A lot has changed in Nepal since 1953. A lot has remained the same. When the following two articles were published in the newspaper The Statesman, then published from Delhi, the country had entered a new era with the defeat of the Rana regime. People waited for Constituent Assembly elections to write Nepal’s democratic constitution. That plan was scuttled a few years later by the ambitious King Mahendra keen to centralize all power in his hands. In 1950s Nepal, there was a great churning of political activity and articulation of aspirations from peoples suppressed by a hundred years of totalitarian regime. In particular, in Nepal’s south, the Terai, the Madhesis agitated for a province of their own, and for their lingua franca, Hindi, to be recognized by the state. Sixty-two years later, as Nepal struggles to promulgate a democratic constitution written by a Constituent Assembly, the Terai is once again in turmoil. The demand today is the same as it was in 1953: a separate province for Madhesis.
“The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting,” Milan Kundera wrote in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. As the following articles reveal, the Madhes remains as important as ever to Nepal’s political economy. These clippings from a different era serve as a reminder of the long-running struggle of the Madhesi people for greater autonomy.
Original press cuttings of this article obtained by The Record from Foreign Office File 317/108366 at the National Archives in London.
August 4, 1953
THE NEPAL TERAI – I
A Fertile Land the Victim of Neglect
Contact with the centre limited by communications
Most Nepalese in Kathmandu and outside, in the hills, speak with a mountain people’s disdain of the Madhesias—literally midlanders—their plainsmen brethren from the south; they will also, sometimes, call the Terai “The New Land”.
In a relative sense, perhaps, this fertile fringe, some 30 miles deep and stretching east to west for over 550 miles along the length of the mountain kingdom’s southern border with India, is still new territory.
More than a century of attachment to Nepal, since the treaty, of Sagauli, when it was ceded as a protective measure against the incursions into Indian territory by warlike Gurkhas, has not helped to merge its people into the mountain landscape of Nepal. Most Madhesias still share a more mutual intimacy with their southern neighbours across the border than with their compatriots in the hills to the north, who are largely denied the same measure of accessibility.
An open border with India offers every opportunity for a free mingling of populations: it has also helped to perpetuate already strong affinities. With liberal citizenship laws there is still a large fluid population with interests on both sides of the border.
The Terai dweller’s contact with the hillfolk has been strictly limited by geographical circumstances. Rough mountain paths leading to the upper reaches of the country are an obvious discouragement to all save the sturdy few, or to those with an urgent mission. Even Kathmandu, the capital, submerged in this vast mountain terrain, has remained aloof.
Between the outlying areas in the hills and the Terai there are no quick and easy means of communication. It was only recently that the Nepalese Government, with the help of Indian Army engineers, started construction of a road to connect Kathmandu with some parts of the Terai. Consequently the Terai has evolved, for all practical purposes, a curious existence of its own, sandwiched as it were between two differing worlds and far removed from the attention of successive Governments in Kathmandu. The distance between the Central Government and the Terai peoples has fostered a separatist feeling; through the years the Centre has exercised only a loose and vague authority through uninterested officials.
The relationship between the people and the Government is a strange one. The peasants, who form the major section of the populace, pay their dues mechanically; the Government official is merely concerned with collecting these and sometimes, less frequently, enforcing orders from the Centre. He is accepted without much reflection about the source from which he derives his authority. Nationalism for the people here is an academic rather than an emotional concept. For most of the inhabitants of “The New Land”, Nepal is limited to the confines of the Kathmandu Valley from which the country derives its name.
The overall impression of this fertile region, which has been contributing almost 75% of the Central Exchequer’s revenue, is one of appalling neglect. In the market-places small wooden booths replace the neat little shops seen on the other side of the border. Along dusty unrepaired roads passing traffic leaves a heavy spray of dust that hangs for hours over the scene. It is almost impossible to travel from end to end along the length of the 550 miles of plain without having to make tedious diversions through Indian territory. Each district leads a compartmental existence all but secluded from the adjoining one save for connecting footpaths.
A journey along one of these is not without the spice of adventure. Bridges across the main rivers are non-existent, and some of the easily-fordable smaller rivulets become roaring torrents during the rains. The Government continues to collect useful road levies.
Little has changed with the change in the regime, save for new faces in old places. The Administration is still antique, still packed with the chosen few migrants from the Kathmandu Valley, and continues to jog along with little thought for the public good. Hospitals, schools and other public amenities are totally inadequate for present needs. Government spending on public utilities represents only a minute fraction of current earnings.
The continued discrimination between the Parvatia—the hill people, who continue to enjoy a favoured position—and the Madhesias is adding more to the conflict on the Terai than may be suspected in Nepal or elsewhere.
Continued neglect has deepened the sense of frustration. It is something simple folk have preferred not to think too deeply about so far, but it would be naïve to imagine that these sentiments can long remain dormant.
Much of the agricultural potential remains largely unexploited. Little attention has been paid to improving the conditions of the peasantry. Almost 90% of the land is monopolized by large landholders—mostly exiles from Kathmandu. More than 50% of these are gifts to individuals. Some of the birta (gift) landlords own over 10,000 acres—one of them owns about a million—all tax free. Only 10% of the Terai lands are smallholdings, varying from 10 to 15 acres each, held either by migrants from the hills or from India.
Yet, even given this disparity between holdings, the high percentage of untaxed lands, and the low taxes which vary from Re 1 per acre to Rs 6, revenue from the land forms the major share of the Terai’s contribution to the Central Exchequer of Nepal. Earnings from agricultural revenue alone are estimated at Rs 107 lakhs annually, slightly less than half the annual budget. But it is generally conceded that these could be stepped up to almost double the present contribution by rationalization of current laws, together with a more equitable distribution of land, and by bringing under the plough the large acreages now lying fallow. Many of these land reforms were promised by the Nepali Congress during the insurrection, but during its year and a half in office not even one of them was carried out. It is arguable no doubt that reforms in Nepal are not without their share of obstacles, many which spring from the prevailing system of land tenure and tax collection. In most parts, for example, the landlord is the revenue collector, combining the functions of the village patwari in India. It is his responsibility to deposit revenue in the Government Treasury notwithstanding defaulting tenants. For this service he receives 2% as commission. To replace the landlord, it is argued, would pose the problem of finding trained personnel—almost non-existent in the country today. Besides, it is said, it would be much costlier. But the advantages of eliminating large landholdings appear to cancel out such arguments.
It is in the Terai that most of Nepal’s few industries are located. Sizable quantities of its surplus production of rice are exported to India after local needs have been met. Relatively large towns have sprung up along the border centre of Nepal’s big business. The Terai’s geographical contiguity to India on the one hand, and the hills on the other, makes it an admirable trade centre. Here are collected the few products of the hills; and through here must pass the essentials—salt, cloth, and other things in daily use—from India for the people in the north.
The major exports and earners of Indian rupees are rice and jute. It is estimated that almost 2,200,000 maunds [about 82 million kilos] of rice are exported annually. Jute, grown in restricted parts only, is of inferior quality and meant mainly for home consumption. There are only two jute mills in Nepal, one of which has been idle for some years now. The 150,000 maunds [about 5.6 million kilos] of jute that are offered for export are a residue from the mills’ needs.
Imports far exceed exports. All basic commodities and luxury goods, demand for which is increasing with the removal of import restrictions, have to be got from India. But much of the advantage is lost to the Government, for a great part of the trade is unaccounted for in Customs records. The situation offers every opportunity for illicit operations. It is not difficult to imagine how goods on railway sidings on the Indian side of the border find their way to shops in the Nepalese market-places without any record on the books.
Smuggling is a legacy of the . . .
Alas, the conclusion of this article was not included in the Foreign Office file.
Political Development Since Change in Regime
Demand for separate province is gaining strength
In Kathmandu and elsewhere much is heard of growing political unrest among the Terai peoples, suggesting Communist influence. While a majority of reports are magnified out of proportion, it is undoubtedly true that discontent is now widespread. But its expression is confined to the more vocal elements especially among the unemployed, who are too immature to give it political form or size. Occasionally processions parade through the streets of some of the larger of the Terai towns. A few shout slogans, others appear to join in silently, mechanically.
Many budding political leaders in Terai claim that political consciousness there is greater than elsewhere in Nepal. It is difficult to deny this. Living in close proximity to the Indian border, the inhabitants’ notions have grown with the Indian political movement. Many of them had intimate association with the Congress movement of 1942 and found refuge in these parts.
Far removed from the reach of the former Rana Government at Kathmandu, and with a sizable populace of middle-class emigrés, the Terai formed an ideal hothouse for political activity, until recently a bloom foreign to the soil. It grew to maturity here, and within three years of Indian independence came the insurrection which overthrew the century-old government. During the insurrection the Terai formed the hub of revolutionary activity. Although the insurrection was short-lived, and life in the Terai continued placidly, it would be ingenuous to feel that the overthrow of the Rana government has not left a strong impression on the people’s mind.
It has certainly left a legacy for Terai youth, whose normal activities were interrupted. Many of those who were then in the Terai or in India formed the ebullient army that stormed the principal towns from across the Indian border. Later, after their first few initial successes, they manned the provisional government during its short existence. Their experiences unfitted most to return to their studies. Their profession now is politics, and they form the immature vacillating leadership of the Terai, for whom the overthrow of a government has become an end in itself rather than a means. The acute unemployment that set in sympathetically with the economic crisis in India together with the continuance of old evils, offers them plenty of scope.
The Terai Congress, which is reputed to have the support of most of the Terai inhabitants, was formed almost two years ago, after the insurrection, and is for the most part a communal organization championing the cause of the Terai peoples. It differs little, ideologically, from other parties in Nepal, and it appears to have a great prospect of gaining momentum by virtue of its communal form. Besides the demands for agrarian reforms and general improvement which are included in most party manifestoes, it lays special emphasis on a separate Terai province, more representation in the Central Government and Hindi—the language of the majority of the Terai peoples—as the lingua franca of the country. In support of these demands it makes the claim that 50% of the total population of Nepal is concentrated in the Terai, and contributes almost 75% of the total revenue of the country.
Despite this, Terai Congress leaders point out only 2% of the officials in the districts and the Government are from the Terai, and in the last Cabinet it had only one seat. Practically nothing of its contribution to the Central exchequer is devoted to the development of its own towns.
The demand for a separate Terai province has gained considerable impetus, although it meets with the strong disapproval of the Central Government, which argues that to concede a separate province would encourage separatist tendencies and give strength to regional conflicts which are already strong. It has also aroused the opposition of the landlords and officials, who are predominantly from the hills or the Kathmandu valley, and who zealously guard their dominant position.
Resentment against discrimination from the Centre is now widespread, although it has not yet become emphatic enough to force the issue. Terai Congress leadership is still in the infant stage, and it has still to launch a recruitment drive wholeheartedly.
Much of its present following is concentrated in the Central Terai districts, owing largely to difficult communications which present by far the most formidable obstacle to rapid expansion. Consequently, it is little known in some areas towards the east and the extreme west. Political life in the Terai remains as compartmental in the districts as life in other spheres.
In the East and West, the most active party is the Kisan Sangh, also a very new party which, unlike the Terai Congress, does not confine its activities to the Terai alone but works throughout Nepal. While there is little to support its claim of success in the interior of the country, it is certainly the most vociferous and the most active of political parties in Nepal.
The Kisan Sangh is a recent addition to the medley of political parties that sprang up after the insurrection. Although it professes to be the champion of the peasant, in reality it provides camouflage for the Communist Party, which was banned a year and a half ago in Nepal. During its existence it has gathered a considerable following of semi-educated unemployed who devote themselves to disruption rather than serious political activity.
The Kisan Sangh has latterly shifted its attention to the remoter districts where agrarian problems are acute. It has achieved phenomental [sic] success in Biratnagar, headquarters of the Morang district. In this industrial town—the largest in the Nepal Terai—with its seventeen mills, and among the large agricultural population in the rural areas, Kisan Sangh activities have been a perpetual nuisance to the authorities for the past few months. Allying itself with other disgruntled parties in Nepal, it formed a united front or Samyukta Morcha which sponsored most of the movements in this area. While other parties, finding their Communist bed-fellows irksome, deserted this strange alliance of ideologically opposed elements, the Morcha still continues, having swallowed up the entities that joined it. This absorption has left the Kisan Sangh in a position of undisputed supremacy. During the past six months it has repeatedly sponsored strikes in Biratnagar’s two jute mills. More recently it launched a no-rent campaign against the Government.
Fear of violence
Although to the casual visitor it would appear, from some of the fanciful takes of success, that the Kisan Sangh has a considerable following, sober study indicates that public co-operation is largely prompted by the fear of violence and reprisal, although the Kisan Sangh (made wise by earlier experience) has avoided force. For the present the Kisan Sangh’s sphere of activity is strictly limited to a relatively few areas, but it is premature to say what strength it could ultimately muster if it came into competition with the Terai Congress, which has a natural attraction for the Terai peoples. The Kisan Sangh’s programme for the abolition of agrarian debt, reduction in the high rate of agricultural interest, and redistribution of land have an equally strong appeal to the oppressed Terai peasantry.
All of these problems are real. But all parties in Nepal produce manifestoes similar to the Kisan Sangh’s. Other parties, including the Nepali Congress, have made only a slight impression, most of them concentrating their attention until very recently on party wranglings over a Government in Kathmandu. All are weakened by internal strife except the Terai Congress, which has no rift in its ranks.
The whole Terai question requires re-examination. The need for reforms is genuine, and discontent is widespread. At governmental level the case for a more realistic policy in the Terai appears to be winning surprisingly little attention. Some quarters seem aware of its importance, but the translation of ideas into practice has yet to come.
Republished in accordance with the Indian Copyright Act 1957.
Cover photo: Protesters walk the streets of Janakpur, August 21, 2015. Prabhat Jha