Madheshi protesters and police in Birgunj. Image: AP/ Jiyalal Sah

Following the catastrophic earthquake that hit Nepal in April, the country is experiencing a new crisis, which this time is entirely political in nature, writes Fraser Sugden

Since 2008 Nepal has been struggling to draft a new republican constitution. The constitution was meant to entrench the gains of the 2006 uprising, which saw the overthrow of the monarchy and the end of the Maoist-led People’s War. However, constitution-drafting has been haunted by the spectre of ethnic politics, and a resurgence of 1990s-era political leaders, perceived by many as determined to maintain the status quo.

The Tarai-Madhesh and the state of Nepal

The primary bone of contention has been over the Tarai or Madhesh, an extension of the Ganges plain to the Himalayan foothills, which is home to 51% of Nepal’s population. This strip of land was absorbed into the Kingdom of Nepal through a succession of wars, alliances and treaties with British colonialists between the 18th and 19th centuries. The southern part of the plains was long part of a plains Hindu culture, with linguistic and ethnic affiliation to neighbouring populations on the Indian side of the border.

Other parts, however, were heavily forested regions home to indigenous groups such as the Tharu and Rajbanshi. The Rana regime in the 19th century facilitated the clearing of forests and imposed a robust taxation system. It propped up local elites to collect revenue and distributed land grants to its own inner circle. Migrants from India were encouraged to settle in the new estates, and across the lowlands lower-caste migrants and subjugated indigenous cultivators worked the land under an increasingly feudal agrarian system. Later waves of migration from the hills occurred in the 1960s, including both enterprising peasants and destitute farmers, seeking new fortunes in the plains.

The outcome of these economic policies and migration patterns was an increasingly complex ethnic mosaic composed of plains Hindu and Muslim communities (known collectively as Madheshis), speaking north Indian languages such as Bhojpuri and Maithili, indigenous groups such as the Tharu, and Nepali-speaking hill settlers.

Under the monarchical panchayat system, a one-nation one-culture policy sought to define Nepali nationalism based upon the dominant Nepali-speaking hill caste culture. Language policy and perceived ethnic discrimination in the civil service and other positions of power caused plains communities to feel increasingly marginalised and cut off from the national mainstream. The cultural affiliation that many plains people feel with North Indian communities had also made them bear the brunt of populist anti-Indian nationalism, with many having their national loyalties questioned.

While the plains is the breadbasket of Nepal, parts remain mired in extreme poverty and inequality. Despite its fertile and flat land, outside of the main industrial belts, infrastructural and economic development is poor, and the central Tarai districts have some of the lowest human development indices in Nepal.

The Madhesh uprising and a federal agenda

There was a feeling in the Tarai-Madhesh that little had changed, even after over a decade of democracy and a 10-year civil war, and this came to a head in two plains uprisings in 2007 and 2008, which placed federalism on the political agenda for the proposed new constitution. The Maoists, who had joined the political mainstream in 2006, emerged as the largest party following the 2008 Constituent Assembly elections, and ethno-regionalist parties did well in the plains.

While this had generated hope for political change amongst many in the Tarai-Madhesh, compromise was needed with the mainstream political parties, long believed to be sceptical to ethnic inclusion and decentralisation of power. In this context, disputes arose over the role of ethnic identities in a federal political set up, and caused the Constituent Assembly to collapse by 2012. A second Constituent Assembly election was held in 2013, but the Maoists and plains-based parties, both suffering from factionalism and intra-party splits, fared badly.

The fast-track to political turmoil

Despite the predominance of mainstream political parties (Nepali Congress and UML) in the Constituent Assembly, federalism had been institutionalised in the agenda for constitution writing. However, the seeds of unrest were sewn in June 2015: when most of the population was still distracted by the April earthquake, an alliance of the two dominant mainstream parties, along with the Maoists and one small plains-based party announced that they had reached a deal to ‘fast-track’ the constitution. This was viewed by some as a positive development following eight years of in-fighting and failed agreements.

However, as the contents of the proposed constitution trickled through, unrest spread throughout the country. Despite the presence of the Maoists and one Madhesh party in the alliance (who later dropped out in protest), there was a strong perception in the Tarai and amongst many indigenous groups that the constitution was regressive, and sought to maintain the hegemony of the upper-caste Nepali speakers of the hills, who have thus far dominated the bureaucracy and other positions of power. There was a reversal of many progressive clauses from the interim constitution, including political agreements made at the end of the 2007/8 Madhesh movements.

Contested clauses include a reactionary citizenship law that makes it difficult for women to pass on citizenship to their children or husbands. Those who did acquire the documents would be barred access to high positions in the government. This particularly affects single women, and those married to non-Nepalis. It is perceived to be targeted against the Madheshi community, who for centuries have married on both sides of the Nepal-India border. Behind the law is an age old paranoia over Indian immigration.

Another dispute concerns the proportional representation clause for the legislature, which was meant to ensure representation of marginalised groups. Not only has the percentage of PR seats been reduced, it also includes a quota for the dominant hill castes, which is believed by agitators to be against the spirit of affirmative action. There is also anger over the electoral constituencies for the first-past-the-post system, which will grant a disproportionate number of seats to hill constituencies, despite the fact that it is home to 49% of the population.

Perhaps the most contentious issue is over the delineation of federal provinces. A concession has been made by creating one plains province, but this only includes 8 out of the 20 Tarai districts, with the remainder (including the main homelands of the indigenous Tharu community) merged with the hills. This has been interpreted by protesters as an attempt to ensure dominance of the hill upper castes, by making the plains groups a minority in all but one province.

Bolstered by their perceived democratic legitimacy (as the largest parties to emerge out of the 2013 Constituent Assembly elections), the ruling leaders pushed ahead with the constitution-drafting, while in the Tarai-Madhesh, protests culminated in the death of over 45 people in August and September. Human rights organisations and activists claimed the state had exercised excessive force to reign in the agitating groups, while protesters were blamed for resorting to violence – with one incident culminating the deaths of nine police personnel and a child.

Enter India

The constitution was promulgated on 20 September amid celebrations amongst some segments of the hill population, while the Tarai was in flames. The agitating groups in the plains announced a change of tactics to put pressure on Kathmandu to now amend the constitution. They blockaded the border. Following centuries of subordination to the British and independent India, Nepal has never developed a self-reliant national economy. It depends on importing most essential goods from India – and thus the border disruption has been catastrophic.

Complicating matters, however, was India’s tacit approval of the border protest. India has long played an influential role in Nepal’s political affairs, much to the resentment of many Nepalis. However, noting its unhappiness with Nepal’s ruling parties for the way in which the constitution was written, and possibly afraid of a new conflict in its backyard, Indian authorities in September began to restrict supplies of essential goods, citing ‘security fears’. This was widely perceived in Kathmandu and hill Nepal as a ‘blockade’ by a bullying neighbour, while many plains agitators openly thanked India for its intervention.  

But India’s involvement has diverted attention away from the bigger issue, which is the need for an equitable constitutional settlement that favours all of Nepal’s diverse cultural groups. It has also allowed a resurgent right in Kathmandu to play an anti-India card to draw attention away from its own failings – and thus India’s involvement is paradoxically playing into the hands of the dominant class. Nepal faces an uphill challenge as its society becomes increasingly polarised amid crippling shortages of fuel, cooking gas and even medicines. As winter approaches, these challenges could unravel into a humanitarian crisis.

The struggle ahead

In the Tarai-Madhesh itself, schools and markets have been closed for months by the general strike, and public transport has come to a standstill. The cycle of protests and police crackdowns continues, with several more protestor deaths in November.  Another group that has suffered considerably from the blockade are the earthquake survivors of the central hills, most of whom still reside in temporary shelters. The crisis has diverted attention away from earlier priorities, such as the need to set up the long-awaited reconstruction authority.

Plains-based agitators themselves have a difficult path to chart. The movement has struggled with a fragmented leadership, many of whom performed poorly in the recent elections. It also has to accommodate diverse interests, including the sizeable indigenous Tharu population, who have thus far been relatively marginal in the leadership of the movement, and a large population of hill settlers in the plains with affinities to the uplands.

The movement has to balance an ethnic agenda with one based on economic equality, given the sizeable landless and labouring community in the plains, who have been long subjugated to landlords both from the hills as well as their own ethnic community. A political settlement depends on the extent to which pressure can be applied on Kathmandu for a constitution that represents the interests of all ethnic groups, and the poorest within them. Only then will Nepal have institutionalised the gains of the multiple uprisings of the last two decades.