Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli’s Chhath-eve address brings no joy to the Nepalis struggling on the streets for their rights and those battling adversities in their kitchens. They had expected something concrete to end the prolonged crisis. Oli delivered nothing.
First part of his 45-minute speech highlighted salient features of new constitution and the crisis caused by blockade and Madhesh agitation. This is irrelevant because while common people are suffering, government ministers continue to enjoy all facilities.
The Madhesh protests have now entered third month. They continued through Dashain and Tihar and are also being observed during Chhath—the great festival of Madheshis. Thanks to these festivals, protesters have muted their criticism of the incompetent government. But once Chhath is over, they will again gain their voice.
Since 2007 Madhesh Movement Chhath has been celebrated across the country and is observed as a national holiday. People worship the Sun in Chhathi believing that the deity will fulfill devotees’ wish and bring peace, joy and prosperity in their families. Devotees in Madhesh are praying to the Sun to help them take the movement to a logical end and end the current crisis. It is this prayer that will make this Chhath different.
Chhath dates back to Vedic ages. According to lunar calendar, it generally falls on sixth day of Suklapaksha of Kartik. This festival observed for four days holds immense religious, cultural and social significance for Madhesh residents.
Women devotees take a bath in rivers, ponds or reservoirs on the first day. They observe strict fast on the second day. The third day marks an important celebration. Sweets such as Thekuwa and Bhusuwa are prepared. Female devotees lead their family members to the rivers and ponds with homemade special sweets and seasonal fruits, singing religious songs on the way. Then all devotees pray to the setting sun. The next morning they reach the rivers before sunrise and pray to the rising sun again. The festival reinforces social cohesion and harmony among people of all castes and creeds.
Chhath celebration in Nepal’s Tarai and Bihar and UP states of India signifies bond between people from two countries. This is where this Chhath is tied to Madhesh agitation. Madheshis are putting pressure on their leaders not to compromise on demands of equal citizenship for women (Indians) married to Nepalis (Madheshis).
There is no official data of number of Indian women marrying Nepali men. But roughly, over 70 percent of Nepali men marrying Indian women are from Madhesh. The new constitution will provide these women naturalized citizenships. The Madheshis fear the discriminatory provision on citizenship will affect their conjugal relations and family bonds with the people of India. The concern is that with the current provision unchanged, no Indian women will agree to marry Madheshi men for they will be treated as second class citizens in their spouses’ country.
Even Indian constitution allows naturalized citizens to occupy vital state positions like Prime Minister and President. There are some countries including Armenia, Brazil and Germany which requires a citizenship of their countries in order to stand for election as president. However, Nepal’s new constitution states that only citizens by descent are eligible for state’s vital posts. This is where Madheshis have resentment. They do not want any provisions that rupture their roti-beti relations with people across the border.
Many in Kathmandu fear that India will colonize Nepal if Madheshis’ relation with Indians is restored through provision of equal citizenship. Those who argue so have failed to understand the aspirations of Madheshi people.
Another fear among Madheshis is that their language, identity and culture may be endangered if their demand for provincial boundaries based on identity is not addressed.
The agitating Madheshis received a green signal from previous government for two key demands—electoral constituencies based on population and proportionate inclusion and representation in state structures. The current government has been dragging its feet on these promises.
Instead of resolving internal problems, the government and ruling political parties are busy inciting anti-Indian sentiments which agitating Madheshi communities perceive as propaganda to thwart their movement. This has made Madheshi communities believe that anti-Indian sentiment is fundamentally an anti-Madhesh sentiment.
Neither anti-Indian sentiment nor ultra-nationalism can help resolve the current crisis.
The current agitation is different from those of 2007 and 2008. In past movements, urbanites from district headquarters were chief participants. But this movement has seen overwhelming participation of hundreds of thousands villagers. Such participation was beyond expectation of both agitating parties as well as the government.
It is not true that villagers have been misled. A school teacher friend of mine from Rautahat tells me that Madheshi villagers have read the constitution well and they know how it discriminates against Madheshi communities.
Oli government and its predecessor have reiterated that constitution is a living document and can be amended. If so why has the government shown no interest to amend it?
As Madheshis celebrate Chhath today they will also be discussing these issues. What follows after Chhath could prove decisive for both agitating groups and the government.