People Drag Leaders to Democracy
Analysis by Parbati Nepali, Feb 18 2007
KATHMANDU, Feb 18 (IPS) – Many residents of Nepal’s capital spent their weekend holiday in their vehicles in hours-long queues for petrol, fearing a flare-up of a general strike that closed the main highway in this landlocked country earlier this month, leading to fuel rationing.
For nearly three weeks the shutdown blocked supplies of fuel, food and other essentials from reaching the Kathmandu Valley and other points north of ‘madhesh’, the plains region bordering India, stranding travellers and forcing businesses big and small to close. The strike was ignited by the shooting of a ‘madheshi’ protester demonstrating against the country’s interim constitution, which until then had been seen largely as another imperfect but needed step on this South Asian nation’s rocky path to permanent peace.
Until April 2006, Nepal’s Maoist rebels were fighting an increasingly violent uprising against the state. In 10 years more than 13,000 people were killed, tens of thousands more were chased from their village homes, and words like “torture”, “disappearances” and “human rights” came into daily use.
But 10 months ago, Maoist chiefs put their insurgency on hold and teamed up with political leaders to send gigantic protests into the streets of Kathmandu, after two weeks forcing King Gyanendra to end autocratic rule and recall Parliament. In November, after months of talks, the Maoists and the new government signed a peace deal.
Yet despite promises to build a “new Nepal”, the government failed to restructure the state in the interim constitution, which was also approved by newly-minted Maoist members of parliament. That is why the shooting of a lone protester exploded into two weeks of spontaneous protests that rivalled April’s “people’s movement”, says civil society leader Shyam Shrestha.
“What you have left incomplete, they have gone to the street to complete,” Shrestha and fellow members of Citizens’ Movement for Democracy and Peace (CDMP) told political leaders after a fact-finding mission to the plains, where 29 people were killed, most of them from police shooting. Security forces used excessive force, including shooting live bullets into crowds of protesters, reported the United Nations’ human rights office in Nepal.
The CDMP report also refuted charges that protesters were generally violent. “Police of ‘pahadi’ descent (from hill regions) were going to houses and beating ‘madheshis’, verbally insulting them, and mishandling the women in order to provoke violent reactions,” Shrestha told IPS.
Hooligans paid by factions loyal to the king were also sent to the region to spark communal riots, but the majority of demonstrators were not interested in fighting other Nepalis, he added. “This is a struggle for identity. We talked to many people on the street — they don’t want a separate state, they want to be in Nepal; they want to be citizens.”
Although making up more than one-third of Nepal’s population of 27 million, madheshis have never been proportionally represented in socio-political institutions, which are dominated by male, upper-caste Hindus from hill areas. Their darker skin has made them obvious targets for discrimination, and many Nepalis consider them ‘Indians’.
As many as four million madheshis are said to have been denied citizenship papers despite marrying Nepalis and living in this country for decades. The government recently changed the law to permit naturalised citizens and has sent teams to the madhesh to distribute papers before elections in June to a constituent assembly (CA) that will draft the permanent constitution.
The madheshi protests ebbed after Prime Minister Girija Koirala promised to amend the interim constitution to reshape Nepal into a federal state and to boost the number of seats filled by madheshi representatives in the legislature. But they will likely flame up unless the government announces that CA elections will be run solely on the basis of proportional representation and that madheshis and other excluded group will be represented according to their numbers in all state institutions, predicted Shrestha.
Political scientist Mahendra Lawoti says transforming Nepal into a country of state governments based on ethnic and regional identities would manage, not fuel, communal conflict. “The non-recognition of ethnic cleavages fuels conflict because it denies recognition of identity that is salient to people,” he told IPS in an email interview from the United States.
“The Indian experience is insightful. Nehru in the ’50s divided the country along administrative/geographic lines. It led to linguistic protests and riots in South India. After he was forced to re-divide the country along linguistic lines, the linguistic movements subsided,” added Lawoti, author of ‘Towards a Democratic Nepal: Inclusive Political Institutions for a Multicultural Society’.
Nepal today is also facing protests from myriad ethnic, and non-ethnic, groups demanding fair representation in the state. The government’s response has been to ignore them, unless they lead to violence. It has now made offers of talks with three madheshi groups — two that are spin-offs of the Maoists — and the umbrella group of indigenous bodies recognised by the state. Many more are demanding to be called.
In their first public pact in November 2005, leaders of the Maoists and seven opposition parties pledged a “national political convention” before elections to a constituent assembly — but the promise got lost in negotiations.
It is time to change the image of Nepal, says Shrestha. “A picture of multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-cultural Nepal should emerge by looking at state institutions. Now only Brahmins and Chhetris (high priestly and warrior castes) are running the country; some 30 percent are ruling over 70 percent.”
On Monday, the 10-day ‘break’ in the general strike is set to end; no date for talks between a government team and the Madheshi People’s Rights Forum has been set.
Indigenous Peoples are putting their bodies on the line and it's our responsibility to make sure you know why. That takes time, expertise and resources - and we're up against a constant tide of misinformation and distorted coverage. By supporting IC you're empowering the kind of journalism we need, at the moment we need it most.