Protesters stand near a burning tyre as they gather to block the highway connecting Nepal to India during a general strike called by Madhesi protesters demonstrating against the new constitution in Birgunj, Nepal November 5, 2015.
Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

In early February, a group of local Nepalis stormed a blockade that had been clogging a crucial border pass with India for four months. The event marked a pause in a six-month spasm of unrest throughout southern Nepal that brought the country to its knees and crippled an economy that was already reeling after last year’s deadly earthquakes. The blockade had been erected in September 2015 by members of the Madhesi ethnic group, which is centered on the hotly-contested Terai plains between India and Nepal, and has long accused Kathmandu of treating its members as outsiders. When, in defiance of their Madhesi protest leaders, disgruntled locals and businessmen ripped apart the crudely built structure with their hands, it became clear that the blockade had been rejected by the very people it was intended to help.

A month after the blockade’s end, tensions are still high as the Madhesi community struggles to reconcile both with the central government and itself. The Madhesi, a marginalized minority with cultural and linguistic ties to neighboring India, has been fighting for greater rights and recognition in Nepal for decades. And when Nepal’s central government proposed a new constitution in June 2015 that marginalized the group by establishing contentious new administrative divisions, dissent began to spill over into violence. Vehicles were torched and dozens were killed in clashes with police. In response, protesters led by members of a coalition of ethnic Madhesi political parties occupied the no-man’s land that connects Birgunj with the Indian town of Raxaul, choking off 70 percent of all trade entering Nepal. The gambit sparked a humanitarian crisis and a diplomatic spat when the Indian government lent its political support to the protesters’ cause.

Binita Devi is of the dozens who lost a loved one during the initial wave of protests. Binita pleaded with her husband one morning last September, urging him not to join the growing, increasingly violent anti-government protests. But he ignored her and left the house anyway. Less than three hours later, she received a phone call that informed her that her husband had been shot in the head. “I asked him not to go,” Binita said, sitting in a dusty roadside tea shop in Birgunj that she now runs by herself. “But he said ‘I am fighting for our ethnicity. People like us are the most discriminated against. If I don’t go, we will never get our rights.’” But this fight for rights is not without its detractors who have worn weary of its methods—let alone its lack of results and accountability.

ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN 

The Madhesis, which constitute nearly a quarter of the country’s population, are confined to the lowest rungs of Nepali society and face systematic discrimination based on their ethnicity. Since 1769, Nepali politics have been dominated by upper caste Hindus from the Kathmandu hill region. The central government has exploited the natural resources in the Terai plains, while suppressing the civil and political rights of Madhesis who live there. Until 2006, for example, Madhesis with Indian heritage were legally prohibited from owning land and obtaining citizenship rights. And Madhesis have been under-represented in state organs, including the civil service, police force, and military, throughout Nepal’s entire modern history.

As a result of the policies, the Terai region, where the Madhesis make up some 50 percent of the population, is one of the poorest areas of Nepal. It lacks decent schools, hospitals, and employment opportunities. Many Madhesis scrape out a living as low-skilled manual laborers and migrant workers. An undercurrent of racism against the darker-skinned Madhesis also runs through Nepal. It is rooted in a mixture of Hindu-based casteism, socio-cultural classism and anti-Indian patriotism, which has only worsened the minority’s sense of alienation.

Closed shops are pictured as people ride on their bicycles along a highway during a general strike called by the Madhesi protesters demonstrating against the new constitution in Birgunj, Nepal November 4, 2015.
Closed shops are pictured as people ride on their bicycles along a highway during a general strike called by the Madhesi protesters demonstrating against the new constitution in Birgunj, Nepal November 4, 2015.
Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters
The discriminatory policies are linked to the political elite’s fears about the region’s socio-cultural proximity to India. If the Madhesi succeed in gaining political acknowledgment, Kathmandu's elite worry that Nepal’s powerful neighbor may seek to manipulate or control the country by proxy. Such fears have been exacerbated by India’s open support for the Madhesi cause. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, for example, has repeatedly urged the Nepali government to address Madhesi concerns.

Although the new constitution has attempted to provide Madhesis with more guaranteed political privileges, suspicion of the Madhesi's relationship to India has still found its way into the document. The latest version retains a provision that makes it impossible for Nepali women to pass on full citizenship rights to their children if they marry “foreign” men, an indirect reference to Indians. Given the permeability of the India–Nepal border in this region, cross-border marriages are quite common. As a result many of them qualify for only naturalized citizenship, which makes them ineligible to run for high political office or hold senior positions in Nepal’s security services.

FIGHTING FOR POWER

The latest battle in Terai is part of an ongoing struggle to form a democratic government that has shaken Nepal for two decades. It began with a ten-year Maoist insurgency in Nepal that ended in 2006, when the rebels agreed to lay down their arms and become a political party in return for the drafting of an inclusive constitution and the abolition of the absolute monarchy. Federalism, too, was injected into the mix after two bouts of protests led by Madhesis in 2007 and 2008. The first Constituent Assembly—a legislative body tasked with drafting the new constitution—foundered in the face of power struggles and supposedly unfair intra-border designations that marginalized Madhesi political power. With things at a standstill, the first assembly was scrapped and a new one elected in 2013. That body only managed to fast-track a draft constitution in the wake of last year’s tragic earthquakes that killed over 9,000 people. While it recognized that federalism is fundamental to democratic longevity, there was little agreement on its form. The government put forward a hasty two-week public consultation period.

At the heart of the current dispute is the new delineation of federal states, which Madhesi protesters say will dilute their political representation in favor of the established Kathmandu-based elite. The constitution splits Nepal into seven states, a design that renders the Madhesi community minorities in all regions. Protesters are calling for Terai to be divided into two states to boost representation for the populous region’s largest ethnic groups: the Madhesis and indigenous Tharus. In January 2016, the government agreed to some amendments such as bolstering Madhesi political power through increased proportional representation, but critics say they still receive fewer seats than their population warrants. Protesters have vowed to keep fighting for amendments to the federal structure, bringing in other dissatisfied groups, including Tharus, Muslims, Dalits and indigenous peoples. The Samyukta Loktantrik Madhesi Morcha or United Democratic Madhesi Front—an alliance of ethnic Madhesi parties leading the protests—is planning a fresh wave of rallies throughout March.

Binita, however, might caution other from joining in. According to eyewitnesses, her husband, Sohan Sah Kalwash, was unarmed and peeking around a corner when he was hit by a police bullet that tore through his skull, ripping a hole through the back of his head. He is one of over 50 people to die in confrontations with Nepali police and security forces since the Nepali government proposed the new constitution.

An investigation conducted by the Nepali Human Rights Commission found that the police had used excessive force against peaceful protesters. For her part, Binita was promised $1,000 in compensation, but the government has yet to take any punitive action against the police officers involved. Instead, Kathmandu has launched a crackdown on Madhesi protesters, arresting 14 people suspected of violence against the police since February, according to the Terai Human Rights Defenders Alliance. The local human rights monitoring group described the arrests as a “systematic trend” aimed at intimidating and harassing leaders of the protest movement, as the police seek to curb their political activities. As protests ramp back up through March, then, there is a potent risk of more bloodshed.

Police take position to fire at Madhesi protesters demanding autonomy in the city of Birjung some 300 km (184 miles) south of the Nepali capital Kathmandu February 4, 2007.
Police take position to fire at Madhesi protesters demanding autonomy in the city of Birjung some 300 km (184 miles) south of the Nepali capital Kathmandu February 4, 2007.
Ram Sarraf / Reuters

WAR WEARINESS 

Binita is not the only person who is wary of more political action. Support for the protest movement is splintered and has plummeted since September when the blockade was first formed. This is largely because it struck the poor and marginalized hardest as fuel prices skyrocketed and basic food and medical supplies dwindled. Meanwhile the black market flourished and smugglers sneaking goods across the porous Indian border pocketed lucrative profits. The United Democratic Madhesi Front has defended the economic blockade as necessary and has not ruled out re-imposing it.

Some critics have accused the protesting parties of exploiting social grievances for political gain. “There is great discrimination here, but the Madhesi parties are not serious about addressing this,” said Arbind Singh, an ethnic Madhesi member of UML, citing concerns about the treatment of women, lower castes, and the disabled in Terai. “This is a game of India and Madhesi Morcha to regain seats they lost in the last election.” Madhesi parties faced huge electoral defeats in the 2013 election, reducing their political relevance and ability to shape the new constitution.

There might be some truth to Singh’s claims. At the start of the unrest, Madhesi political parties pledged to provide $45,000 to the families of those killed by police, offering a tantalizing incentive for impoverished protesters to take to the streets. But neither Binita nor other grieving families have received the money they were promised. Worse yet, Madhesi groups have been blamed for instigating violence towards police officers and civilians as part of a sinister campaign to promote Madhesi ethno-nationalism and expand their political power base.

One such civilian was Rambinesh Kushwaha, a 20-year-old farmer with family ties to UML. He was beaten to death by a gang of thugs on his way to visit relatives near Birgunj one morning in late October. His family says that witnesses have privately identified the culprits as Madhesi protesters, who were trying to steal the fuel from his motorbike and attacked him when they discovered his identity. His battered body was dumped under a bridge.

“There are witnesses but they are afraid of the Madhesi leaders so they are not saying anything,” said his brother Dinesh Kushwaha as his mother crumbled into tears. “They are scared they might be killed as well.” The family continues to receive threats on a regular basis and most lawyers have refused to help with the case. Madhesi leaders have denied responsibility and accused police officers of the murder. Asked if they still support the protesters’ demands, his brother blamed their leaders for provoking violence instead of dialogue. “I support the demands of the Madhesi parties, but their way of protesting is wrong.”

Protest leaders have clearly tapped into a powerful grievance, and most Madhesis agree that state-backed discrimination against them must stop. Left unaddressed, it is only a matter of time until further violence erupts. “The demands should be met. My husband lost his life because of the protest,” said Binita. “If the state treated us equally they would have accepted our demands. They feel we are not Nepali.” But if Madhesi political leaders cannot find a way to keep average citizens aligned with their goals, they may find that their tactics have backfired completely—and this could leave the Madhesi without political representation and cultural acceptance for generations to come.

  • HANNA HINDSTROM is a freelance journalist covering Myanmar and the Asia–Pacific. She has been reporting from the region since 2011, focusing on human rights, conflict, and development.
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