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#2058, 5 July 2006
Madhesis: A Political Force in the Making?
K Yhome
ORF, New Delhi

Redrawing a new Nepal would be tougher than perceived. As Nepal struggles to find a solution to the decade-old Maoist problem, voices, hitherto unheard, are emerging in the wake of the democratic space created by the 'April Revolution' or the 'Jan Andolan'. At a time when Nepal prepares itself for major social and political restructuring, on 2 June 2006, the Loktrantrik Madhesi Alliance or Democratic Madhesi Alliance (DMA) began a week-long 'Gherao programme' to highlight their plight. The DMA is a united platform of various Madhesi groups. The aim of the DMA is to ensure that Madhesis are not left out in the process of building a new Nepal. Until now the Madhesis had been fighting against 'injustice' under the aegis of various organizations and political parties that included the Terai Congress, the Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Anandi Devi) and Nepal Sadbhavana Party (Mandal) among others. Of the many 'minority' ethnic groups of Nepal, the Madhesis have put forward their demands before the government more strongly after the Revolution. An understanding of Madhesis and their demands is integral to understanding what is at stake in Nepal today.

The Madhesis of Nepal are the lowland people, occupying the strategic Terai belt bordering the Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Uttaranchal. They include different cultural and linguistic groups - Maithilis, Bhojpuris, Awadhis, Tharus, as also some smaller tribal groups. The Madhesis claim that they form 40-50 per cent of the total population of Nepal. Since the Madhesis occupy the most important lifeline of Nepal, it is obvious that activities in the Terai would have immense implications for Nepal. The domestic economy of Nepal depends overwhelmingly on this region that forms its industrial hub with more than 70-80 per cent of all industries located in the Terai, as also its agricultural bowl, producing more than 65 per cent of the nation's foodgrains.

The Madhesi issue is as old as the emergence of Nepal's democratic movement in 1950s; major grievance of that time was the imposition of Nepali as medium of education. In the mid-1970s and 80s, issues of citizenship and 'work permit' were the major problems for the Madhesis. For the last fifty years, they have been raising their voice against alleged 'discrimination' by the state, yet their problems remained unresolved. Their major demands continue to revolve around questions of citizenship and political participation. The DMA claims that even today five million Madhesis have been denied citizenship.

During the ongoing agitation, the demands the DMA has put forward include issuance of 'citizenship to all stateless Madhesis before elections to the Constituent Assembly' (CA), 'Establishment of Federal, Democratic Republican political system', 'Proportional Representation for Madhesis in all state structures', 'Proportional Representation for Madhesis in the CA election', and 'Fresh Census on a scientific basis before elections to the CA.' To concede to the Madhesi-specific demands, Nepal's government may have to break its traditional apprehensions and narrowly defined ideologies and policies.

The Madhesis seem to have understood that this is the best moment to herald a better future for their people. Hence, the Madhesi leadership will make every effort to pressurize the government and ensure that their demands are realized in the new dispensation. They have, for the first time, garnered the courage to stage a gherao in the capital of Kathmandu. Such an occurance would have been unimaginable some years ago and an important reason for this change is the April Revolution. It is unclear whether all the Madhesis will stand united under the DMA banner until their demands are achieved. The schisms between various Madhesi groups have been a major handicap of the Madhesi movement in the past. Differences in terms of religion, caste, tribal groups and language were the major divisive elements. These divisions still remain the movement's vulnerabilities. However, this does not make the movement a non-starter. Despite the many differences and divisions among them, one of the most important uniting factors that binds all the groups together is the sense of being 'discriminated against'. The Madhesis' strength also lies in the fact that this is the first time that they have come together under one Madhesi umbrella to stage a protest in Kathmandu. This suggests a realization by the Madhesi leadership of the weakness afflicting their movement so far. Another source of strength lies in the support they have received from other minority communities facing similar problems.

In the changed political context, the movement surely has the potential to carve out a space for the Madhesis in the new polity and in redefining Nepal's political structure. At the same time, it is also one of several potential fissures that have arisen as a consequence of the Jan Andolan of April 2006.

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