23 November 2015 08:06:41 IST

Nepal: the bad vibes between the hills and plains

Madhesis fight hard to end alleged political domination of hill districts

For a bandh day, the 120-km road travel from Biratnagar to Kakarvitta bordering Panitanki in West Bengal, through the plains of Nepal, was largely uneventful. This is the designated gateway for Nepal’s trade with Bangladesh and Bhutan, through India.

Except some parts of Biratnagar, there were little signs of protests along the highway passing through vast stretches of Morang, Sunsari and Jhapa districts in Eastern Nepal. With talks in Kathmandu failing, the Madhesi Morcha (forum) decided to intensify its agitation, beginning November 20.

The Madhesis want the scrapping of the existing provincial maps, and the associated clauses in the Constitution for selecting or electing people’s representatives, which they allege are designed to keep the power balance tilted in favour of the less populous hill districts.

With claims to be among the earliest inhabitants of Terai, and forming nearly 27 per cent of Nepal’s 2.8 crore population, the Madhesis want a separate state comprising the plains to end the domination of the hills.

“Winning this fight means the next Prime Minister of Nepal will be a Madhesi,” declares Manish Kumar Mishra, general secretary of the Terai Madhesh Students Front in Kathmandu.

But the bandh call had few takers in this part of the country. That, if anything, underlines Madhesi concerns as well as the weakness of the movement. “You will not find a single Madhesi here. This place is dominated by Limbu, Rai and other hill communities,” says cab driver Kamal Dahal.

Limbus, he says, are angry with UCPN (Maoist) chief Prachanda’s reported softness to Madhesi demand and have threatened to block this part of the highway that connects the upcoming Asian Highway on the Indian side.

Prachanda, who led an armed uprising ending the monarchy in Nepal in 2008, is now a part of the ruling coalition led by CPN (UML) that has strong reservations on the issue.

Demographic engineering CK Raut, a PhD from Cambridge who gave up his career to fight for the Madhesi cause in 2011, blames it all on demographic engineering by the rulers of Kathmandu over the past five decades.

In 1951, he says, people from the hills were only 6 per cent of the population in Terai. Today, they are as much as 36 per cent. The State, he says, encouraged, the hill population to relocate and acquire assets in the plains. “It’s a well planned, systemic colonisation of the plains,” he says.

Raut, who compares the situation in today’s Nepal with that in pre-Independence India — when a few thousand British ruled a country of millions — feels independence from Nepal is the only way ahead for Madhesis.

The Nepal government cracked down on him and his party heavily. Raut is facing sedition charges and has served jail terms. He is under house arrest at Rajbiraj, near Biratnagar, from April. .

Tameem Ahmed (70), one of the early Muslim politicians in Nepal, says migration in the past three decades has been so rampant that Madhesis lost their majority even in Biratnagar.

“Often land was acquired forcefully under State protection. Many Rajbanshis and Santhals, who once controlled a majority of the land assets in Jhapa, fled to India,” he recalls.

Once a member of the Nepali Congress, Ahmed is now fighting for the Madhesi cause on behalf of a Muslim confederation.

What next? Are the Madhesis looking at driving the hill communities out of the plains?

Some of cab driver Dahal’s neighbours, originally from the hills, left Biratnagar in 2007. Madhesi leaders deny any such possibility.

“Those who are already here are a part of Madhesh. But there should be a ban on any further migration from the hills,” says Matrika Yadav, a former politburo member of Prachanda’s UCPN (Maoist) that had once declared the entire Terai region as ‘Madhesh Pradesh’.