Since the border blockade at Birjung-Raxaul was lifted a month ago, Tarai-Madhesh is slowly returning to normalcy. The security situation has improved, highway obstructions have been cleared and shops, schools and businesses are open.
So has Madhesh agitation fizzled out? Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal spoke to Rajendra Mahato, Chairman of Nepal Sadbhavana Party, a key Morcha constituent.
No, it has not fizzled out, nor has it ended. It continues. Only its form and modality has changed. Programs like vehicular strike, general strike and border blockade have been postponed. When an agitation continues for a long time, it is natural for its form to change. You cannot expect it to continue with the same pace and in the same manner all the time. Agitators have taken some time to relax. This may have created an impression that the movement has fizzled out. It has not. Peaceful demonstrations continue even today. We are using this time to accumulate strength.
After five months of border-centered blockade, why the sudden change in mindset?
First, let me make it clear that we too are unhappy with the hardship to common people. It has affected them the most. The agitators have also suffered. But let us also keep in mind that Madheshis are not the first people to adopt this extreme measure in Nepal. During the 1990 Jana Andolan, too, political parties had called on India to impose a blockade on Nepal to put pressure on the king. This time the agitators themselves had to suffer, more than the people in government against whom the agitation was targeted. Many Madheshis have been killed in Tarai. You cannot compare the loss of Madheshi lives with scarcity of fuel and cooking gas in Kathmandu.
Madheshis had been protesting for 40 consecutive days. The Kathmandu, the mainstream media, the national government, none of them took any heed. This left Madheshi Morcha with no option. So they started obstructing border points. We had decided who would lead blockade at which border points. I was assigned to block Birgunj-Raxaul border. Likewise, Upendra Yadav was assigned to Biratnagar and Mahantha Thakur to Bhairahawa. But we could not block these borders; only Birgunj remained blocked. Goods and fuel were coming from other border points. This only helped black marketers. We intended to put pressure on the government, but it was the people who had to bear the brunt. The blockade didn't affect the government at all. Instead, the government tried to project us as traitors.
So I thought, 'if we have to continue with the blockade we must block all borders, if we do not there is no point in continuing with obstruction at Birgunj alone.' Blockade was supposed to be the brahmastra against Kathmandu. But it backfired. When the government started to use the blockade to inflict further hardship on the people, we decided to discontinue it.
But what Kathmandu saw was that restrictions on import of fuel were starting to be imposed before the formal announcement of border blockade by Madheshi Morcha. Likewise, the blockade was lifted even before the Morcha had decided to do so. The Morcha, in this calculus, was being used by India.
This perception is wrong. If India wanted to impose a blockade on Nepal, all border points would have been blocked, not just Birgunj. But other border points were operational. Thousands of Madheshis had joined me at the sit-in in Birgunj. This was not the case at other border points as the leaders who had been assigned to obstruct these points failed to do so. If Mahantha Thakur and Upendra Yadav had also personally supervised sit-ins at Bhairahawa and Biratnagar, people would have turned up in thousands to join them there as well. Border points where many people turned up to demonstrate remained closed; others were open. So we imposed border blockade, not India.
How would you characterize Morcha's relations with India in recent times?
We had strong support of Indian people and moral support of government of India. In fact, not just India, even UN and EU supported our agitation because it is about the rights of Madheshi people. India was concerned for three reasons. One, Madhesh shares a long border with India, with which Madheshis have beti-roti relations. If there is violence in Madhesh, it will also affect India. India wants peace and stability in Nepal. This is not possible without peace and stability in Madhesh. This is the reason India put pressure on Nepal government to address our demands.
Two, India has supported every democratic movement in Nepal, be it in 1950, 1990 or 2007. It could not have been indifferent in this case. You need to think of India differently when it comes to its relation with Madheshi people. It cannot take hard stand against the people who have beti-roti relations with its own people, just to please Kathmandu. Third, India has a history of supporting democratic movements around the world. India had been asking Nepali leaders to make an inclusive constitution. When this expectation was not met it was natural for India to express its concern. So people living in India just across the border as well as local political parties there came to our support.
The images of Madheshi leaders lining up to meet local Indian leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav were widely ridiculed in Nepal. How do you interpret this reaction?
We are aware of the concerns expressed over our meetings with regional leaders in India like Lalu Yadav. But he did not disrespect us at all. Only we know how we were treated. You cannot judge how he treated us simply by looking at photos in social media. This issue has been blown out of proportion.
Besides, we had not gone to Lalu's house to seek dignity and self-respect. Our fight for dignity and self-respect is with Kathmandu, not with Delhi or Bihar. We have family relations with Lalu Yadav. Don't interpret everything from political lens. Yes, Lalu kept us at a distance. In Kathmandu, we are placed much closer, but only so that a dagger can be plunged into our heart. It is in Nepal that we have been insulted and disrespected. I have seen for myself how our so-called nationalist leaders are treated in Delhi. They have no business talking about how Lalu should have treated us.
You claim Indian support. But was it not India which put pressure on you to rethink the blockade after the twin amendments of new constitution?
Let us first be clear that India has only supported the process of amendment of constitution; not the content of the amendments. India knows these amendments don't address our concerns. The amendment made population major and geography secondary criteria for constituency delineation. This is one step back from the provision in Interim Constitution to delineate constituencies in Madhesh on population basis. We want this provision retained in the new constitution. As for the amendment regarding proportional inclusion, there are so many beneficiaries that the provision becomes practically meaningless.
If the Interim Constitution was to be the sole basis for making of new constitution why did we elect a second CA?
This is a problematic mindset. We are fighting against this khas mindset. The Interim Constitution is a document of political settlement between various forces. The CA was elected to document and give permanent shape to that document of political compromise. The Interim Constitution had clearly defined that the CA would approve the contents of this document in the new constitution. But the new CA completely disregarded the Interim Constitution. This is the cause of all problems. I challenge Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist) to implement the constitution in its current form. Unless the constitution addresses the aspirations of Madheshis, Janajatis, Dalits and Tharus it will be just another scrap of paper. We did not elect the CA to draft a constitution that was more regressive than the Interim Constitution.
Can the Morcha be flexible on its demand for two Madhesh-only provinces?
In a federal system, the name, number and boundaries of provinces change over time. India started with 14 provinces, today it has 28. But we need to look at how many provinces people of Madhesh want at this moment and settle the issue accordingly. In our reckoning, they want two provinces. This is in line with various agreements, government reports and recommendations of CA's committees. So let us start with two provinces between Jhapa to Kanchanpur.
In Kathmandu they say people of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari do not want to join Madhesh province. But they don't talk about whether Madheshis, Tharus and Rajbansis of these districts would like to join Madhesh province. If these people want to join Madhesh provinces, so be it. If people want more provinces in the future, we will have more provinces. People are the final authority.
Earlier you said Kathmandu did not raise a voice in favor of Madhesh. Could that be because some of your demands are illegitimate?
Our complaint with Kathmandu and its media is they looked at our demands through Khas-Arya lens. If you say people in eastern districts do not want to join Madhesh province, which people are you talking about? Media should have explored this issue impartially. But they dismissed all our demands as illegitimate. For 250 years, Khas elites ruled this country. They want to continue this domination in federal set up as well. So they created provinces in such way Khas rulers would be dominant in all except Province 2. They label our demands illegitimate as this domination cannot be maintained under the provinces we want.
Is it true that the Morcha is thinking of bringing down the Oli government?
Government has never been our priority. If somebody else comes in the place of KP Oli who can address our demands, we would be happy. But the focus of our agitation has never been government change. The focus is securing our rights in the constitution. Unless this happens, Madheshi Morcha won't join the government. NC, UML and UCPN (Maoist) may decide to change the government. That's up to them. For us the three parties drafted a discriminatory constitution and so they must now correct their mistakes.
How will the Madhesh agitation proceed in the days ahead?
Like I said, the nature of agitation has changed. Government should use this moratorium as an opportunity to address our demands. It still has the time. People are still in abhi nahi to kabhi nahi (now or never) mood. We are currently in the process of building our strength. If the government fails to address our concerns even during this period we will be forced to renew our protests from April/May. If the government still does not heed us, we will be forced to go for a decisive push. Then we will utilize every means at our disposal. We could even have to restart the border blockade. But I sincerely hope the government of the day won't push us that far.