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Nepal Elections 2017: The Madhesi Question

Atheer: Stuti Saxena

As Nepal’s two-phased elections came to a close on the 7th of December, a volley of questions remain to be addressed. Notwithstanding the euphoria around the elections which hold hopes for a democratic government in the country, issues linked with civil unrest, corruption and government instability remain to be tackled. It also needs to be remembered that Nepal has witnessed a change of government a total of 26 times in the past 28 years. The social fabric of the country is composed of a number of parallel communities vying for independent demands. One of these communities is the Madhesi who have borne the brunt of suppression for a long time. Now that the parliamentary elections are done with, the question remains; what will be the fate of this community?

The Madhesi reside in the Terai region of Nepal and they have long been considered a marginalised segment of society. Bordering India, the similarities with Indians and inter-mixing with the latter in the form of marital and other familial relations has always taken place between the Madhesi and their Indian counterparts across the border. At the same time, the Madhesi community has long been oppressed by the affluent Nepalese social class, who reside in the country’s hilly pockets. The Madhesi community is not regarded as part of mainstream Nepalese society and has been under-represented historically on political, social and economic lines.

While the Madhesi have conducted a number of protests and demonstrations against the discrimination, not much heed has been paid to the needs and demands of this community. The Madhesi are calling for equal opportunity, equal rights and dignity as the other Nepalese have. They demand fair treatment, the right to education, health facilities, a federal structure of the country’s polity with increased participation of its people in government and civil service. Implicitly, they aim for decentralisation of powers so that anti-Madhesi feeling is reversed, enabling them to participate in economic development.

While the newly-promulgated Nepalese constitution hailed federalism with three government tiers at the federal, provincial and local levels, it remains to be seen if the Madhesi community is empowered in the near future. The Madhesi community occupies significant districts bordering India, where there is scope for agricultural and industrial development. In fact, the region inhabited by the Madhesi can be showcased as a ‘Special Economic Zone’ but willingness is required on the part of the political community and society by and large. Furthermore, it is important that the Madhesi community be actively involved in mainstream Nepalese politics. Besides securing representation in Nepal’s political leadership, Madhesi women should also be lent the opportunity of being a part of the polity and administration. Conceding that the region occupied by the Madhesi community is of concern for the Indian government as well, international relations between the two countries are being impacted a great deal. Therefore, instead of acting as bottlenecks in furthering ties between the two countries, the Madhesi question can act as an ice-breaker by promoting the socio-economic and politico-administrative development of the community.

The Madhesi follow different religious faiths as well as speak a variety of languages and efforts should be made to protect their interests. This cultural semblance may serve to brand the Madhesi community in Nepal, wherein local traditions might be showcased at the national and international levels. The Nepalese government should ensure that the Madhesi are not bereft of the opportunities of availing education and health services. They should be afforded a place of equality in terms of employment opportunities across different sectors and should be granted autonomy in terms of civil rights. Ethnic diversity always supersedes ethnic divisions and this calls for concerted efforts on the part of the new government to ensure that harmonious relations are maintained between the Madhesi community and the other Nepalese.

While the new constitution of Nepal guarantees federalism in nature and spirit, this exquisite feature needs to be institutionalised and seeped into the Nepalese polity. As the country is gearing forward to derive benefits from the Fourth Industrial Revolution and bolstering its international ties with a host of countries, all divisive tendencies in the structural fabric of the country need to be warded off. There is no denial of the fact that the Madhesi community may contribute towards the economic growth of Nepal. Therefore, it’s important that in order to leverage the opportunity of empowering the Madhesi community and to realise this objective, that the Nepalese government at all levels must realise that socio-economic dissensions should give way to socio-economic development, so to prepare the country for times ahead.

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