| July 23, 2019

The Madhesh story

Pratik Rayamajhi Pratik Rayamajhi
In December 2000, a rumor did the rounds in Nepal: The latest Bollywood sensation Hritik Roshan in an interview had said that he hated Nepal and Nepalis. Three days after anti-India sentiment took over the streets of Kathmandu, four people were killed when police fired to disperse the mob of thousands of people who targeted 'Indian looking people' and the business shutters in busy markets of Kathmandu. In the chaos, a stray bullet shot dead a 12-year-old girl while she was reading in her room in a multi-story building in Kathmandu.

"The riot remains the ugliest side of Kathmandu imprinted in the memory of many Madheshi people who faced it or even heard about it later," says Rajesh Ahiraj, who had witnessed the incident as a terrified Madheshi and Kathmandu-based journalist at that time.

Madheshi community was still a minority in the hilly people-dominated Kathmandu at that time and the entire community lived in terror while they were practically being hunted down.

"Those were the days when a passerby would verbally abuse, push or misbehave with an Indian-looking person for no reason," said Ahiraj who did his PhD in Madheshbaad. The Hritik Roshan episode just aggravated the issue.

Those detained during the riot were set free and this, to the Madheshis, was an example of how discrimination goes unpunished. "The state should have identified the guilty and punished them to set an example of action against violent acts," added Ahiraj.

Over time, the young generation of the Madhesh came to the conclusion that the discrimination they face on daily basis is directly or indirectly backed by the state itself. More youths started joining the armed revolutionaries whose motive was to bring an end to inequality. Thus the Madhesh Movement in 2007/2008 under the leadership of the ex-Maoist leader and chairperson of the Madheshi Jana Adhikar Forum, Upendra Yadav.

The violent Madhesh movement killed nearly 60 people in the plains. But this was an eye opener for Kathmandu. The agreement between the Madhesh-based leaders and government boosted the morale of the community.

"The labor class Madheshis finally got some self confidence to speak up against anyone attacking them," says political analyst Chandra Kishore.

After seven years, Madheshi people stirred over the constitutional provision including the demarcation of provinces in the new constitution promulgated last month.

The achievement made in 2007, in dignifying the community, is reflected in the latest social media campaign where many Madheshi youth replaced their surname with "Dhoti". This campaign shows that they pulled themselves out of the inferiority complex of being a Madheshi among the Pahadi dominated society.

According to Chandra Kishore, people were least concerned about what was written in the constitution but they were angry because the Madheshis had once again been humiliated.

Sajan Jha tweeted: "Had Kathmandu not changed over the years, I would be beaten here every day. Now Kathmandu has transformed, it's time for you to change yourself too."

He was sending this message to the people in the plain where 48 people had already lost their lives during the protest that the agitating groups called the "revolution for equality".

What infuriates the Madheshi community? Why do they participate in violent protest led by the leaders the people themselves defeated in the recent election?

In the latest scenario, the hate speech by the leaders worked as a catalyst for protest, analyzed Chandra Kishore. In a country where racial discrimination is restricted legally, the top leaders themselves hurt the public sentiments through their speeches.

According to him, the recent statement by UML chairperson KP Sharma Oli where he mocked the Madheshi leaders to extend the Madhesh province to UP and Bihar of India instigated the Madheshi youth to support the protest.

Another remark from UML leader Jhala Nath Khanal, that the provinces for Madheshi could not be given from Mechi to Mahakali, separating it from the hills in a Dhoti shape, added fuel to the fire. Though he later clarified that his statement was not to demean the ethnic dress, the use of such words at a volatile time only radicalized the protesting groups in the Tarai, says Sociologist and Indigenous Activist Krishna Bhattachan.

As the country saw a sharp polarization in the latest political development, also followed by the Indian Blockade, the ill feeling for each other has only intensified.

"With the polarization, one section of people see Indian conspiracy in every step of Madheshi's protest whereas the majority in Madhesh think that those backed by the political establishment are conspiring to demean their rights for justice," said Chandra Kishore.

The entire country will get united and become one only when the top political leaders reach out to the Madheshi people, explain the provisions of the constitution and listen to their demands, says Bhattachan.

At the moment, leaders delaying to reach out to the community have left them isolated. At the same time, the provisions in the constitution need to be explained by the representatives of every constituency.

While doing this, the leaders have to send a strong message that their grievances can be addressed through amendments in the constitution.

To punish discrimination would be another measure to bridge the gap between the government and the Madheshi people. Fear of punishment for verbal or physical attack could institutionalize one huge aspect of social justice, says Chandra Kishor.

"In the coming days, police and judiciary have a key role to establish the fact that discrimination on the basis of caste, ethnicity, linguistic or origin is a punishable offense," he said.

While none of the former constitutions and the existing laws gives privilege to anyone to abuse or misbehave, the complaints of attack for being Madheshi or Tharu never reached the police or court. Similarly, the attitude of the police has also been questioned, as they are reluctant to interfere when a gang of boys bullies a street vendor or causes them harm.

Most discriminatory behaviors go unnoticed in Nepal. A community might take it lightly while another gets traumatized from the same behavior. Discrimination against women and Dalit remains deep rooted, though it is a sign of relief that such discrimination is on the decline with the tightening of laws.

"Trust has to be built that police will take action if a complaint of racial discrimination is filed," says Chandra Kishore.

In this polarized time, Shiv Sagar Yadav, a civil engineer in Sindhupalchok, says that he finds every individual responsible for the current situation of the country. He emphasized on the moral aspect and said that an effort to respect one another could go a long way in ending this decades old discrimination.

"But it falls on each individual to make that effort," he said.

One who left his caste for equality

Ravi Kumar (Nepal), co-founder of Code for Nepal, is currently settled in the US. But he frequently recalls his journey that began from his hometown in Janakpur.

Ravi Kumar was in the ninth grade when he first decided to drop his father's surname and find his own identity. Inspired from the literary figure Bal Krishna Sama who removed his title Adhikari, he removed his surname Yadav.

He succeeded in his struggle with his family and society to give up the caste. But then he encountered a never imagined form of discrimination in the US, among his Nepali friends.

"When I meet Nepalis in the US, they often tell me I don't look like a Nepali. Even in Nepal, airport officials and others doubt my nationality," he said.

He gave up his caste with a strong belief in what was written in his social studies book in school that led him to believe that Nepal is a diverse country where all citizens are equal.

To avoid unwanted questions, Ravi Kumar picked 'Nepal' for his surname. But given his personal experience, he believes discrimination to be at the heart of the issue that has taken over the Tarai plains.

"Let us build trust and mutual respect for one another. Let's celebrate our diversity. When the government and we Nepalis treat our fellow citizens as equals our country will be more just and developed," said Ravi Kumar in a message to his people back home.

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