Editorial Analysis: Crisis Deepens in Madhesh
From Nepalgunj to Lahan to Khajura to Gaur, the crisis in Madhesh has gotten bad from worse in just four months. A Nepal Monitor update on the continuing turmoil in southern Nepal.
More than five dozen people have been killed and scores more injured so far in this new crisis, exceeding far beyond the deaths that occurred during the 19 days of Jana Andolan II in April 206. The situation is spiraling out of control. And Nepalis are becoming frustrated with the shaky peace process.
The view of diplomatic community as well as the UN also underscores the severity of the crisis. Head of the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN), Ian Martin, on Thursday, March 22, suggested that the lack of adequate security forces and arrangements in the villages led to the Gaur incident. He asked the parties to play an active role in combating such violence. Meanwhile, the US embassy in Kathmandu warned that unless political parties promoted unity and the government cracked down on violence, the country’s fragile peace process could be in trouble. In Washington, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described the situation in Nepal as “somewhat tenuous.”
The body count, however anecdotal it may be, brings back the gory memory of brutal killings back in the days of the Maoist insurgency:
A chronology of Terai conflict
December 2006 (Nepalgunj, Banke): The country saw its first communal clash in memory when Madhesi youths clashed on December 26 with Pahade youths in Nepalgung, a town in the Terai plains bordering India. The pro-Madhesi Nepal Sadbhawana Party (Anandadevi) (NSP-A), a small party in the ruling alliance, had called for a regional strike to demand some changes in the proposed interim constitution. One person was killed and 20 others were injured in the clash.
January 2007 (Lahan, Siraha): In Lahan town, locals defied curfew imposed after a group of Maoists on January 19 killed Ramesh Mahato, a 16-year-old school boy, who was part of the protest organized by Madheshi People's Rights Forum. Mahato is from the Madhesis community. The conflict started after the Maoists violated a transportation strike called by MPRF. Maoists first denied involvement, but later admitted they were to blame.
The Lahan incident triggered a wider crisis. A total of 24 (officially) to 38 (unofficially) people were killed in the unrest from Jan. 19 to Feb. 7. The violent demonstrations across eastern and central Terai plains of southern Nepal were mainly called by Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF, also called Madhesi Janadhikar Forum. Scores were injured. After Lahan, many Terai towns witnessed curfews, strikes and widespread vandalism of public and private properties.
March, 2007 (Khajura, Banke): On 9th March, one person was killed and scores injured in clashes between the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum activists and the Police in Banke district. Some locals who opposed the strike were also injured. In other clashes 27 people were injured. Day long curfew had to be enforced when one of the injured succumbed to the injuries.
March, 2007—Again (Gaur, Rautahat): Another wave of violence in Rautahat on March 21 resulted in the death of 29 people (unofficially 50), most of them Maoists from the hills. The violence erupted when the Maoist aligned Madhesi Mukti Morcha and the ethnic Madhesi People's Rights Forum activists clashed over a venue for their mass meeting in the southern town.
If these numbers and facts on the continuing violence are any indication, the country’s democratic transition and the peace process is in a very dangerously fluid situation. Already, the euphoria that followed the triumph of “people power” in the uprising of April 2006 has turned into hopelessness and frustration. When the Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) signed a landmark deal on November 21 Nepalis hoped that the decade-long war had truly ended and that it was time to focus on not only structuring the political system and strategizing elections but also addressing the plight of ordinary citizens in need of basic services such as food, shelter and water.
Only a few months ago, the lights on the political horizons seemed bright. Today, they are dim. Immediately on the ground the netas in Kathmandu have to grapple with are issues of profound political concerns: How to adequately address the Terai concern within a democratic framework? That question is compounded by the fact that there is a certain amount of confusion and mystery regarding the causes and motivations of the new revolt in the southern part of the country.
Demands and promises
The Terai crisis reflects the country’s macrocosm—there are as many factions as there are in the national politics. One of the factions (NSP-Anandadevi) of Sadbhavana Party, the oldest party representing the Madhesi people, was among the first to agitate because the parliament passed an interim constitution (on December 16) which did not meet their demands for federalism and proportional representation. On January 29, Hridayesh Tripathi, leader of NSP-Ananda Devi and Minister for Commerce, Industry and Supply in the Seven Party Alliance government resigned.
Janatantrik Terai Liberation Front (JTLF-Goit) and Janatantrik Terai Liberation Front (JTLF- Jwala Singh), both broke away from Prachanda’s Maoist party some 2 and half years ago, also launched armed rebellion. Another group is Madeshi Peoples' Rights Forum (MPRF), led by Upendra Yadav. There is also the Madhesi National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Terai front of the CPN-Maoist, led by its central member Matrika Prasad Yadav.
The original demands of the agitating parties are similar to a large measure—amendment of interim constitution to reflect a fair share of Terai in the new Nepal, establishment of federal system of governance and regional autonomy with rights to self-determination, proportional representation according to population in the Constituent Assembly, and representation of Madheshi population in policy making during the transition period. Other demands include citizenship, end to discrimination in hiring Madhesis in the national administration, army and bureaucracy, cessation of Maoist atrocities and return of seized lands; compensation to Madhesi martyrs, etc.
Government response to the Madhesi demands remained slow and ambivalent in the beginning. PM Girija Prasad Koirala promised the Constitution Assembly elections slated for mid-June 2007 would address the Madhesi demands. On Feb 7, he made an address to the nation again, announcing that the eight parties will go for federal system of governance, increase electoral constituencies based on population growth and increase the number of seats to be held on the basis of proportional representation. To meet the demands and alleviate the crisis, the First Amendment Bill of the interim-constitution was passed by an overwhelming majority of 278 to five votes on Friday, March 9.
Despite doubts by some factions of Nepali Congress party as well as UNMIN, Koirala has reiterated that CA elections will be held by mid-June. In fact, the focus and energy of the Seven Party Alliance have been on CA elections and other structural changes, rather than the crisis in Madhesh.
The Maoists have dismissed the agitators as a bunch of hooligans, and pro-palace Hindu fundamentalist elements. Worried that the Madhesi rebels are stealing the limelight in the highly populated constituencies in the Terai, Prachanda has changed his position on the Madhesi rebels time and again, sometimes he is open for a dialogue and other times he urges the government to outlaw the rebels.
The rebels say they will continue to agitate until all their demands are fulfilled, including a provision of separate reservation for Madhesi and Janajatis, dismissal of home minister Krishna Prasad Situala under whose watch there were violent governmental crachdown in Terai, compesensation for the people who were killed and action against the perpetrators of violence, among others.
The lack of dialogue
However grave the situation is right now, there appears to be little or no dialogue between the rebels and the government. On February 2, 2007 the government formed a three-member Talks Team headed by Nepali Congress leader Mahant Thakur. The team officially invited all major agitating groups of Terai to come for dialogue. But no progress has been made on talks.
The rebels are not ready to talk with the government because they perceive that the government has only promised but not truly addressed their demands of an inclusive democracy, self-rule and autonomy based on federalism, and proportional representation in elections. They continue to argue that the government must first probe the killings of people during the Madhesh agitation by forming a high level commission, much like the government did to investigate the royal crackdown on the April 2006 demonstrations. The agitators also say they will not talk unless Home Minister Krishna Sitaula resigns.
The blame game continues. Elements in the SPA government and the Maoist party continue to insist that Terai turmoil is the handiwork of the royalist elements. Others see a hand of Hindu fundamentalists in India. The Maoist leaders Prachanda and Baburam Bhattarai charged the other day that Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) brought truckloads of people from Bihar into Nepal to encourage violence.
Besides wild charges based on speculations, the SPA and Maoist leaders are busy to discuss the formation of the interim government with the induction of the Maoists. They have found extended time (actually several rounds of talks for several weeks) to talk about ministerial portfolios and to quarrel over who gets which of the high-profile ministries.
Despite the stalemate and the continuing violence, Prime Minister Koirala has reiterated his confidence that the agitating forces in the Terai will come forward for talks as the government had already met their demands by amending the interim statute. Increasingly, it looks like he must do more than express confidence. Whatever the political leanings of the Madhesis (don’t forget that we have embraced the Maoists who were called “terrorists” not long ago), they must be seen in the light of their demands. A more pro-active approach is needed on the part of the government.
If the resignation of the Home Minister helps, why don’t fire him? What is wrong in forming a high level commission to probe the government excesses? Why not adequately compensate the family members of those killed? What is the problem with taking action against the perpetrators of the violence? Haven’t we learned anything from the decade-long Maoist conflict that saw several PMs fired, high-level commissions formed, and compensations paid?
Sometimes a nikash is not in the words written in an agreement, it is in the attitude and behavior you display toward your adversaries. A genuine effort, via a more comprehensive talks, to reach out to the Madhesi people and their demands cannot fail. And the rebels must also make genuine effort to reciprocate.
Just branding them royalist or India-oriented or Maoists or what not, will only widen the gulf between the rebels and other parties because their struggle is primarily for self-identity. To make any headway, they must be respected and recognized for who they are.
Posted by Editor on March 25, 2007 9:04 PM