| November 28, 2020

The risk of intractability

The risk of intractability
Normalcy will be found only during brief interludes if intransigency supersedes sagacity in negotiations with Madheshis and Tharus

In Hindu traditions, autumn begins with the solemnity of commemorating the dead during Pitri Paksha (Fortnight of Forefathers) and ends with celebrations of future marked by harvest festivals of Dashain, Tihar and Chhath. Then the long winter sets in and the public life goes into hibernation for almost three months.
The triumvirate of the ruling oligarchy in Kathmandu decided to inaugurate a fresh statute during the Pitri Paksha. The choice of date may not have been deliberate, in which case it reveals their regressive mindset even more eloquently. The new statute looks towards the unitary past of the nation for inspiration rather than dedicate the charter to the shared future of the country.

Surprisingly, proclamations from Kathmandu seem to have been greeted with quiet determination and peaceful resistance rather than resentment and bitterness in much of Tarai-Madhesh. The sadness of opportunity lost permeates the air during public consultations, but there is little anger in the voice of protestors. This is in marked contrast to the atmosphere of the First Madhesh Uprising of 2007 when suppressed rage of centuries had erupted all of a sudden. Even the Second Madhesh Uprising was marked by the madness of frenzied crowds that had surfaced in an abrupt burst of political energy. Both burnt down like isolated flames in high wind.

Practicality is the fundamental feature of the Third Madhesh Uprising. Perhaps that's the reason it has failed to have desired effect despite nearly two months of relentless demonstrations throughout the region with shows of solidarity by Madheshis in different parts of the world. The regime in Kathmandu is not too well known for responding to peaceful protests in a positive manner.

Over 40 people have been shot dead, most of them from close range, during a complete shutdown of all transport and businesses (the banda) that have already remained in place for nearly 50 days. Eight policemen too have lost their lives on the line of duty while suppressing demonstrations.

Officials of the state in Dhanusha, invariably Paharis, appear grim. Most Madheshi protestors, however, display a mixture of festive grief and joyous grit that is only seen during funeral rites of elders when family members try to cope with their collective loss through an expression of personal stoicism and social solidarity. Camaraderie and compassion are defining features of the Madhesh Uprising this season. Its outcome will perhaps determine the way Madheshis perceive their place in future configurations of politics.

Scornful state

When Durgananda Jha threw a bomb at King Mahendra in 1961, he violated one of the fundamental principles of Hindu kingship which holds the monarch as the earthly manifestation of Lord Vishnu—an incarnation rather than merely a human being. Little wonder, the PEON had struck back with vengeful viciousness. Even though the young revolutionary had surrendered in good faith, a law with retrospective effect was enacted in a hurry to give him capital punishment. Not that the PEON has been considerate before, but it became decidedly unforgiving towards Madheshis thereafter.

A year after the Creeping Coup of King Gyanedra had begun to unfold from October 4, 2002; Sanjiv Kumar Karna, Durgesh Labh, Jitendra Jha, Pramod Narayan Mandal and Shailendra Yadav were taken under control from Janakapur, whisked away to Godar, killed in cold blood, and then buried on the shallow banks of Kamala River on the suspicion of being Maoists. Their remains were later exhumed under the aegis of international agencies such as the International Centre for Transitional Justice and the Barcelona International Peace Resource Center.

Perpetrators were never brought to book. October is a month of mourning for the death of innocent youngsters who have almost faded from the public memory. Their names crop up whenever the tradition of sacrifice needs to be invoked to keep the spirit of peaceful protestors up. That alone, however, isn't enough to sustain demonstration against the state for so long. The energy, perhaps, springs out from a desire to reclaim dignity. For far too long, the PEON has treated Madheshis with unconcealed disdain, which the protestors want to confront once and for all.

Only a few incidents of recent days should be sufficient to gauge the depth of alienation among Madheshis. When Justice Girish Chandra Lal decided that the promulgation of a constitution in violation of fundamental provisions of the interim statute was impermissible, the origin of the learned judge—a Maithil and a Madheshi—was slyly dissected. No one had cast aspersions on the Bahun judge that had declared the very existence of the First Constituent Assembly unconstitutional in a demonstrably extra-constitutional manner.

Dr. Rambaran Yadav made a career out of denouncing the First and Second Madhesh Uprisings but became its biggest beneficiary when he was elected as the first President of the Republic with a combination of pragmatism, tokenism and chutzpah. Once in office, he never lost an opportunity to take a dig at Madheshi politicos. However, when he spoke up as the ultimate custodian of the supreme law of the land—the Interim Constitution—and opined that the new statute be drafted according to letter and spirit of its provisions, the ruling triumvirate took turns to publicly ridicule his position.

The rickshaw-puller at the decrepit Janakpur Airport—other than the addition of two tiny annexes, the terminal is still housed in the same building that was constructed with the runway in 1960s under an Indian aid program—may not understand the full implication of humiliations of Madheshi high officials, but he knows that its remedy lies in ensuring self-rule and shared rule with proportionate representation at every level and in every wing of the government. The refrain is unmistakable despite sufferings wrought by prolonged bandas: This time, we are not going back home empty handed.

Resilient resistance

The PEON families greeted the promulgation of a regressive constitution with firecrackers in Kathmandu. Meanwhile, much of Tarai-Madhesh was mourning the assassination of its dreams with total blackout. Promulgators of the statute had perhaps perceived that their act will become fait accompli and voices of dissent will die down with the passage of time. The decision of the Council of Ministers to amend certain provisions of the constitution within two weeks of its inauguration shows that the assumption was clearly wrong.

Proposed amendments too fail to address Madheshi concerns. To borrow a phrase from CPN-UML stalwart Madhav Nepal, it promises "half-corrected regression" at best, with vague promises of population-based constituencies and proportionate representation. Delineation of Tharuhat and Madhesh provinces is still a contested issue. The phrase of Fijikaran fails to hide racist intentions of citizenship laws. These are contentions that will continue to engage experts for quite a while. The refrain is of comprehensive nature in the streets of Tarai-Madhesh: The fight is for full dignity.

Those in Kathmandu who claim that they don't know the demands of Madhesh must have been sleeping for last six decades. It hasn't changed since Raghunath Thakur launched self-rule movement in 1956. The Ranas realised when their time was up. The last Shah accepted defeat with considerable grace. The ruling triumvirate appear to think that they are invincible. There is no other reason that can explain Chairman Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli's outbursts that continually heap humiliations upon Madheshis with unmistakable derision; the latest in the series is the one that compares them with flies.

A local hotelier in Janakpur was surprisingly succinct, "Let's not worry too much about what Kathmandu does. They will do what they have to do. This time, we also must do what we have to do. The outcome is neither in their hands, nor ours." There can be no better explanation for the "unofficial blockade" that gets "officially withdrawn" in order to simultaneously placate the protestors and appease the regime. It's also an indicator of resolute resistance in Tarai-Madhesh.

The PEON has indeed won every battle against its people since the formation of extra-constitutional government in 2013, but seeds of potentially intractable conflicts too were sown along with it. Normalcy as Kathmandu once knew will henceforth be found only during brief interludes if intransigency supersedes sagacity in negotiations with Madheshi and Tharu activists. When people themselves take charge, resolution of conflicts become extremely complicated.
CK Lal

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