Ethnic-political tensions fracturing the Nepalese nation-state

In the Terai region of Nepal, on the southern plains, an indefinite general strike has been ongoing for over two weeks; curfews are in force.

Submitted by Red Marriott on February 28, 2008

It has been initiated and enforced by a coalition of local ethnic Madhesi groups, in pursuit of provincial autonomy, greater parliamentary representation/proportional representation and the 'right of self-determination'.

Its timing is an attempt to put pressure on government in the lead up to the Constituent Assembly elections - the first elections since the end of the Maoist guerilla war and the subsequent Maoist integration into Parliament. As the Terai borders India, it is the essential supply route for landlocked Nepal, hemmed in as it is by the northern Himalayan mountain range. So the strike, which prevents all transport movement, is an effective blockade of the country. In the capital, Kathmandu, supplies of fuel, food and other essentials are very low.

The Terai holds 70% of Nepal's arable land and accounts for over half of its GDP via industry and border trading. Almost 50% of the population live in the Terai. “Madhesis” comprise many different ethnic, linguistic, caste and religious groups that inhabit the Madhes (the plains), in southern Nepal. The present ethnic movement started in January 2007. Since then numerous clashes and murders have occurred between police, nationalists and Maoists, including feuds between rival Madhesi groups. Today there are over two dozen armed and unarmed groups and parties active in the region. (See earlier report here)

There is racism against Madhesis - in the northern capital of Kathmandu their darker complexion means they can be looked down on as "migrant Indians" (there is a long-running resentment in Nepal towards their domineering Indian neighbour) and in India they can be discriminated against as "Bahadurs", an Indian stereotype for working class Nepalis (although their historical origin is said to be as migrants from the Madhesh plains region, and the concept of Madhes or Madhesi is said to predate modern India and Nepal; yet they are perceived as culturally closer to Indians). Madhesis have little representation in government (around 5%) - those high-castes from the northern hills occupy most important state posts, and most of the Maoist leadership is from the same origin. Opportunist Madhesi politicians, some of whom have hopped from Maoist to ethnic-nationalist groups as fortunes change, now see their chance for power; they are using traditional popular resentment of caste, ethnic and regional inequalities to push towards political power and redraw the political map in their favour. There have recently been many attacks, banishments, theft of land and other intimidation of those Terai dwellers, known as 'Pahades', whose ethnic origin is of the northern hills. There have been resentments that recent 'land reforms' by the northern central government have favoured Pahades. The wide participation of Madhesi politicians in the Maoist insurgency was in hope of a fairer land reform and also of greater regional power - their separatist turn is in part an expression of their disillusionment.

The forces involved and the diverse interests they represent are potentially complex; those leading the present strike include ethnic Madhesi nationalists, seeking either regional autonomy within a federal Nepal, and/or eventual full national independence. Some of these are former Maoist leaders who split from the Maobadi movement and have had several bloody clashes with them since. Some believe that India has cultivated/encouraged these splits; as a means to create a buffer state between what they believe may become an increasingly Maoist-dominated Nepal. Many would see an Indian-backed separatist split as a prelude to Indian annexation, as happened in neighbouring Sikkim. Nepal has long been considered as a buffer state between the two rivals, India and China, and India is concerned at recent closer relationships between Nepali Maoists and the Chinese state. Other possible Indian considerations are the creation of a buffer between Indian Naxalite peasant movements (See earlier report here ) and their Nepali Maoist comrades. There is also a potential for further Indian encroachments on Nepali natural resources.

There are a dozen major ethnic groups in Nepal with around fifty languages and dialects; some have already expressed their own grievances. There is some potential for a Balkanisation of Nepal, so the government will be eager to resolve the present unrest. Today (Weds 27th) it was announced that talks between the government and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) - an alliance of three groups - had collapsed. But with the Constituent Assembly elections just seven weeks away, negotiations in some form will surely continue, in an attempt to resolve the conflict. Independence for the province has been ruled out by the government; the Maoist party, despite their ideology being historically supportive of national 'liberation' struggles, are also opposed to Madhesi self-determination. (Maoist leader Prachanda even branded the new rebels - some of them his recent allies - as “criminals and gangsters” unworthy of negotiation. Ironic, considering his own party has often enough been accused of using the same tactics to fund themselves and to win a place in Parliament; and whose aggressive example has surely inspired the ethnic rebels to pursue their own agenda.) An eventual compromise deal is likely to be greater political representation for the region and a degree of local autonomy. The government and its Western allies will be keen to avoid both a descent into a new civil war in Terai, and also a splitting of the country into two. Such a split would probably leave Nepal's northern half without 70% of its arable land, totally dependent on China for trade and supplies access and would greatly increase tensions between the two big brother states of India and China.

For the dirt poor peasants and workers of Nepal there is little optimism to take from present circumstances - no doubt whoever ultimately triumphs in the political arena, there will be little gain for the most exploited as long as they remain pawns and cannon fodder for the political elites.