Nepal’s unity hinges on the outcome of the Madhes movement

Jan 11, 2016-

Last week, a joint taskforce comprising representatives of the three major parties and the agitating Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha started an informal negotiation to iron out differences on the contentious issues of the constitution including revision of federal boundaries. The taskforce, which has already held three rounds of closed door discussions, is reportedly heading in the right direction towards ending the Tarai protest that started four months ago.  Candid discussions are being held under the Chatham House Rule—meaning only the outcome will be made public. Against this backdrop, Roshan Sedhai spoke with Hridayesh Tripathi, Tarai Madhes Loktantrik Party Vice-chairman and a member of the taskforce, about the ongoing negotiation, Morcha’s bottom line on state demarcation and other burning issues.

The three major parties have said that they are going to resolve contentious issues through the recently-formed taskforce. What issues are they referring to?

We want to discuss each of our demands (expressed in the 11-point demands) point-by-point and reach a conclusion. In the past, we had not been able to reach consensus, so this time we have decided to hold free and frank discussions under the Chatham House Rule.  We had presented our demands in writing to the Constituent Assembly (CA) itself but they were given short shrift, and the constitution was endorsed amid protests. The present stalemate is a result of that.

The most important issue is the delineation of states and their rights. The major parties crafted eight, and then six states.

To address the demands of the protests in Karnali, which in fact started later than the Madhes protests, the three parties  immediately redrew the federal boundaries adding one more province in the mid-western region.  But they did not address the demands of the Madhesis and the Tharus. That compelled us to question their intention.

What is your opinion on the three major parties’ proposal to form a high-level political committee to settle the issue of delineation within three months?

The present model of seven states is not a result of the discussions held over the last eight years. Rather, it was proposed and adopted surreptitiously. We are not yet convinced that a high-level political committee will be able to settle the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. We want greater assurances of the committee’s credibility, legitimacy and authority.

What kind of assurances are you talking about?

The committee should come up with a clear draft of how it intends to address the issue of delineation. To ensure its legitimacy, it should be approved either by at least a two-thirds majority of Parliament or a consensus of the three major parties. This can assure the agitating parties that in three months certain things can be achieved or improved upon. Until that happens, protests cannot be stopped or postponed. The three major parties have the power to veto any proposal, so I see no reason why they cannot be magnanimous during discussions.

How is the taskforce moving ahead?

The three major parties agree that a high-level mechanism should be formed, but they have only begun discussing the details about its legitimacy and authority. Until they reach a consensus on the kind of committee that is acceptable to the agitating parties, it will be difficult for us to agree to the proposed mechanism. We will be forced to reject a mechanism that appears to be perfunctory at best.

How about the issues of delineation of electoral  constituencies and proportional and inclusive representation in all state bodies? What’s your take on the amendment proposal recently registered by the Nepali Congress (NC) parliamentarians?

Let me clearly point out that the new constitution is regressive and has gone back on some provisions already incorporated in the Interim Constitution. The previous government had accepted that certain amendments were required on the issues of electoral constituencies and proportionate representation. The Constitution Amendment Bill tabled by the present government does not appear to accept the spirit of the Interim Constitution. The NC’s amendment proposal is similar to the one it proposed before the promulgation of the constitution to satisfy its Madhesi and Tharu CA members so as to ask them to vote for the constitution. It is true that some of the proposed amendments are positive, but we have yet to see how they will actually play out in practice, and I think that is where our biggest concern lies.  NC alone does not have the numbers to amend the constitution; that requires support from the CPN-UML and the UCPN (Maoist).

What could be a minimum basis for a compromise?

Before talking of a minimum basis, there is still grounds for suspicion that the Amendment Bill will be passed. The UML is silent on the bill, and even the UCPN (Maoist) seems divided.

Are you closer to the NC than to other parties in finding a solution to the current Madhes problem?

We had voiced our opinions and started our protests when the NC was the ruling party. It was the NC during whose rule 42 people were martyred and 600 injured; it was the NC that ignored our demands. It appears as though it took the initiative for talks when it was about to cede power to the present government. So we believe all the three major parties are equally responsible for the problem; in fact, some people in the Madhes hold the NC more responsible as it had the reins of power when the constitution was promulgated.

Are there sufficient grounds for compromise between your 11-point demands and the major parties’ proposal ?

Our party’s president, Mahanta Thakur, has repeatedly said in public that the 4-point proposal should have been directly submitted to us rather than through Delhi. Later, to save face, the government made some cosmetic amendments to the proposal and submitted it to us. We have no problems with the 4-point proposal as such; our 11-point demands incorporate everything in the proposal. The question is whether the government is ready to make the proposal meaningful. Our taskforce is about to enter the discussion on the proposal now.  Under the Chatham House Rule, only the conclusion of the discussion will be made public, not the whole discussion.  So we are for talking candidly and openly.

How responsible do you feel for the current crisis emanating from your agitation, particularly the border blockade?

During our 42-day agitation, a curfew was imposed and the army deployed in the district headquarters.  That left us with little choice but to carry out protests on the border with the aim to impact revenue collection through ‘non-cooperation’. The Madhes was already under a kind of a blockade before our agitation; the effects of the blockade spread to other parts of the country after our agitation. It was the state’s policy of suppression that compelled us to agitate along the border, which is still our policy.  But plenty of supplies have been entering the country through checkpoints other than Birgunj. Despite this, black marketeering has flourished in the country, due to the incompetence, and in some cases complicity, of the government.

Won’t opening up the Birgunj checkpoint lead to a decline in black marketeering?

A group comprising quite a few bureaucrats, police and politicians is profiteering from the current situation and will continue its black marketeering for some eight to nine months even after all the checkpoints are opened. It is the state’s weakness to be unable to rein in on them and to manage well the supplies that are entering the country. The state does not appear willing to do so either, as some people close to it are making extra profits out of the situation.  Our movement is tied to our dignity and we have participated in all the talks with sincerity and enthusiasm. The intention of not addressing our demands is the

reason behind the current problem.

An assistant sub-inspector was recently shot dead. Before that, a UML district leader was killed. There have been reports of the activities of some secessionist movements. Is it possible for the Madhes movement to move towards anarchy and communal violence?

The agitators were not involved in these incidents and we have condemned both of them.  These incidents represent neither our movement’s goal nor its means. Sometime back, in an article, I had argued that that the outcome of our movement would determine the unity of the country. If the Madhes movement is thought of as a regional movement, it can have serious impact on national unity. The movement’s failure—through suppression or other means—can lead to three outcomes. First, the fight is against the state at present, but it can turn into one against the other community.  It will be very sad if the fight assumes a communal form. Second, the agitators will lose faith in a peaceful movement, and although a large-scale armed struggle may not take place, several smaller ones may occur. Third, it may lay the foundation for a secessionist movement. Madhesi and Tharu youths, who are actively involved in the current movement, may develop feelings that fighting for a separate country is more worthwhile than fighting to improve the situation within the country, which will have long-term consequences for the country’s unity. We have repeatedly mentioned these possibilities to the leaders of the three major parties, and have talked about them in public. The three parties do not seem to have considered these possibilities seriously.  The result of not paying heed to the Maoists’ demands is for all of us to see. Our fight is not just for Madhesis; it is for the rights of all the different groups residing in the country.

How long before the problem ends?

I cannot give you a timeline, but can tell you that there is no alternative to resolving it soon. Failure to do so will weaken democracy and national unity, which should be a concern not just for the Madhesis but for all Nepalis.

Published: 11-01-2016 08:35

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