The stage has been set for Nepal’s second phase of local elections in three provinces on June 28, with polling in Province 2 deferred to September 18 amid protests by Madhes-based parties demanding an amendment to the new constitution. That the elections are happening at all after two decades suggests there is overwhelming public desire to reclaim local government. For twenty years, the local bodies have been run as fiefdoms by a nexus of bureaucrats and local bigwigs.

The new constitution declares Nepal a republican democracy, where sovereignty rests at the lowest level of authority: the people. But with so much national turbulence, this raises the question: who exactly are “the people”? Are they the people demanding immediate elections in all provinces? Or those protesting the elections? Or are they the people demanding that the constitution be repealed?

The history of democracy around the world suggests it gradually evolved out of revolts by large sections of the populous against the rule of a few. From the Romans and Greeks in Europe to the Mauryan and Lichchhavis in the sub-continent, democracy took root as rulers were forced to open their governments to maintain order. But unlike the earliest democracies that existed in small homogenous city-states, modern democratic states encompass large territories with diverse populations and complex histories of annexation and oppression.

At the national level, every state makes an effort to blur these historical differences and injustices to create a new national identity. Nationalism is the result of this invented identity. It encourages co-existence and lends internal solidarity during times of national crisis. Nepal’s evolution as a modern nation state under the Shahs and the Ranas followed the same trajectory. Prithvi Narayan Shah’s vision of a united “garden of the commons” helped nurture a “Nepali” identity among diverse indigenous and ethnic groups brought together in the course of a violent history.

While nationalism under the monarchy built Nepal’s reputation as a peaceful Shangri-La, it also quietly homogenized the diverse culture, religion, language, and way of life of indigenous and ethnic communities. Shiva, the mighty Hindu god, became Kirateshwar, the god of ethnic Kirats. Buddhists were assimilated into the Hindu Sanatan fold when Buddha became an incarnation of the Hindu deity Vishnu. While this melding expanded the Hindu fold as a tolerant religious movement (of which every Hindu should be proud), it forced the independent identity of indigenous and ethnic groups into conformity.

The Maoist insurgency fed into the resulting cultural alienation. The residual effect of the authoritarian Panchayat regime remained in feudal socio-economic relationships, especially in rural Nepal, making it easy for the rebels to mobilize the population against the state. Although the war did not end in “capturing the state” as the Maoists envisioned, it prepared the ground for traditional parties to join the Maoists in overthrowing the monarchy, and it laid the foundations of the new republican state.

We may deny it, but the consciousness that was ushered in during this process has already shattered the myths of “Gorkhali nationalism” that glorify the Shah regime’s role in protecting our land from the British Empire. For too long these myths have understated the exclusion and exploitation of ethnic and indigenous people under the Gorkhali Empire, and later under King Mahendra’s vision of “one nation, one King and one language, one dress.”

A new political consciousness over the last two decades has led to people asserting their citizenship based on their own diverse identities. For the first time, a sovereign assembly has drafted a constitution that promises to create a new Nepali identity based on mutual respect for diversity. The carving of the federal states, guaranteeing political representation and constitutional provisions for cultural autonomy, is the hallmark of Nepal’s new constitution.

However, there are several drawbacks that must be addressed if Nepal’s constitution is to be owned by all. While the constitution reflects the minimum aspirations of the majority of the population, it has disregarded those of a sizeable minority from the southern plains—the Madhesis and the Tharus.

With today’s political arithmetic, the Madhesis and the Tharus cannot mobilize enough support inside the parliament or in the streets to pressure the majority into an amendment to the constitution. This is partly due to general fatigue among those who have spent more than two decades in political turmoil and transition, but mainly due to a loss of electoral support. There is hardly a Tharu leader of national stature who is in a position to articulate Tharu demands at the national level. Bijay Gachhadar and his party are not representative of the majority of the Tharu population living between Chitwan and Kanchanpur.

But let’s look at the Madhesi movement first.

People in Bara district protest one day before promulgation of constitution in 2015. Photo: Anurag Acharya.
People in Bara district protesting on the day before the promulgation of constitution in 2015. Anurag Acharya

After the demise of the first Constituent Assembly (CA), the divided Madhesi Morcha leadership lost their credibility, as reflected in their poor electoral performance. By the time leaders realized the strategic blunder of splintering their parties for personal gain, the entire constituency was reduced to a minuscule voice inside the second CA. Even Madhesi leaders in the big political parties—the Nepali Congress, Unified Marxist-Leninist, and Maoist—who had rallied with the Morcha in forming a political caucus inside the first CA, were silenced. The parties imposed undemocratic sanctions on lawmakers and forbade cross-party platforms from discussing the common agendas of ethnic and indigenous groups. As a result, a small group of upper caste alpha-male leaders united across party lines to promulgate a bitterly divisive constitution.

The fact that the constitution was passed with almost 90 percent approval in the CA became insignificant given that there was insufficient public discussion on the final draft and more than 50 people had lost their lives in widespread protests. In a recent television interview, Nepali Congress leader Pradip Giri talked about the democratic deficit that forced him to question the legitimacy of the draft constitution. “I refused to sign on the draft because the big party leaders had neither discussed it openly in the CA, nor with the people. How could I sign when there were people protesting and dying on the streets?”

On September 20, 2015, when rest of the country welcomed the constitution with fireworks, there was a blackout in the Terai. Two years later, the question of ownership still looms. It is in this light that toady’s Madhesi and Tharu protests against the local elections must be seen.

There may be valid arguments why the constitution had to be immediately promulgated. The country had to be rescued from unending transition, and national attention needed to turn to post-earthquake reconstruction. But the fact that the major parties failed to address Madhesi and Tharu demands, even through constitutional amendment, has never been fully been acknowledged by the dominant national political discourse, which instead sees their ongoing movement as futile.

What is more unfortunate is that the mainstream media and intelligentsia have abdicated their professional and moral responsibility of holding the political establishment accountable to the promises they made. Their silence reflects complicity, reinforcing the general perception that the media and intelligentsia largely remain hill-centric allies of the political establishment.

Having lost the battle inside the CA, the Madhesi Morcha had little choice but to salvage their political credibility by leading the movement in the streets. In some ways, the Madhesi protest today is less about a concrete constitutional agenda than about restoring the bruised dignity of the Madhesi people. In any case, after Upendra Yadav and Bijay Gachhadar’s defection, the Rastriya Janata Party (RJP)–led Morcha do not have sufficient political capital to invest in opposing the federal demarcation of Province 1. What remains a valid argument is insistence that the Terai must get at least 50 percent of local units in proportion to the population residing in the region, as opposed to the present 36 percent. Even that will not be sufficient for RJP to mobilize popular support. But the deep humiliation that the leaders and people felt when the constitution was prioritized over Madhesi lives will continue to manifest in the form of sporadic protests.

Children returning home from school in Tikapur between curfew hours. 2015. Photo: Anurag Acharya.
Children returning home from school in Tikapur between curfew hours. 2015. Anurag Acharya

Before the constitution was promulgated, Madhesis and Tharus were waging parallel protests. But after the infiltration by an unknown group of masked men in the Tharu movement led to violence in Kailali’s Tikapur, claiming lives of eight police officers and a child, most of the Tharu leaders and activists were either arrested or had to flee across the border into India.

Tharus have been silenced, but there is a seething anger across the flatlands between Nawalparasi and Kanchanpur. This is the same area that saw strong mobilization during the Maoist movement, and subsequently suffered a heavy state crackdown, including arbitrary arrests, disappearances, and rape. The crackdown was repeated in the wake of the Tikapur killings and has only added to the discontent.

Senior advocate and constitutional law expert Dipendra Jha has stated, “If there is any section that has the right to be discontent by current federal demarcation, it is the Tharus. They feel cheated, as their demographic strength has been undermined by separating Tharu clusters of Chitwan in the east, and Kailai and Kanchanpur in the west, from remaining cluster of Nawalparasi, Banke and Bardia.”

It isn’t difficult to see through the narrow political interests of leaders from major political parties, especially Nepali Congress and Maoist Centre, who disregarded one of the fundamental principles accepted by the CA in federal demarcation: taking the demographic history and geographical continuity of the population into account. There has been no sufficient explanation as to why Kailali district, which is more than 40 percent Tharu, was separated from other districts including Banke, Bardiya, and Nawalparasi which have similarly strong Tharu populations.

The fact that Surkhet and Jumla’s demand to remain in the province of their choice was respected but that of the Tharus in Kailali and Kanchanpur was not is inexplicable. The present generation of Tharus may have lost their political bargaining power, but there is little doubt the next generation will hold Kathmandu to account.

In the 21 months since the constitution was promulgated, the power wielders of Kathmandu have seen sufficient blood, sweat, and tears to realize that if Nepal’s new constitution is to truly become a citizen’s charter, it must be amended to address the grievances of the protesting population. Yet the state remains cold to the aspirations of those living at its margins, pretending all is well. The Kathmandu media, meanwhile, cannot get enough of the electoral celebrations, and social media is back to singing about Pahad-Madhes co-existence. Unless we make genuine efforts to bridge the gap, this pretense will sooner or later blow-up in our face.

And unless the bigger parties show extraordinary political honesty by mobilizing a two-thirds majority for a second amendment, the constitution may still not be amended before September’s scheduled elections in Province 2. In that case, politics will take its own course, and it may take a new generation of politicians in Kathmandu to right this historic injustice. After all, India’s Telengana revolted for more than six decades before the center finally gave in to their demand for autonomy. The people of Darjeeling continue to fight for Gorkhaland.

For the leaders and activists of the Terai-Madhes, it was perhaps wishful thinking that people would, this time around, take the harder path of rejecting elections. Fatigue is everywhere, and trust in the political leadership has dipped. Even if voter turnout is low and isolated protests continue, Madhesis and Tharus will participate in the local polls on June 28. Though they may do so with a heavy heart, there is reason to be hopeful. They have forced their voices through the high walls of Singha Durbar, and sooner or later they will force it to pay attention.

Cover photo: Scene from a Madhes protest. Kanchan Jha