Last Monday marked 100th day of Madhesh protest. This is the longest ever protest staged by Nepalis in the country’s history. The country suffered much in these 100 days but the government is yet to address Madheshis’ concerns.

Reading various social media posts, it feels like majority of users want the government to ease the flow of petroleum and break the standoff with India, but not address Madheshis’ demands. No doubt, as a sovereign country, Nepal should not let India meddle in its internal affairs. But will the country’s crisis be resolved without first addressing Madhesh issues?

Madheshi grievances are centuries-old. Thanks to late Gajendra Narayan Singh, founder of Nepal Sadhbhawana Party, Madheshis’ concerns in Nepal were institutionalized. Federalism, secularism, proportionate and inclusive representation of Madheshis in state mechanisms, equal citizenship, and population based electoral constituencies are key issues of Madheshis. Although the new constitution has addressed some, core issues that affect Madheshis the most remain unaddressed.

Even major parties like Nepali Congress and CPN-UML had promised to fulfill Madheshis’ demand. But these promises were limited to their election manifestos.

Maoists exploited marginalization agenda during the people’s war. They soon forgot about it after they joined the political mainstream.

It should be clear that age-old state suppression culminated in 2007 Madhesh Movement. It was an expression of anger by Madheshis and Tharus against the state. Identity became a key issue after this movement. The 2007 uprising had started one day after Madheshi People’s Rights Forum (MPRF) activists burnt copies of the Interim Constitution, demanding federalism.

MPRF was just a social organization at that time and police arrested its leaders. Agitation followed in Tarai, demanding immediate release of arrested cadres. The movement took a violent turn and displaced a number of hill people from Tarai. Only when the government signed the 22-point pact with MPRF did the movement die down.

One year later, Madheshis again felt that the state was cheating them when the Interim Constitution did not accommodate key provisions of 22-point pact. It led to second Madhesh Movement of 2008. Unlike the first, the second movement was led by an alliance of three Madhesh based parties, United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF). An eight-point agreement was subsequently signed with UDMF. This had tangible effect. Madheshi representation increased in state bodies. A Madheshi leader became the head of the state.

Constitutional lawyer Dipendra Jha argues that Interim Constitution was much more progressive than the current constitution. Had the provisions of Interim Constitution been retained in the new charter, there would not have been any agitation in Madhesh.

Madhesh agenda was among the key factors that led to the dissolution of first Constituent Assembly. Madheshis feel that major parties have not learned from first CA fiasco.

There are more than dozen Madheshi parties, seven of them represented in the CA, agitating in Madhesh. But people do not trust any of them because of their past record of compromising Madhesh agenda for power. Nor do they trust the government. But people rely on United Democratic Madheshi Front (UDMF). They are giving it a second chance. UDMF has once again gained a foothold in Tarai districts.

UDMF wants constitution to be amended based on the 22-point and eight-point agreements. Hence, the current movement is not for new demands. They want electoral constituencies based on population, proportional representation of Madheshis in government bodies, identity-based provincial demarcation and equal citizenship rights for women marrying Nepali men. Besides, they also want amendment of controversial provisions in the constitution.

The 100 days of agitation has seen two governments. Around a dozen attempts of formal and informal talks with the government have made no headway, even after 36 civilians and 10 policemen have been killed.

It has been learnt that government talks team agreed to fulfill other demands except revision of provincial boundaries. But this is UDMF’s bottom-line. When will the three parties make their common stand?

Although current movement was launched by UDMF, it has spontaneous and overwhelming support of people in Madhesh. People have owned up demands of UDMF. Madhesh agitation is more about rights and justice. Even if the government thwarts the movement, these issues will remain.

This first appeared in Republica.

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