Sunday, January 20, 2008

Madhes checklist

Madhes checklist


It’s time someone gave the Prime Minister a wakeup call on the madhes. Two NC ministers who should be warning their boss about the tarai, Peace Minister Ram Chandra Poudel and Home Minister Krishna Prasad Sitaula, are both in deep denial.

Poudel is under the impression that all the demands of the madhesi parties for regional autonomy and representation in the army and government have already been met. For the MJF led by Upendra Yadav, the rump Sadbhabana of Rajendra Mahato and the Tarai-Madhes Loktantrik party of Mahanta Thakur, this is a slap in the face.

If there is such a wide communication gap among moderate madhesis who are committed to non-violence and elections, imagine the distrust of the state felt by armed groups in the tarai.

True, not all madhesis agree with all the demands made by Yadav and recent defectors from the mainstream parties. The madhes itself is multi-layered, divided by caste, language, religion and ethnicity. Here is an opportunity to address the grievances of the southern plains at one go, but the government is squandering that chance.

However dire it may look from Kathmandu, however radical the demands of the madhesi leaders, things haven’t got to a point of no return. Madhesis are sullen and angry at Kathmandu, and they’re not hiding it. But instead of negotiating with moderate forces, Baluwatar is letting things drift dangerously. This will only help residual reactionaries who want to disrupt the elections at all costs, and make it more difficult for the madhesi leadership to wrest the tarai torch from the hands of the militants.

Elections can be held on 10 April. Anyone who doubts that will provide excuses to those who want to avoid polls. Sections of the international community and UNMIN mustn’t allow misgivings to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Of course, it won’t be as smooth as a referendum in Switzerland, where people cast their ballots in the post office on their way to work. Our elections are sure to be messy. (But at least we will have a greater turnout than in the Swiss cantons.) Elections will provide closure and clarity, and many of the pending demands for identity and representation can be debated and addressed in the elected assembly.

Many of the madhesi grievances are at the level of perception, but the three Brahmins of Baluwatar seem not to have understood that. Here is a simple three-point checklist:

• restart the negotiation process
• send positive signals to the tarai
• announce concrete steps to redress grievances right away

Kathmandu’s status-quoists have to realise that the days when the valley’s rulers decided on the future of the country are gone. Now, the rest of the country will decide Kathmandu’s future.

Madhesi politicians have shown responsibility and maturity by underlining the non-violent nature of their struggle and by expressing support for elections. They must now speak out just as openly to condemn the violence being perpetrated in the name of the madhes struggle by the militant groups.

To see an example of what could happen in the Nepal tarai, one only has to look at Sri Lanka’s 25-year agony that shows no sign of ending.


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