A Madhesi-Pahadiya conclave

From The Kathmandu Post (10 October, 2014)

Citizens must discuss ensuring pride-of-identity along with socio-economic progress for Madhesi people

As constitution writing comes to a head, the biggest stumbling block has been the definition of federalism and within that, the demand for a plains-only province or provinces. With the two largest parties in the Constituent Assembly (CA) apparently willing to concede on the demand for plains-specific federal units, one can only ask the powers-that-be and stakeholder activists to consider the matter one more time.

The demand for federalism was not heard during the People’s Movement of 2006: it became part of the agenda by virtue of the Madhes Movement a year later. The Madhesi demand for federalism rests on the matter of identity, and a means to shake off the Kathmandu/hill-centricism that subjugated communities historically in all three altitudinal zones.

However, the Madhesi citizens were doubly discriminated, being marginalised as were the ethnicities, but also excluded from ownership of a nationalism based on mid-hill identity. And like the Janajati, they have watched askance as the national polity, including politics, bureaucracy, academia, and media, continues to be dominated by the Bahun community. This has helped create a rallying point for those wishing to lead the Madhesi people and separate them provincially from the hills.

And now there is the activist CK Raut, facing a charge of sedition, who takes the demand beyond federalism and as far as secession. His analysis and roadmap for Madhesi advance are weak and unsupported, and should be shown to be so through a convincing public challenge, not through court cases in these times of strident identity populism.


Defeating the purpose

Some may say that Madhes provinces are now a fait accompli, but one must nevertheless raise the matter, for it has not been argued through. The question that needs asking is whether a plains-specific province serves the purpose of economic emancipation of the Tarai-Madhes, with its maximum volume and depth of poverty. This question has not been answered to satisfaction, given the populist rhetoric that has silenced many Madhesi intellectuals for fear of social ostracism and the ab initio rejection of anyone who questions plains federalism as being ‘anti-Madhes’.

If federalism is meant to safeguard Madhesi identity, are we so sure that this demand cannot be met through viable provinces formed on the basis of economic-geography? Are the Madhesi activists justified in their fear that ‘north-south’ provinces will automatically continue Pahadiya elite domination?

This is a time when the economic prospects of montane Nepal looks bright, given the resources at its command including hydropower, stored water (for irrigation downstream), agro-forestry, entrepot trade, service industries, and tourism/pilgrimages. The Tarai-Madhes too is well-endowed in resources, but it requires structural linkage with the hills because of its larger population and the ‘density’ of poverty.

One has to be concerned that the activists are demanding plains provinces without ensuring that there is already in place an equalisation formula to guarantee sharing of wealth among the future provinces. Or it could be that the activists are seeking no more than ‘ceremonial federalism’ for the sake of identity-recognition, where the central government continues to dictate affairs, but this would defeat the very purpose of federalism.

The activists seem content at their cart-before-horse attempt to define and demarcate provinces before the federal concept itself is defined in substance, including the division of rights and responsibilities between the centre and province and between provinces. Federalism is being negotiated with exclusive focus on the number of units, rather than viability, and there is no formula as yet for well-to-do provinces (in terms of per capita income) to subsidise those less endowed.


A dignified forum

There is reason to believe that a large proportion of the Tarai population may lose out in the game of federalism that is being played out, which is why it is urgent for independent citizens from all over to come together to consider the matter in a dignified forum, where no formula is taken as fait accompli. We must clear the air on federal definition, so that the option chosen has been thoroughly discussed—with the marginalised of the plains at the centre of focus.

One cannot proceed without having an opinion on something as vital as the federal definition, and so, it is important to place this writer’s own position once again on the table.

Derived from the ancient ‘Madhyadesh’, said to denote the stretch from the Himalaya to the Vindhya, in modern-day Nepal, the term ‘Madhes’ has taken on cultural and political meaning, mainly to differentiate the people of plain and hill origin. Nevertheless, the identity of ‘Madhesi’ remains ambiguous beyond the ‘core caste groups’ of the plains; in its present usage, the term has a strong pull for many but not all of the people of plains origin.

In what could be considered a Freudian slip, the Madhesbadi party leaders conceded as much when they signed the 4-point agreement with the Maoists on August 28, 2011 leading to the formation of the Baburam Bhattarai coalition government. That document treats ‘Madhesi’ as being exclusive of Muslims, Tharus, and plain Dalits.

Today, the Tarai-Madhes plains are home to the indigenous Tharu, Muslim (who may or may not be ‘Madhesi’, according to one’s definition), Pahadiya who migrated downhill, and Madhesi—the last made up of the original inhabitants as well as latter day arrivals from across the southern border.


Becoming Bhutan

The Madhesi activists are focussed on restoring pride-of-identity through a plains-only province(s), even if this leads to cutting the plains off from the natural resources of the hills. They harbour intense dislike for the term ‘north-south’ when applied to federal formulae, but even at this late hour, one would ask them to take a second look. The reality of ‘Pahadiya domination’ should not blind us to the fact that public awareness of identity issues is transforming politics, and also the fact that governance in the provinces will be defined by the size of voting population, which would advantage the plains.

Ironically, the Madhesi activists seem to want a voluntarily distancing at the very time that hydropower projects are finally taking off, tourism is reviving in peacetime, and highways are meshing hill-and-plain after decades of delay. Just when economic integration and shared growth begins to become a reality, there is the overwhelming push to it wilfully away to the extent that the CA will not even debate the matter.

The Madhesi activists may also want to consider the likelihood that the montane provinces, once established, will tend to resist change in configuration in the name of wealth sharing. Some in the hills may be even looking forward to the day when they can ‘become a Bhutan’, if the provincial delineation does separate hill and plain.


Likely scenario

The CA, in its second incarnation, has tired of federalism and is ready to seek the lowest common denominator. The rumoured compromise favours a limited number of provinces (five to seven) in mountain-hill and two in the plains (the Bhojpuri-Maithili belt and Awadhi-Tharu belt, excluding the region east of the Koshi as well as the central Tarai stretch of Chitwan).

Given this likely federal scenario, which is the result of their effort, it is for Madhesi politicians and activists to themselves consider whether the formula will work for the plains citizens they speak for. Before the matter becomes locked, it will help to discuss whether the plains poor and marginalised will be served in terms of identity-safeguards, good governance, and economic growth. The poorest citizens in the highest numbers concentrated in the plains must not be penalised for their voicelessness.

If, as seems likely, we do face the reality of plains provinces, one must urgently concretise an equalisation or subsidy formula to ensure a sharing of wealth between hill and plain. Any mistake in federal structuring will take years to reverse, with high social costs, significant lost opportunities, and continuing marginalisation well into the future. We must have a ‘Pahadiya-Madhesi conclave’ of concerned citizens, and given the dynamics of debate, it needs to be called by Madhesi citizen-scholars, preferably in the heartland city of Janakpur. We all need to go into federalism with our eyes wide open.

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