An Identity Crisis in Nepal

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Protesters have put Nepal in an economic shutdown with no resolution on the horizon.

As Nepal struggles to get back on its feet in the aftermath of the earthquakes that struck earlier in the spring of 2015, the country is also suffering the consequences of a social earthquake of protests carried out by an ethnic group, the Madhesis, living in Nepal’s southern plains.

Protesters have established a blockade along the border between Nepal and India that has held a vice grip on trade and has reduced imports of petrol to a trickle, the effects of which have all but shut down the country. Local and international media outlets call the situation a blockade or a “fuel crisis,” but it is more aptly described in terms of its roots—as a national identity crisis.

For most people outside of South Asia, thoughts of Nepal elicit images of the snow-covered Himalayas, the brave Gorkha soldiers, and the historical wooden Newar architecture of the Kathmandu valley. Yet those images represent only a small part of the country. More than 50 percent of Nepal’s population lives in the dusty southern plains known as the Terai, along the Indian border.

The representation of Nepal as an exclusively mountainous nation is not only held by outsiders; it is prevalent in Nepali politics and development, where the Madhesi population of the Terai plains is largely ignored. Though the region produces more than 45 percent of Nepal’s GDP and is home to important religious pilgrimage sites, little has been invested in developing infrastructure.

Though Madhesis represent over 33 percent of the population, Madhesis occupy less than 12 percent of the positions in the government bureaucracy, including the police, army, and Armed Police Force. The constitution instated in September 2015 continues policies that make it difficult for the children of Madhesis who marry Indian nationals to gain full Nepali citizenship (such marriages are common in this border region), and some estimates put figures for the number of stateless citizens in the region in the millions. Madhesi leaders have described their situation as an “internal colonization.”

“We are totally ready to do bandha in all sectors: schools, hospitals, shops—everything. Because we think this is the last bandha before we achieve equality, we will not stop.”

The current wave of protests has been simmering since July 2015. It reached a boiling point in September, with the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution. To Madhesis, the constitution solidifies their marginalization through discriminatory citizenship policies, as well as unfair voting jurisdictions that place them at a heavy disadvantage in six out of Nepal’s seven new provinces. Protestors’ demands include the redrawing of provincial borders established by the new constitution, proportionate inclusion in the state structure, and voting representation that is based on population rather than geography in both the upper and lower houses of congress.

For the past four months, protests by Madhesi political parties have pinned businesses in the Terai into bandha, a form of forced economic shutdown commonly practiced in South Asia. The resulting scarcity of petrol has made it difficult for hospitals, schools, and restaurants throughout the country to operate. Many schools in the Terai region were closed for more than three months, and hospitals are running low on essential medical supplies. The protest strategy has been criticized for putting children and other civilians in the crossfire of political contention, but Madhesi protesters maintain that the Nepali government has not been open to negotiation, and that these demonstrations are the only way for marginalized communities to effectively voice their concerns.

“A lot of damage has been done to the health of children and their education, but the [Madhesi] people are thinking this is a historical moment where if they don’t speak, they wont get anything,” said Dipendra Jha, a law advocate in the Nepal Supreme Court in an interview with the author. “They are willing to take these protests for as long as they need to go,” he added.

“We are against oppressive government,” says Jitendra Sonal, General Secretary of the Terai Madhes Democratic Party, one of the parties behind the blockade. “We are totally ready to do bandha in all sectors: schools, hospitals, shops—everything. Because we think this is the last bandha before we achieve equality, we will not stop.”

Since August, more than 50 people have lost their lives in these protests, the majority of them unarmed Madhesis. The brutality of police aggression has added fuel to the protests. The United Nations recently released a report condemning the actions of police who raided a hospital and attacked patients and hospital staff, and in November Human Rights Watch released a report describing the brutal murder of 14-year-old Nitu Yadav. According to local reports, police pulled him out of a bush during near a protests, stepped on his knees, and shot him in the face at point blank range.

The protest movement has also perpetrated violence. In December, when Nepal’s newly-elected president Bidhya Devi Bhandari traveled to the historic Hindu temple Janaki Mandir in Janakpur, protestors attacked her convoy with stones and a petrol bomb, believed to be planted by protestors, exploded nearby.

Though there have been isolated incidents of senseless violence conducted by protesters, the movement has been largely peaceful. Care has been taken not to let the protests transform into an armed conflict and violence has yet to spill over outside of the Terai into Kathmandu. Though factions have been created that are demanding a separate Madhesi state, even these groups claim to structure themselves off of Gandhi’s models of nonviolent protest. It was less than 10 years ago that Nepal emerged from nearly a decade of civil war and it seems that for now armed conflict is a door all sides hope to keep under lock.

Madhesis—and other ethnic groups, such as the Tharu, who inhabit the Terai—bear more similarities in culture to neighboring India than other parts of Nepal. This fact plays no small role in the discrimination that these groups face. For decades, Nepal has been dependent on India for nearly all of its imports and, with little to offer as leverage, Nepal has not had power to defend itself in instances of what some have called India’s political and economic bullying. Reflecting this perception, politicians in Nepal have accused India of having a large hand in the blockade. Though India denies these allegations and the extent of its involvement remains unknown, this would not be the first time that India has been accused of playing a role in an economic blockade in the country. Many of Nepal’s ruling Brahmin and Chhetri ethic groups maintain that the empowerment of Madhesis and Tharus will enhance India’s power to take political control of the country.

Neglected issues of identity and representation have been fomenting in Nepal for decades. Now, protesters have taken to the streets to send a message to the government that inaction is no longer an option. Issues of national identity will continue to be one of the biggest struggles for the people of Nepal in the 21st century, and if this current crisis is to find a peaceful resolution, it will have to come from negotiation, compromise, and a willingness to accept diversity.

David Caprara is a multimedia journalist who specializes in South and Northeast Asia. His work has been featured in such outlets as the Kathmandu Post, Al Jazeera America, NBC News, and VICE. He spent five months in Nepal during the unfolding of the Madhesi protests in 2015, where he provided on-the-ground coverage for various American and international media outlets. Follow David on Twitter at @caprarad and visit his website at www.davidcaprara.com.