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Madhesi Movement in Nepal: Implications for India

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  • May 28, 2010
    Fellows' Seminar

    Dr. Nihar Nayak began by offering some basic facts about the Madhesi movement. Although there exist a number of versions about what the word ‘Madhes’ stands for, the most popular or accepted version is that it refers to ‘Madhya-desh’, a region between the hills and the plains. Also known as ‘Terai’, Madhes region consists of twenty districts, all of which share their borders with India. Many Madhesis are of Indian origin and thus have strong socio-cultural ethnic linkages across the border. In the paper, Dr. Nayak flagged three questions: Is the Madhes issue likely to bring in deep-rooted conflict in Nepal? Can external forces take advantage of the situation to India’s detriment? How will Madhesi politics determine the future of Nepal politics and India-Nepal relations in the future?

    Over the years, Madhesis have suffered from a sense of discrimination and consequent deprivation. They also feel exploited and discriminated against by the upper caste Pahadi migrant communities. Hindi-speaking Indian Madhesis particularly feel discriminated against by the Nepali state due to the following factors. Firstly, Indian Madhesis, under the Citizenship Act of 1964 and the Constitution of 1990, were debarred from citizenship certificates, due to which they could neither acquire land ownership nor could avail government benefits. Although 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 and Dalits are still deprived of citizenship. It has also been alleged that instead of taking into consideration the Madhesis’ cultural affiliation with India, the Nepali government has adopted a discriminatory attitude towards this group by trying to introduce compulsory Nepali language for both official work and as the medium of education in the Madhes region. Despite the fact that the Madhesi population constitutes nearly one-third of the Nepali population, their share at the level of gazetted level employees is merely 9.9 per cent. 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.

    A feeling of deprivation and exploitation made the Terai or Madhes region a hub of the pro-democratic movement during the 1950s and 1960s. During that time, perceiving India as anti-establishment and the Madhesis as India’s agents, and fearing that Indian immigrants in Terai might prompt India to claim it as Indian territory, the Nepali elite adopted stringent policies to curb the Madhesis’ activism. But this led to the emergence of identity-based movement in Madhes, particularly with the formation of two groups: the Nepal Terai Vongress led by Vedanta Jha in 1951 and the Madhesi Mukti Andolan led by Raghunath Thakur in 1956. At present, numerous political parties and non-state actors are involved in the Madhesi cause. In this context, examples of Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), Terai Madhesh Loktantrik Party (TMLP), etc., can be particularly cited. There also exist a number of major armed groups in the Terai region, such as the Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM), Terai Cobra, Nepal Defence Army (NDA), Nepal Janatantrik Party (NJP), and Chure Bhawar Ekta Samaj (CBES). Although all these forces are involved in armed revolution in Nepal, there seems to be a divergence in the goals each of them aspires to achieve. While JTMM demands the establishment of an autonomous Terai region, and Terai Cobra aspires to launch an armed separatist struggle for a sovereign Terai state, the objective of NDA is to form a Hindu army with suicide bombers to fight against religious extremism, conversion, as well as Maoists. Similarly, while as a royalist outfit, the NJP aspires to retain constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy in Nepal, the CBES basically demands the establishment of a Chure Bhawar federal region in Terai and is opposed to ‘one Madhesh one Pradesh’ demand.

    There are reports of ‘internal tensions and lack of clarity on immediate demands and long term strategy’ of Madhesi groups. While the Madhes-based parties take a soft stand on the issue, the armed groups are demanding nothing less than sovereignty. Moreover, the Madhesi political parties are in a dilemma especially regarding whom to take sides with among the major parties. They cannot support a liberal democratic government in Kathmandu as their autonomy demand would be lost. They cannot really support the Maoists basically due to the prevailing fear of losing a multi-party democratic system in Nepal under a Maoist led government. In the meantime, due to their involvement in kidnapping, killing and extortion, some armed groups involved in the Madhesi cause are often dismissed as criminals by most Madhesis themselves. In this scenario of diffused leadership and objectives, the future of the Madhes cause remains uncertain.

    In his presentation, Dr. Nayak tried to draw attention to the fact that unstable Nepal, particularly the border regions of Terai, can provide avenues for both China and Pakistan to encourage anti-India elements there, through arms and fake currency trafficking, madrasas, terrorist outfits, etc. Reportedly, China has already extended its support to the faction of the MFJ led by Upendra Yadav. In recent time, the United States too has taken particular interest in the developments of Madhesi region. Although it has listed JTMM on the US terrorist list, it granted a visa to Upendra Yadav to attend the Terai Diaspora event held in Washington.

    Over the years, while treating Madhesi issue as an internal matter of Nepal which can be resolved by accommodating minority rights within the new Constitution, India has largely taken a stance of non-interference. Even then, the Pahadis often allege India of encouraging the ‘one Madhes, one Pradesh’ demand. According to Dr. Nayak, if such perceptions gain further ground, it would aggravate the prevailing anti-India sentiments in Nepal and consequently give more space to China and Pakistan to use Nepal as a hotbed for anti-India activities. Ironically, the Madhesis accuse India of neglecting the Madhesi movement. Recently, in June 2009, allegations were raised regarding India’s involvement in engineering divisions in the MJF. Debate has also been brewing in the Terai that the Madhesis have failed to take any concrete decision about their future because of India’s support for the liberal democratic parties opposed to ethnic-based federalism.

    According to Dr. Nayak, anti-Indianism of the Madhes movement is likely to affect India’s economic interests in Nepal. Frequent protests will affect India’s trade and commercial relations with Nepal. It will also affect India’s hydroelectric projects and the business operations of Indian investors in Nepal. Since the Terai is the link between India and northern Nepal, a troubled Terai may affect “every major highway, custom point. The industrial, economic, and other fertile resources of Nepal are in Madhesh, helping circulate trade relationship.”

    Under the prevailing circumstances, India is faced with certain difficult choices. Any constructive attempt by India to salvage the Terai situation through proactive involvement is likely to be interpreted as unnecessary intervention in the internal affairs of Nepal and upset its Pahadi constituency and Nepal Army. At another level, passive indifference to developments in Terai will be misconstrued as shirking of responsibility by observers at home as well as by the Madhesis themselves. India cannot possibly afford to ignore developments in Nepal and especially the discrimination in Terai. At present, the best approach for India seems to be to work as a positive facilitator to strengthen the capacity of various democratic institutions to resolve the social tensions in Nepal in general and in Terai in particular. Given India’s leverages in Nepal, India could also make an earnest effort to bring all political parties together to have a dialogue on the contentious issues.

    Important points raised during the discussion of the paper:

    1. From a topographical point of view, Nepal is vulnerable to both India and China. Terai is not only important for India, but also for Nepal itself. Over the years, the Nepali government has been trying to make this place inhabited by people ‘friendlier to them’ and people who look like them. The sentiment behind taking such stance by the Nepali government should be respected by the Indian government.
    2. In this paper, more space should be devoted to analyse the impact of the Madhesi movement on India.
    3. India’s concern about the Madhesi problem cannot be anything more than neighbourly.
    4. Nepal suffers from paranoia of being encircled by India. But it does not seem to have a similar problem with respect to China. India has to understand this psyche among the Nepalese.
    5. The Madhesi problem should be studied in relation to the challenge of governance that Nepal is currently facing.
    6. The strong sense of opportunism among Madhesi leaders makes it difficult for India to get involved in this movement.
    7. Indian policy vis-à-vis Nepal since the Maoist uprising in 1997 has been to keep other players out of it. But this policy seems to have misfired particularly because of the involvement of so many external actors in it.
    8. Geo-strategic importance of the Terai region should be analysed in the paper.
    9. There is a need to mention the Jan Andolan III.
    10. The clash between Madhesis and Maoists in which 21 Maoists were killed should be mentioned.
    11. Due to Madhesi identity, Maoist influence in Terai has weakened considerably. Madhesis are expected to become future kingmaker of Nepal. India needs to take that factor into account.
    12. With the advent of democracy, the Muslim vote bank in the Terai has become important.
    13. The paper needs to clarify the significant factors for the potential of conflict in Terai. Those factors are basically identified as intra-Madhesi conflict, Pahadi-Madhesi conflict, and elements of communal violence.
    14. India should try to harmonize Madhesi politics. It should particularly take interest in brining about economic development in Terai region.
    15. India’s role in brokering the 8-point agreement between the Madhesis and the government should be highlighted.
    16. Future of Madhesi politics should be analysed in the paper.
    17. The paper also needs to bring out ordinary Madhesi people’s perception about India.

    Report prepared by Pranamita Barua, Research Assistant, IDSA