Keep the fire burning

  • Much needs to be done to address past injustice but in the present, the country perhaps needs to move ahead
- Pramod Mishra
Keep the fire burning

Jun 10, 2015-

The country is caught between the earthquake and constitution writing. Some say because the earthquake happened, let’s make haste in constitution writing to build national unity and rebuild destroyed houses, lives and infrastructure. Others warn that these national unity mongers, under the guise of earthquake rebuilding and reconstruction, are planning to play the familiar old game of maintaining the status quo and privileging the Nepali language, hill-caste Mahendrism, while jettisoning the achievements of the Janajati and Madhesi movements.

Nationalism rising

Caught between these two unenviable positions, many Nepali speakers have spewed their all-too-familiar hatred and vitriol—and, unsurprisingly, one or two Nepali language news media have even published these personal attacks to gain popularity among fellow language speakers. In the wake of this discursive hatemongering, two contrary things have occurred.

One, a seasoned journalist, a news reader, and many Nepali-language, hill-caste nationalists have, for the first time, argued the historical significance of Mahendra’s implementation of the Nepali language and hill-caste nationalism. Personally, I love any argument that is based on reliable evidence and sound reasoning. So has Mahendrism been argued to have value for the sovereignty of Nepal or for the political, social, and economic empowerment of Nepali-speaking hill-caste men at the expense of everybody else? Many Madhesis and Janajati folk ask this question. For them, mass and planned settlement in the Tarai of hill folks under Mahendra’s resettlement programme destroyed the Tarai forest, which was God’s Common of natural and cultural resources for Rajbanshis, Dhimals, and Tharus—and the caste Madhesis. People from the hills settled in the Tarai even before this planned resettlement on an individual basis. That was not a problem.

To be sure, the Ranas and the Shahs had treated the Tarai as their property, which they gave away at will to whomever they wanted, including brethren, servants, and sycophants, without any thought about the consequences on those who had been inhabiting that land for centuries.  But most of these land grantees lived in Kathmandu or other places in the hills and had the poor in the Tarai till their land because malaria was still a deterrent from mass settlement.

What made mass migration worse was that Mahendra combined this resettlement policy with state restructuring under the Panchayat system, which systematically disempowered everyone in the Tarai. Most devastating was its effect on the Rajbanshis, Dhimals, and Tharus, who suffered when what was essentially a system of ethnic zamindari was abolished and a centralised system of Nepali language governance as well as a systematic and deliberate but unstated policy of discrimination was imposed against the people of the Tarai.

Systematic deprivation

Already deprived of forest resources, half a century of this mass empowerment of some and disempowerment of others devastated the Rajbanshis, Dhimals, and Tharus. Most Rajbanshi zamindars, who came into contact with this settlement in the frontlines along the East-West Highway, have been reduced to ordinary tillers and labourers. In private conversations, most hill folks, many of them my relatives, acknowledge this fact. We all need to do something about it. Don’t get fooled by the cheap slogans of Nepali-language nationalism and the right-wing invocation of sovereignty in danger.

You can ask, why couldn’t they educate themselves like the Nepali-speaking hill folk and compete with them for government jobs? Three reasons why: the Nepali language medium of instruction and medium of governance combined with the culture of afno manche (taking care of your own) and these peasant groups’ attachment to farming and the land. But even those, such as the caste Madhesis, especially the upper castes, who had a culture of education, could join technical professions such as medicine, engineering, and teaching, but not the security forces and the civil service for reasons of language and discrimination systematised in the recruitment process—the exam, interview, training. As a result, even an ordinary, simple school-pass, hill- caste Hindu, very often with a bought certificate from India, could join the civil service and rise through the ranks to the top in his career, while only an exceptional few from the Tarai could break the barrier of entrance into the civil and legal services. As for the security forces, there was an unstated policy of non-recruitment of people from the Tarai.

Anyone who doesn’t want to see Nepal’s marginalised fall under the ideological influence of extremists must keep these historical realities in mind, even as the three Bahun-led and one controversial Tharu-led parties have inked the 16-point deal.

So, the scene of structural inequality remains bleak, even though both sides of the argument have historical significance. In any historical situation, where land and rights are involved, both the aggrieved and the aggressor advance their arguments as to why the particular events in the past occurred. Subsequent political changes address past events by continuing the status quo, aggravating past inequity or redressing it to advance the cause of peace and justice. But the pacification of a situation without adequately addressing injustice to the minimum satisfaction of the marginalised doesn’t serve the cause of peace. Pacification is not peace.

Moving ahead, cautiously

At a time when the entire world is raising funds for Nepal’s earthquake victims, will the four parties’ 16-point agreement address past structural inequities and bring lasting peace? This is the question the parties involved need to ask more urgently. Or, will CK Raut have a field day recruiting even the moderates in the Madhesi parties?

In one sense, the 16-point agreement is what could be possible, given the political situation and political players. Rights and justice don’t come on a silver plate. Nor are they bestowed. Those who have suffered injustice have to struggle and fight for them.

In this sense, the Janajatis and the Madhesis have a long way to go to achieve structural equality.  Mixed settlement and mixed living are what we call pluralism, multiculturalism, and heterogeneity. In a sense, world history is gradually moving toward this social reality from the disastrous past of purism, monotheism, and monoculturalism; but with mixed settlement, mixed structural arrangement of equality of opportunity, an equally important necessity, has been slow to arrive.

Centuries of systematic injustice cannot be addressed by the lackadaisical efforts of self-seeking leaders. The earthquake can and should create flexibility in what can be achieved but its urgency shouldn’t leave the Madhesis and Janajatis totally out of the loop. Their dissent should remain as dissent, a reminder and a lesson that much needs to be done to address past injustices even though in the present moment, the country perhaps needs to move ahead.

Published: 11-06-2015 08:32

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