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Message from Madhesh


A small section of Madheshis have always been in struggle with their government, but they lacked the internal organization and external linkages

JANAKPUR. Last Friday, most Madheshis were gearing up for Chhaith Mahaparb. It was the first day of the four-day long religious function when austerities begin with the Nahai-Khai rituals.

Devotees partake of only purified food on this day after cleansing their body and mind. The heart is then ready for the next three days of Kharana, Sanjhuka Arag and Bhinsurka Arag offerings to the evolving, setting and the rising sun as the Mother Goddess of all life on planet earth.

In its female form, the fierce sun becomes the benevolent mother of five elements of creation—earth, water, fire, air and ether. Chhaith once held economic significance as an occasion that connected all occupations of agricultural economy, but rapid commercialization has eroded that aspect to a large extent. It also used to be an observance of social equality, which has been markedly reduced due to conspicuous display of wealth at the pooja ghats.

Spirituality of the autumnal rituals, however, remain largely intact—the object of reverence during Chhaith is mother nature in all her resplendence with no seer, prophet, or priest in-between the deity and her devotees. The enduring charm of unity with the creator inspires believers to enjoy austerities and penance for four consecutive days. For other participants, it’s a wonderful time to reconnect and be at peace with oneself as the monsoon bids final farewell and the sun warms the ground before the onset of winter.

It was in the spirit of Chaith that Madhesh decided to welcome President Pranab Mukherjee. After six decades in active politics, President PM is the setting sun of the Indian establishment. A popular pun on his initials that the PM could never be the actual PM because he already was the natural PM is said to have originated with him when he was bypassed at least thrice for the top executive post. As the ceremonial head considered closer to the opposition benches at the fag end of his term, the visit of President PM to Janakpur had little more than symbolic value. Madheshis rolled out the red carpet regardless.

Festooned with life-size visages of the visiting dignitary, the ancient capital of Mithila opened its heart for the Indian president. Earlier, he had been received with synthetic cordiality and fake smiles in Kathmandu. It is extremely unlikely that officials of the FNCCI were unaware about implications of the color choice, but they had put up black upon white banners on their welcome gate at Teku. Later in Pokhara too, the reception was largely officious. Even though he dropped by for a brief while to pay obeisance to Mother Goddess Janaki and grace a civic reception hosted in his honor, President PM transformed the day into a Festive Friday at Janakpur. With the Deputy Prime Minister Bimalendra Nidhi in-charge, functions did have the official sanction, but it was essentially an event of the people for their honored guest.

Janakpur has the uncanny ability of differentiating between arrogant masters and humble friends. It threw a bomb at King Mahendra’s car in the 1960s and showed black flags to President Bidhya Devi Bhandari last year. In terms of the ability to disburse  official largesses or shower gifts, the Indian Ambassador probably has more authority than the visiting head of state of his country. If the success of a visit is to be assessed by the collection in the begging bowl, as is often the wont of the intelligentsia in most aid-dependent communities and countries, President PM’s Madhesh excursion was a damp squib. The extremely brief visit, however, may prove to be pregnant with multiple meanings for the Madhesh dimension of India-Nepal relationship.

Trust betrayed

The struggle for dignity and freedom in Tarai-Madhesh has always been a little too dependent upon the Indian goodwill in the wake of settlements reached between the Gorkhali Court and the East India Company. Arrangements after the Treaty of Sugauli in 1814-16 put the fate of the hunted in the hands of the hunter. Justifiably famed for their native cunning, the Gorkhali chieftains  made good use of the deal as they humored their imperial overlords with endless supplies of ‘short men of stout legs wielding sharp Khukuris’ to serve as mercenaries and hosted elaborate hunting trips in annexed territories. Madhesh has been administered as an internal colony ever since.

In the wake of political modernization in the 1950s, there was some hope that Madheshis will finally get their rightful due. It was not to be. Even in the democratic imagination of Nepali nationhood, there was no place for Madheshis. The ruling elite of Nepal—consisting almost exclusively of Gorkhali nobles and their trusted courtiers—chose to take Kathmandu in the US-led Western camp even as the nominally non-aligned New Delhi tangoed with Soviets in South Asia.

American money, Israeli plan and the European technology was used for almost quarter of a century to change the demography of entire Tarai-Madhesh.

Tharus lost their homeland due to rapid deforestation and Madheshis were transformed into ‘bideshis’ in the popular Gorkhali imagination through official propaganda as multiple state-sponsored resettlement programs began to fill cleared flatlands sprayed with US-funded DDT.

Indians built most of the East-West highway to facilitate the occupation of Bhitri Madhesh and plains below the Chure Ranges.

Americans used and then dumped Khampas up north. The British concentrated upon communities of their Gurkha soldiers in east and mid-west. The Germans focused their attention upon Kathmandu valley. The Chinese explored mid-mountains. The Swiss made cheese in the lower Himalayas. Japanese adopted Sindhuli and Ramechhap. The Indians neither did anything themselves nor allowed anyone else enter Madhesh. Orphaned during the colonial encounters between Gorkhalis and the British, Madheshis remained some of the most suppressed victims of the Cold War rivalry.

Once the end of history was declared with the fall of Soviet Union, New Delhi lost no time in joining the Washington Consensus. A new wave of migrants swooped down upon the remaining forest along the Chure Hills. Their land already gone, Tharus and Madheshis were cut off from shared commons in the name of community forestry. By the time parliamentary democracy was restored in 1990, Madheshis had already been in bondage for nearly two centuries. Slavery had seeped into their soul, which kept most Madheshis cowering in the fear of the PEON in their own land.

A small section of Madheshis have always been in struggle with their government, but they lacked the internal organization and external linkages. Lip service apart, New Delhi continued with the policy of appeasing the ruling class and castes in Kathmandu. When the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi refused even to utter the M-word for the fear of antagonizing the PEON in Kathmandu on his first formal visit to the country, he was merely honoring the long-held tradition that Madheshis were not a significant factor of Indo-Nepal relations. Developments since then have once again affirmed that the belief has always been flawed.

Hopes ignited

In tangible terms, the Third Madhesh Uprising didn’t produce significant outcomes. The first one had established inclusion and federalism as the national agenda. The second one ensured population-based constituencies. Both settlements were backed by tacit Indian guarantees, which New Delhi repeatedly failed to honor. The realization in Madhesh that the leverage of Indians in Kathmandu is limited may prove to be liberating. It will free the third generation of Madheshis to plan their future in truly independent manner.

Since the declaration of the Republic, reigns of executive power in Kathmandu has changed hands from Koirala through Dahal, Nepal, Khanal, Bhattarai, Regmi, Koirala and Sharma Oli back again to Dahal. Priestly entrepreneurs have taken over from the family of potentates. Processes of transfer of power has changed from bloodline and faith to caste-line and politicking, but all other elements of prejudices against Madheshis in the state structure remain the same.

The first flush of Madheshi politicos after 1990s, honorable exceptions apart, were content to play the second fiddle. The second wave after 2007 learnt to lead their own bands. The third one in evolution will make its own music. The timeworn tactic of co-opting the local elite may not work for long. There may be a long winter ahead, but springtime can’t be delayed forever.

By CK Lal