What’s next in the Madhes?
Unrest will grow again in the plains unless Kathmandu initiates confidence building measures
Finally this week, the Madhesi Front backed down from its five month-long border-centric protests, and the country breathed a sigh of relief. But the question on everyone’s mind is: how permanent is this?
Madhesi leaders were quick to point out that they had just ‘changed the modality’ of the ongoing movement, since a substantial portion of their demands on constitutional amendments have not yet been met.
The main leaders of the Madhesi Front say most of their original 11 demands have been ignored by rulers in Kathmandu, but they are mindful of the effect that the prolonged strikes and blockade were having on the general population. Which is why they will now put pressure on the government through other tactics.
The unspoken aspect of the change this week is, of course, the pressure that was brought to bear on the Madhesi parties from New Delhi. It is hard to fathom why India egged on the border blockade in the beginning, and then got the Tarai-based parties to open the border.
There is speculation that Nepal’s Madhesi movement could just be a pawn in the power play between rival factions within the Indian establishment, while others say that the architects of the blockade found out that it wasn’t really working.
Whatever the reason, both India and the Madhesi parties needed a face-saving way out of a protest that looked like it was becoming counterproductive. A senior Madhesi leader confirmed to me this week that of late there was indeed pressure from India to lift the blockade.
There had been hints of a change in Indian policy ever since parliament passed two amendments to the constitution to address the Madhesi demands for proportional representation and altering electoral constituencies based on population. New Delhi said it was a positive step, and there were indications that they were softening their stance.
The Front said the amendments addressed some of their demands, but not others like the ones on the boundaries of the two Tarai provinces, as well as citizenship criteria. Madhesi parties were also getting worried that the longer the stalemate dragged on, the more it would benefit radical, criminal and openly separatist forces in the Tarai.
With the danger of the rug being pulled from under them, they were looking for an exit strategy that would not look like capitulation. Which is why the announcement about the change in tactics was made. It is conceivable that the agitation will pick up again in spring when the three-month deadline for provincial border demarcations comes closer.
Kathmandu needs to address its trust deficit with the Tarai parties — the leaders just don’t believe their assurances. “We are watching closely how they will implement the constitution, our feeling is that they are not serious about the promises they have made,” one leader said.
The long and short of it is that the border blockade will change into more traditional forms of protest: torch rallies, demonstrations and gheraos. In this interim period, the Madhesi parties also need to patch up differences between them and create a broader alliance. The differences are mainly personality-driven, and lately the disagreements between Upendra Yadav and Rajendra Mahato have boiled over.
The present mood in the plains is of blockade fatigue and economic discontentment. What the past five months has done is raised the awareness among the public about their rights, and there is anger against Kathmandu for the excessive use of force to put down demonstrations.
In the next few months, the wise thing for the Oli administration to do is to start confidence building measures with the Madhesi leaders and the public, and be proactive in meeting the rest of their demands. Otherwise there is a real danger that as this bitter winter ends, temperatures will rise again in the Tarai and tempers will fray.