Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Jawaharlal Nehru University. The terai region of Nepal, also popularly known as Madhesh, is an integral part of the state but carries a separate identity. The social seclusion of the land and its people for centuries has hindered the amalgamation of communities and bind them as one force of Nepal, even though many policies of the state has led to heterogeneity of communities in terms of settlement patterns. The region remains as a hot bed of alternative voices, breeding feelings of exclusion, and unprivileged in state’s acceptance of people as equal citizens. Hence, many leaders have emerged and raised the concerns of the masses, but have been systematically suppressed by the power of the state.
The issue since the promulgation of the new constitution of Nepal in 2015 remains as to whether the people and original communities of Terai region will be regarded as an inseparable part of Nepali constitution with equal rights or will they be devoid of parity in many areas including the top positions in the administration? What is even more significant is the fact that those leaders who have gained enormous power to rise up the ladder with the support of the terai people, have gradually moved away from the core issues plaguing the region. The region, hence remains backward and often the worst affected by natural calamities. It is also the region from where the maximum number of people out-migrate mainly because the opportunities within are very few and the social stigma of belongingness hinders their growth.
The Year 2015: Inclusion and Exclusion in the Constitution
The year 2015, can be regarded as a watershed moment for Nepal and in specific for the terai region. It is the time for many Nepalese to rejoice for passing a long awaited new constitution that they consider as ‘inclusive’. But it is also the time when the worst dissent and protests across the country resulted in the deaths of many people in terai region. A few with whom the author had an interaction spoke about intense social discrimination on a daily basis that was worst during protests, whereby even a taxi driver refused to ferry desperate Madhesi women by openly abusing them of splitting the state. Such is the irony of a multiethnic state, where the color of skin, belongingness to a particular region, and social class overrides all laws of humanity.
Many proponents of Nepali nationalism raised the voices against India for interfering in the affairs of Nepal as a result of the blockade, but very few came out to recognize the decades old dissatisfaction and anger brewing among the people of Terai region. Was it just an external force that disturbed the lifeline of Nepal? Or was there a genuine concern of the people that remains unresolved till date? These pertinent issues run high and dry under the red corridors of Singha Darbar.
However, the entire politics of Nepal since 2015 has been only partitioned on the lines of pro-Nepal or anti-Nepal under the realm of nationalist discourse. Those who protest are labelled as the ‘protectors of Indian interests in Nepal’; and those who support or are in power are considered as ‘the saviors of Nepali culture’. This actually questions the very ethos of what constitutes Nepali culture and who remains as the original representative of Nepal and its founding culture? Alternate discourse that has cropped up as a consequence of this is the recognition or non-recognition of Hindi as a diplomatic language of parlance, along with the rejection of Nepali society having any connection to a Hindu state. These multifaceted opinionated propositions challenge the age old existence of Nepal having any closeness to India or Hindu culture; while establishing an alternative atheist state with balanced power alliance with its two powerful neighbours – India and China.
The Struggle of Identity, Citizenship, and Nationality
‘Identity’ is socially construed and it is the processes that shape one’s sense of belongingness. Each actor is therefore a social construction that is highly influenced by social interactions. These interactions can be moulded or reshaped with the policies of the structures that are established by the state. Hence, it is the agency that identifies an actor belonging to a particular identity; rather than the self relating to a particular group or community. Interestingly, there are various factors of self identity that are dissected due to the social structure as well as due to the traditional practices.
Nationality and citizenship, on the other hand, has been widely defined as working in different spheres and at different levels. While nationality is viewed as a cultural concept that binds people to a shared identity, which Benedict Anderson calls as ‘imagined communities’; citizenship is regarded as a political subject that is derived from people’s relationship with the state.
What is significant is the creation of a national identity that can be invoked by the state on various nationalities as the primary identity provided there is reinforcement of uninterrupted rhetoric of cultural unity attributing nationality. This was aptly brought out in the work of Michael Billig’s Banal Nationalism (1995). He noted how the mass media in its everyday reporting invokes the sense of ‘us’ and ‘we’. This distinction in the case of Nepal is rooted in the term ‘Madhesi’, where people belonging to a certain region are classified as a separate entity and hence, their sense of belongingness is only to Madhesh, which is also differentiated as ‘terai region’ in political parlance.
T.H Marshall in his classic work Citizenship and Social Class (1950) postulates that “Citizenship is a status bestowed on those who are full members of a community. All who possess the status are equal with respect to rights and duties with which the status is endowed”. The issue then is whether the new constitution of Nepal grants this “status” to all its citizens equally or not? The moment this “status” has variations for various communities and ethnic nationalities, there is condensation of the identity of “other” with regards to a particular group or community. The contestation and protests in terai region of Nepal clearly reflects this gap and difference existing in “The Constitution”.
This dissection also results in differing opportunities available to different communities based on their identity. Bryan S. Turner in his work Citizenship and Social Theory (1993) identifies the differentiated opportunities for an individual to qualify for a citizenship. Thus, citizenship identity is directly proportional to the distribution of resources, which results in inequality and poverty of certain groups. It is the privilege communities and individuals, which in Nepal’s case are the so-called ‘elites’ or the ‘ruling class’, who have the resources and privileges. Hence, social as well as political exclusion becomes the core issue of conflict within the society.
Federalism and the Negotiations for Equality
A multi-ethnic state is always faced with the challenges of making it inclusive, so that the communities and people within do not feel alienated. The creation of a sense of belongingness to the state can only be achieved when the ruling powers break barriers of social and political discrimination with adequate laws governing the parity. However, when a state resorts to impose the sense of belongingness by pushing inward migration of populace and relocating the so-called ‘superior’ nationalities to the alienated communities, the divisions only gets consolidated. The whole premise of amalgamation gets a severe setback when the ‘superior’ communities instead of engaging, begin to become the sub-ruling class. Alongside, the alienated communities refuse to socially accept the new ruling class that only results in sub-hierarchical structure within the established structure. This division and friction amplifies as and when the state policies refuse to grant the equal citizenship rights to the local masses.
Nepal is a case in point, where even if the proclaimed federal structure has been established after decades of civil war and abolition of the Monarchy, the people within the state feel more divided based on the barriers of caste, region, and the federal ruling structure that has limited power of the locals. Although Nepal is a democratic state, but the local representatives are in constant struggle with the Centre for greater autonomy and financial powers. In addition, the local people are in delusion after their protests have faced the hard fist of the state power and their promoted local leaders have failed to stand for the cause with the state using alternative means to suppress the independent rising voices. This results in constant mushrooming of new political parties representing the voices of the marginalized or excluded groups. The newly formed Samajwadi Party is case worth examining that has emerged as an alternate force and if united with the existing RAJPA party may shatter the central control of leadership.
The negotiation of people v/s the state has become a play of political motives, where few reap the benefits at the cost of ordinary citizens, yet most of the populace in the terai region remain at loss of hope and in despair of a complete transformation. Worst are the women for whom strange laws create greater exclusion; while men, as in any patriarchal society, rules the discourse on equality. Hence, equality has become a political subject; rather than a subject of building a socially inclusive society that was the main objective of decades of civil war led by Prachanda and the group. It seems all struggles have an end, and the death of voices of the marginalized has led to the creation of a new Nepal, where the power has been consolidated in few collated groups, presently the Nepal Communist Party currently led by Khadga Prasad Oli; while the masses live in the hope of Samriddh Nepal (Prosperous Nepal) in the true spirit of an inclusive entity.
Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Jawaharlal Nehru University