as i like: Spectre of secession

  • The paranoid reaction of a democratic government to CK Raut’s activities cannot be justified
- Deepak Thapa
as i like: Spectre of secession

Sep 24, 2014-

Last week saw three totally unrelated but similar events take place, each with variable levels of impacts on the world stage. The first was the referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent nation, and we all know that at least for the near future its second most important constituent is going to remain within the United Kingdom. The second concerned the trial of Ilham Tohti, an ethnic Uighur teaching at Beijing University. A couple of days ago, a Chinese court handed Professor Tohti a life sentence after finding him guilty of separatism. The third, of course, is the arrest of CK Raut for engaging in activities allegedly against the Nepali state.

Although Tohti claims only to have spoken out against the excesses of the Chinese state perpetrated on his fellow Uighurs, all three instances involve grievances against the existing political order and a belief that separate is perhaps better. The Scottish case is an anomalous one since it was partly led by the sense that Scotland is being dragged down by its southern neighbour; the economic premise of the pro-independence movement being that its immense natural resources (the North Sea oil) would carry an independent Scotland to untold riches.

A sense of deprivation

In the case of the Madhes, we have all learnt through the 2007 and 2008 Madhes movements that it is a sense of deprivation that energised the whole of southern Nepal, including the emergence of openly secessionist and armed groups, such as the two factions of the Janatantrik Tarai Mukti Morcha. Add to that the common experience of personal humiliation that, I would venture, all Madhesis in pre-2006 Nepal routinely went through at the hands of Pahadis, and one can understand where someone like CK Raut is coming from, as is the case with all Madhesi political and social activists. So, what was it that Raut did that made him a target of the Nepali state?

The immediate cause seems to be a speech Raut gave in a Morang village, in which he probably repeated what he has written in the past, although in the heat of the moment he may have sounded more inflammatory than to the liking of the local administration. Raut has made no secret of his desire to lead a movement for an independent Madhes. In Madhes Swaraj (Self-Rule in the Madhes), which is likely meant to be a treatise expounding his views on the subject, Raut demands: “Declare Madhes a sovereign and independent country. End colonial rule by Nepal.” Written in the form of a catechism with himself as the protagonist providing elucidation on different issues raised by a presumably fictional questioner, Raut outlines a five-point strategy to achieve his aims: raising awareness; organising; propagation of ideas; struggle; and consolidation, such as admission into the UN.

Although the force of his emotions is clear, Raut’s arguments are rather simplistic and quite incomplete, such as his failure to deal with the question of how a Madhes state would deal with the millions of Pahadis already there. Besides a selective reading of history, it also includes surprises such as the creation of a Madhes Premier League or the wild assertion that an independent Madhes would provide a hundred thousand jobs in the army, a similar number in the police, and hundreds of thousands of jobs in the administration. As my fellow columnist Pramod Mishra has written: “I have found his [Raut’s] views on Madhesi Janajatis, such as Tharus, raw and inadequate. Similarly, his views on independent Madhes need to be challenged publicly and logically in the media so that people know how far he can push his argument historically and theoretically.”

State excess

None of this, however, can explain the paranoid reaction of the government. Granted that our current constitution’s guarantee of freedom of expression has been circumscribed by the caveat that provides the government authority to draft “laws to impose reasonable restrictions on any act which may undermine the sovereignty and integrity of Nepal” and that we have in place just such a vehicle, the Panchayat-era Public Security Act of 1989, which allows for “preventive detention” against those who commit acts “prejudicial to the sovereignty, integrity or public peace and order of Nepal”. But, this law was enacted for a different purpose and meant to target those very politicians who are in power now, and they should know better.

Thankfully, Nepali human rights activists across the board were quick to condemn the government action. Even Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai reportedly Tweeted: “We cannot agree with the views of CK Raut. But the government has committed a serious mistake by arresting him.”

Apart from the discomfort and the probable verbal and physical abuse he may have faced under custody, there is widespread agreement that the arrest would help Raut in the long run. A quiescent and politics-weary Madhes could have found a hero in this till-now somewhat obscure individual whose advocacy had failed to gain any traction among his target population so far.

Raut’s arrest also smacks of prejudice from the state. There have been calls for secession in the past as well, and not only by people like Jaya Krishna Goit or Jwala Singh. According to political scientist Mahendra Lawoti, an outfit called the Pallo Kirat Limbuwan Rastriya Manch went so far as to declare the independence of Limbuwan back in 2008. In the years that followed, there were reports now and then of hardline Limbuwan activists being arrested, but, as far as my knowledge goes, they were not charged with ‘anti-national activities’. In fact, in July of this year, the government actually held talks with the Pallo Kirat Limbuwan Rastriya Manch. Talk of double standards.

Sticks and stones

At the time of writing, news came in that six individuals had been detained in Janakpur for protesting against Raut’s arrest. Asked why, the police chief there had the gall to actually say: “Even though we have no order to detain them for their demonstration in demand of Raut’s release, we arrested them for obstructing transportation in view of the Dashain festival.” Oh, come on!

A democratic government should learn how to make judicious use of a law introduced by an authoritarian system, particularly when Raut has made it very clear that he would never advocate violence. Those in positions of power would do well to learn the lesson of the nursery rhyme: “Sticks and stones will break my bones/But words will never hurt me.” We may not be the United Kingdom but should we not aim to be no less democratic?

Published: 25-09-2014 09:29

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