The Madhesi (Also Madyadesi or Mahesi) are an indigenous group based predominantly in the Terai Plains region in Nepal. Their name means ‘those from the middle country’ and is derived from the Sanskrit ‘madhya des.’ This name refers specifically to the geographical location of the Terai plains where the Madhesi continue to practice agriculture, their chief means of securing income and survival.
The Madhesi are an exceptionally numerous group in comparison to many other indigenous groups. In 1991 the Madhesi population accounted for forty percent of the entire Nepali population. Within this large demographic several languages are routinely spoken and are largely dependent on geographical situation. Many speak Hindi whilst other languages used include Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Santhal and Northern Bengali. The Madhesi peoples observe a number of varied faiths including Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism and Islam. Despite all of this diversity, a majority of the Hindu Madhesi observe the rules and delicate structure of a caste society.
The Madhesi people believe that they are descended from the divine Virupaksha, an aspect of Shiva but regrettably their own understanding of their mythological origins has not deterred others from introducing the Madhesi to earthly struggle. The Shah monarchy, so long in power in Nepal, and other groups such as the Chhetris and Bahuns have been responsible for the political and cultural subjugation of the Madhesi in the past. Holding a monopoly over government, the military and administration at various times in the past, these cultures extolled a “one nation, one culture” policy to the detriment of the Madhesi and other ‘minority’ groups. The Pahari Chhetri for example, highlanders who viewed the Madhesi as Un-Nepalese due to their appearance, initiated land grabs having moved into the Terai in the Twentieth Century. Instilling a strict hierarchy of ownership they threatened Madhesi subsistence and disempowered them to mount a political challenge.
Little changed until the Twenty First Century despite a people’s movement in the nineties. In the aftermath of a bloody civil war the Republic of Nepal was established in 2008 and two ethnic Madhesis’ have since held the office of president and vice president. Access to political recognition has improved and the Madhesi now reportedly have a greater chance of gaining paid work and of securing legal aid.
Unfortunately in the present day, though some problems have been addressed, others remain and new ones have arisen. Civil service affairs continue to be conducted solely in the Nepali language, limiting access to this important area to speakers of other previously mentioned dialects. More disturbing than this has been the rise of minority factions such as the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF), a group supposedly formed to fight for Madhesi rights but which has been implicated in terror activities and human rights violations against other indigenous and political groups. This faction has now splintered but non-Madhesi peoples are concerned over the ideology of Madhesi movements like the MJF who they perceive to favour an assimilatory ‘one Madhes, one province’ policy. Evidently these fears echo those historically suffered by the Madhesi themselves and extremist factions do currently pose a challenge to the peaceful coexistence of different groups in the region, threatening to effect an ironic reversal of historical sufferings.