Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Nepal's unsettling peace

The end of Nepal’s civil war is being followed by a separatist insurgency in its Madhesh/Terai region. Both revolts challenge Nepal to a redefinition of its national identity, says Dharma Adhikari.

Dharma Adhikari
A new revolt has started in Nepal, less than two months after the landmark peace deal between an alliance of seven political parties and Maoist rebels was signed. The agreement on 21 November 2006 formally ended a decade-long civil war, and brought the Maoists close to achieving their goal of a republic.

The latest uprising, at least in its declared objective of separatism, pales in comparison to the Maoists' agenda of replacing a monarchy with a communist republic. It looks like the transition is not going to be smooth. The culture of violence the Maoists exemplified over the years seems to have resonated with other disgruntled groups.

The Madhesi issue Jai Krishna Goit , leader of Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (People's Terai Liberation Front / JTMM ), and Jwala Singh (head of a splinter faction with a similar name), apparently are not settling for a republic.

The renegade Maoist cadres, who until two and half years ago allied with Pushpa Kamal Dahal ( Prachanda ) of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) ( CPM-N ), have announced their mission to be the establishment of a new independent state of Terai (or Tarai, of Madhesh ("the middle country"). The name refers to the low, fertile plains between the Himalayas and northern India. Madhesh is also known to be derived from the Farsi word terai, meaning "moist land").

The region is a serpentine land around 800 kilometres (though only twenty-six to thirty-two kilometres wide) along the Indian border, covering about 23% of Nepal's mostly mountainous 147,000 square kilometers of land. Terai, home to about half of Nepal's population of 27 million, including many traditionally excluded ethnic communities, is also Nepal's bread-basket.

With the emerging political twist, Nepal is fast moving closer to the ranks of other countries in the region - including Sri Lanka , India and the Philippines - that have been grappling with issues of separatism for decades.

So it's déjà vu all over again in the central-southern plains. News reports say clashes among the Maoists, JTMM cadres and government forces have become routine. At least nineteen people were killed since 19 January 2007 , and there is virtual curfew in key towns in the region, which have been paralysed by general strikes. Ian Martin , United Nations secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon's personal representative for Nepal, has expressed grave concern over the escalation of tension and violence in the Terai.

The fire was lit when a small pro-Madhesi party in Nepal's governing alliance - the Nepal Sadbhawana Party-Anandadevi ( NSP-A ) - called for a regional strike on 3 December 2006. Among its demands: a provision for proportional representation of Madhesis in the interim constitution. The country saw its first communal clash in memory when Madhesis, ethnically of Indian origin, clashed with Pahades, people from the hilly regions. Soon the fighting spread to other towns , including Lahan, in the east, and Janakpur, in the central plains.

The scope of a revolt
Democracy brings things out in the open, however chaotic they may look. Expecting the unexpected should not be out of the ordinary in Nepal, especially during these fluid, transitional times. Apparently, a new breed of rebels has been born.

Historical analogies are not always accurate, but they sometimes help to illuminate contemporary situations. In an eerie reverberation of Muhammed Ali Jinnah's partisan movement of 1940 to create Pakistan, the Madhesi rebels are calling for the establishment of an independent state of Madhesh, which aptly could be called Madhyastan. But unlike Jinnah's initial solidarity with Mohandas K Gandhi's peaceful movement against the British Raj, the Madhesi leaders trace their roots to Prachanda's brutal armed rebellion . How genuine and well-founded is this new revolt? How will this affect Nepal's democratic transition? What are its national and regional implications? What can be done about it?

Both JTMM factions are considered to be small groups, with a few hundred cadres. It is true, however, that both have learned military tactics under their former Prachanda-led party. They have been successful in creating fear and terror in the rural communities through such tactics as killing, abduction and extortion.

Geographically, Madhesh covers the whole of the southern Nepal plains, including my hometown in the eastern part, which is populated by so-called Pahades like me. But ethnically, the region is constituted by about ten districts in the central-southern Terai. This includes districts such as Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur, collectively known as Naya Muluk (the new country); this is the territory Nepal regained in 1857, forty-two years after it was annexed by the British.

Yet, because of their closer cultural ties with people in northern India (people on both sides of the border speak Hindi, Maithili and Bhojpuri and often intermarry), the Madhesi cause has a regional dimension. Already, there are allegations that the Madhesi rebels are backed by Indian Hindu extremists . Others, including the governing coalition and Maoists, claim that "regressive elements", such as the royalists , are behind the ethnic trouble.

Whatever the political backgrounds of the new rebel leaders, most (if not all) of the Madhesi grievances submitted to the government seem reasonable. Their fundamental demand is to promulgate the interim constitution only when it ensures Madhesis their fair share in the new Nepal.

They are calling for a redrawal of electoral districts based on population: half of all constituent-assembly voting districts must be in the Madhes region because half the country's population lives there. The leaders also demand a census in Terai under ethnic Madhesi leadership, and replacement of all security and government staff in the plains with Madhesis. According to one estimate, Madhesis hold only 11% of leadership positions in national governance, although they constitute 31% of the total population.

Further demands include adequate representation in the assembly, citizenship for all Madhesis, cessation of Maoist atrocities, return of seized lands, compensation to Madhesi "martyrs", and most controversial of all, making Terai independent from Nepal. In short, the rebels are seeking an end to what they call an "internal colonisation of Terai" by Pahades for centuries.

While it was a welcome sign that the government recently authorised citizenship certificates for 3 million Madhesis, Nepal's leaders have been slow to respond to the current crisis. The Maoists are not prepared for any talks with the rebels. Prachanda dismissed it: "Negotiation is done with political forces, not with criminals and gangsters."

Prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala's belated address to the nation on 31 January 2007 came after one of his top cabinet ministers resigned in protest against the government's lack of response to the unfolding crisis. Koirala called for calm and dialogue so that the United Nations-monitored assembly elections could be held in June. However, he failed to directly address Madhesis' demand for an amendment to the interim constitution itself that is the basis of the assembly elections. Whatever the perspectives or the prescriptions, this is sure to hinder a smooth democratic transition in the short term because the new rebels have vowed they will not allow the elections in the Terai region.

The strength of diversity
The Maoists, having completely sidelined King Gyanendra, are in parliament now, and ready soon to join a multi-party interim government that will oversee the upcoming assembly elections. They may have attained their party's ideological objectives, but ordinary Nepalis are yet to experience genuine change in their lives. True change, after all, does not come through violence.

We Nepalis would like to see something big happen in our country, something that could parallel the European renaissance, something that may be equal to what the Hungarian thinker Karl Polyani called "the great transformation", which took place in the industrialising Europe of the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the glory of past millennia obscures a clear view of a future that is free of any prejudices. Nepal is a society of perennial reference to the past.

Politically, the old order may have been shattered, but socially and culturally, even the most revolutionary of Nepalis cannot escape the past from which they purport to break away. In January, the newly appointed Maoist interim legislators invoked God as they took the oath of office, and it has not been long since November 2006 when they appeared on television with vermillion powder on their foreheads, a Hindu sign of victory. Many of the Maoists reportedly believe in Jesus Christ.

As a God-fearing human being, I am happy that the former rebels have not forsaken the almighty. But the sacred and the profane go hand-in-hand in Nepal. Now the Maoists are part of legislation, but in the way they are conducting business, they exemplify their former adversaries. The wisdom behind Prachanda's dismissive remarks on the need for dialogue is rooted in that ambivalent culture.

The decade-long war led by the Maoists, though considered a "big bang" politically, increasingly looks like a whimper. The separatist movement, if not handled with extreme care, may be far more devastating than the Maoist war. One must not forget that the Maoist problem has not been resolved in the true sense. Agreements are essentially compromises that can be broken or altered or challenged. That is partly what is happening right now. The Maoist problem has assumed a new form, spiralling into a dangerous ethnic tension. The coalition of convenience - the alliance of seven parties and the Maoists - must be deliberative in its approach and embrace dialogue with all sections of society and consider grievances with an open mind.

In the changed political context, the rise of ethnic nationalism based on languages, regions and race should be expected in the cultural mosaic that is Nepal. It is an emerging reality everywhere. Anthony D Smith , who has studied nationalism in the contemporary context, sees " transcendence of ethnicity " as the emerging reality of postmodern nation-states . In this view, Smith says, nation-states do not necessarily need to be grounded in history and social life, or be homogenous or united, or represent major social or political actors in society. The sixty-three-member Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organisation ( Unpo ), for example, includes many such ethnic nationalities.

In Nepal there are some forty to sixty races and tribes. Language groups are so distinct that Ethnologue , a catalogue of the world's languages, lists 123 living languages in the country. There are many groups seeking to exercise their long-suppressed identities, freedoms and rights. Beside the Madhesis, the Newa Mukti Morcha and the Limbuwan Federal Republic are two other high-profile language/ethnicity-based groups advocating self-rule and independence.

So, despite Nepal being a small country, the central Himalayan expanse resembles - psychologically for many Nepalis - a sort of ( Gorkha ) empire, ruled by the all-powerful shahs until recently. If every significant identity is taken into consideration, Nepal contains potentially more than fifty nation-states. It is not geography alone, then, but collective thoughts of nationhood that exist in millions of minds. Suppression of a thought only emboldens it; therefore, the leadership must display democratic sincerity and an inclusive attitude in addressing ethnic demands and issues. Like most Nepalis, I hope, I would not want my country to disintegrate into a bunch of Himalayan fiefdoms in the name of nations. We must be able to read strength in our diversity, not discord.

The classical utilitarian approach of politics is to judge impact by numbers - in other words, how many voters will be affected? The more people affected, the more significant something becomes. In a heterogeneous state like Nepal, however, the question is not how many, but how just and fair. 

Published in, 6 February 2007.