal a particular ethnic group has the majority.

The reality is that though an ethnic group may not enjoy an overwhelming majority throughout the nation, there are places where a particular ethnic group is dominant. The dominant group has its own language and culture that need to be promoted. Of course the fundamental rights of all others in the new administrative units built on ethnic basis should be protected as well.

The Tarai has three distinct linguistic areas and if the claim of Tharus for their own language and culture is recognised, there are four distinct groups. Hindi serves as their common language of communication. So it has to be left to the discretion of the Tarai people if they should have a single Tarai unit or four. Once again, except for extremists and criminal elements who have been masquerading as Tarai leaders, it is commonly accepted that the rights of the minority (hilly people settled in Tarai) should be honoured.

There is no danger of disintegration if the demands of the Tarai people and ethnic communities are fulfilled. It would rather strengthen unity among all Nepalis. In fact, insensitivity to the demands of the Tarai people and ethnic communities would, in the long run, strengthen the causes of extremists and destabilising forces. Given a chance for self-rule, ethnic communities and Tarai people would be able to enjoy all privileges conferred on Nepali citizens and walk with pride and dignity, further strengthening the bond of fraternity among Nepalis. But denying the aspiration of the ethnic communities and the Tarai people would ignite another rebellion.

The Tarai leaders who have come to the negotiating table have shown that they would work to strengthen national unity when they feel they are equal stakeholders and not made to feel like inferior ones. Ramraja’s statement cursing the extremists who demand separation from Nepal as “sinners” is an example of a true nationalist. MJF has never favoured an independent Tarai. They have only demanded autonomy with a federal Nepal.

Let the government leaders and those outside learn from developments in neighbouring countries. The state of Pakistan materialised after autonomy for Muslim majority provinces was not considered and Bangladesh came into existence after Pakistan denied the recognition of Bengali as a national language alongside Urdu. Every community has its roots and in a democracy, spread of education and faster communication has strengthened traditional identities. This fact has to be recognised in order to save the nation from going to pieces.

Upadhyay is ex-foreign minister