11 October 2015

The Crisis In Nepal, Explained


Nepal has a new constitution but the country is anything but in celebration. This is because the new constitution has plunged the hill state into a new problem and in confrontation with India. Given below, is a detailed explanation of the history and recent events leading to the current state of affairs. 

‘Bowing to Madhesi pressure, Nepal Govt agrees to amend constitution. Amend to address some of Madhesi demands.’ The aforementioned statement is made by the DD NEWs. The statement was related to a political crisis in Nepal regarding the new constitution and the problems the Madeshi residents had with it.

As pointed out in several news reports the legislators of Nepal proclaimed Nepal a new Constitution on 20 September 2015. Although EU and China have greeted the new constitution and congratulated Nepal’s legislators it has its share of critics who are not small in number. The centre of all its criticism stems from the Terai region of Nepal which is the home of the state’s Madhesi population.

The novel process of drafting a new constitution started after the demand was raised by the Maoists revolutionaries, who after waging a decade long civil war with the Nepali state officially ended it in November 2006 by signing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). Two years later the Maoists won the elections to the constituent assembly and sent the two hundred and forty year old monarchy to the pages of history books. 

However the constitutional process was derailed because of disputes the Maoists had with the other members of the assembly regarding issues of federalism and other legislative matters thus failing to draw up a new constitution.

In the new assembly which was elected in 2013 the legislation polls was won by the Nepali Congress. The winning party and the Maoists, agreeing to work together started the process of finishing the incomplete task of making a new constitution. The tragic earthquakes that shook Nepal earlier this year was one of the reasons the Government as well as most of the opposition were hoping the hasten the process as they viewed an incomplete constitution as a hurdle to proper governance. Of course this should be viewed positively as a constitution is the document that provides legitimacy to the democratic government. But to the Madhesi population this legitimacy is accompanied by discrimination and marginalisation of the communities of the Terai region.

Background of the Madhesis and their anger

The southern region of Nepal between the hills and the plains is known as Madhes in the Nepalese language and its indigenous inhabitants are called Madhesis. The region consists of twenty-two districts, all of which share their borders with India. Madhesh stretches from the east to the west of the country along the Nepalese-Indian border adjoining the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Nepalese columnist Yubaraj Ghimirepointed out the Madhesis are not a monolithic community:

“The Tharus, the largest group of original settlers, are some 16 lakh in number. Other hill castes who have been living here for several generations are around 60 lakh. Those who are referred to as Madhesis number around 56 lakh (2011 Census). Tharus do not like to be called Madhesis, and those of Hill origin are still identified as Pahadis. The Madhesis have castes and ethnicity similar to Bihar and eastern UP, with frequent inter-marriages between families on either side of the border… The Madhesis themselves have been wracked at times by a tussle between ‘migrant Madhesis’ and the ‘Dhartiputras of Madhes’.”

Yet most of the Madhesi residents claim that they are suffering from serious discriminatory actions by the ruling dispensation, which some of them believe have been going on since 1816 with the signing of the Treaty of Sugauli.

The year of 1816 saw the end of the Anglo–Nepalese War, fought between the Kingdom of present-day Nepal and the British East India Company due to border disputes. The aforementioned treaty relinquished around a third of Nepal’s territory to the British Raj including the Terai.

However British administrators found the Terai lands, difficult to govern and returned most of it to the Nepalese kingdom later in 1816. Since then the Nepalese rulers have behaved with the Madhesis as if it is a colony, although this is a contested claim. 

Many Nepalese journalists and historians point out how from 1950s onward, some of the key constitutional posts have gone to Madhesis. One of the most notable name that comes to mind is Bhadrakali Mishra, who was a minister in Nepal in 1951 and, later was made chief of the King’s advisory body

However due to the proximity of the Madhesi region with India, there were certain measures the Nepalese state took which could be termed contentious to say the least. For example the Madheshis had to receive permits from the government authorities to enter Kathmandu, till the 1950’s.

Under the Citizenship Act of 1964, many Madhesis who had relationship of some kind to India were debarred from citizenship certificates, due to which they could neither procure land ownership nor could gain government benefits. Many Madhesis claim that due to their links with India their presence in the civil services, judiciary and security agencies within Nepal have remained minimal.

As the following excerpt by a study done by Nihar R Nayak, Associate Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analysis states:

“Madhesi people have also voiced concerns about the economic exploitation of the resource-rich Madhes region by the Nepali government. Although Madhes contributes 70 per cent of the agricultural production of Nepal, 65 per cent of the GDP, and 76 per cent of the country’s total revenue, the infrastructure in this region is considered to be much poorer than in the hill areas. Allegations have also been made regarding how during the monarchy, in the name of land reform, land belonging to Madhesi people were given away to Pahadis. …”

Many political movements rose against such discrimination. The first of such movement can be traced back to 1951 when a party called the Nepal Terai Congress was formed under the leadership of Vedananda Jha who advocated “regional autonomy” for the Madhesis. However Jha’s activist zeal reduced during the late 1970s when he became a Minister and was also Nepal’s ambassador to India.

The next notable name that comes to mind is Gajendra Narayan Singh who established an organization called Nepal Sadbhavana Council (NSC) in 1983 to tackle prejudice against the Madhesis. The NSC in the post-1990 era, became a political party called Nepal Sadbhavana Party. In the general elections of 1991, 1994, and 1999, the party campaigned for a federal system of government, a liberal policy on citizenship and a separate Madhesi battalion in the army.

Even though the Citizenship Law was amended in November 2006 making it possible for people born in Nepal before 1990 and those residing there permanently to acquire Nepali citizenship, it has been alleged that many Madhesis are still not given citizenship and their demand for federalism was also not met.

This apparent negligence of the Nepalese government led to a series of protests by the Madhesi political organisations between January-February of 2007. During these protests Ramesh Kumar Mahato a young campaigner for the activists of the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF, also called as the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum) was killed when a cadre of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) shot at activists of the MPRF. This murder made the protestors more uninhibited. Activists ransacked government offices, banks, and media organizations. On 31 August the then government signed a 22-point agreement with the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF), which halted the violence.

The present constitution which was approved last month divides Nepal into seven new states, with some borders slicing through the Madhesis’ ancestral homeland in the southern plains. Only eight districts in the Terai region, are going to be given the status of a state while the remaining fourteen are to be joined with the hill districts. The Madheshi and Tharu agitators have come out in the streets protesting against this decision. They claim that they were put aside in the entire process as they want the states to be larger with more autonomy over local matters. The leaders have also demanded that more constituencies be added to their states, which would increase their presence in the Parliament. No less than forty people in Southern Nepal are reported to have lost their lives in the protest against the new constitution.

On 7 October the Nepalese government has registered a proposal seeking to amend three articles of the new constitution at the Parliament Secretariat. This decision was taken in Cabinet meeting on Wednesday to address the demands of agitating Madhesi groups.

In the midst of these agitations one of the targets of public anger in Nepal has been India, as certain Nepalese leaders believe India is co-ordinating the Madhesi agitation to have its control over Nepal. According to onereport New Delhi wants Kathmandu to carry out “seven amendments” to ensure it is acceptable to the Madhesis and Janjatis. This suggestion has been seen by many in Nepal as India’s attack to their sovereignty.

One news portals even reported that India has imposed an economic blockade against Nepal. Indian diplomats have argued however that the insecurity caused by the protests has meant that trucks carrying fuel and other essential goods cannot enter Nepal.

However Prime Minister Sushil Koirala who seemed to share a good rapport with Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed dissatisfaction over India allegedly sending rotten goods, as Kathmandu Post quoted him –

Sending freight trucks carrying rotten bananas, apples and onions to give the impression that they are sending the goods is an inhumane behaviour that has put our nation in crisis.

When PM Modi visited Nepal in 2014 he was met with applauses and cheers from the residents, cutting across ethnicities. However in present-day Nepal he has become a contentious figure. In the social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook statements by Nepalese citizens are directed straight to Modi’s accounts, asking him not to obstruct Nepal’s internal affairs. India runs the risk of losing an ally in Nepal if it does not step guardedly.

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