Inclusion and Appeasement in the Peace Process
March 18, 2009
After a violent two-week general strike in Terai, Tharu activists ended a protest that had paralyzed business and education and had shut down the roads of the southern plains. At least five people were killed and scores of others were injured. The strike also affected hilly regions, including the Kathmandu Valley, which experienced a cut off of fuel and produce.
On March 15, the government reached a six-point agreement with the Tharus, agreeing to remove them (and other ethnic communities) from a classification that had arbitrarily lumped them in with the dominant Madhesi group. But on a a more crucial level, the protest was aimed at demanding equal rights and representation.
Who are the Tharu?
Historically, the Tharu people have been largely helpless and underprivileged -- a long oppressed group of farmers and peddlers -- the primary victims of the kamaiya system outlawed by the government of Nepal in 2000. (Indentured labor is now illegal in Nepal– at least on paper.)
click on map to enlarge
The indigenous Tharus are the largest and oldest of all the southern ethnic groups. They are 1.2 million strong, thus constituting 6.6% of Nepal’s 28 million people. They are distributed along the southern border as well as inhabitants of the inner Terai valleys of Surkhet (west mountain region), Chitwan, Dang, Deukhuri, Sindhuli and Udyapur. (A smaller number – approximately 170,000 -- live in India, mostly in Bihar and Uttarakhand.)
Their unique character is indisputable. They speak their own language of Indo-Aryan origin. Their religion is often described as “folk Hinduism”, although recent conversions to Buddhism have been noted, perhaps due to the growing belief that the historical Buddha was from their ethnic group. Their distinctive culture includes a readily identifiable decorative art, music, etc.
Genetically, they are even more unique. Having lived in villages ensconced in dense malaria-infested jungles, in regions that were isolated over the millennia, has allowed them to develop an innate resistance to malaria. (The genetic factor is presumed though, as of yet, unidentified.)
According to Nepali author Subodh Kumar Singh, a series of invasions by other groups from northern India and from hills and mountains of Nepal, eroded the influence of the indigenous Tharus. In 1854 Jung Bahadur, the first Rana prime minister of Nepal, developed the Mulki Ain, a codification of Nepal's indigenous legal system which divided society into a system of castes. The Tharus were placed near the bottom of the hierarchy, just above the so-called untouchables. Their land was taken away, disrupting their community and displacing the people.
In the 1950s, World Health Organization helped the Nepalese government eradicate malaria in the Terai region. This resulted in immigration of people from other areas to claim the fertile land, making many Tharus virtual slaves of the new landowners and developing the kamaiya system of bonding generations of Tharus families to labor.
In spite of social change in recent years, Tharu has remained without representation. With the exception of the Dalits and perhaps the Muslims, the Tharus remain the most suppressed and ignored group in the country.
The last two weeks have done much to change that.
At first, the rounds of talks between the Tharus and the government lacked real traction.
The recurring deadlock centered over the issue of replacing the term “Madhesh” with “Terai” in the interim constitution. By the third round of talks it was clear that the Tharus wanted the term “Madhesh” removed altogether.
Peace Minister Janardan Sharma, who (along with Water Resource minister Bishnu Poudel) chaired the early talks, complained: "In the name of giving rights to one [organization], we can’t deprive others’ of their rights." Madheshi Janadhikar Forum leader Jaya Prakash Gupta chimed in by warning that his party would start an agitation if the term ‘Madhesh’ was removed from the constitution.
But Laxman Tharu, chairman of the Tharu Sturggle Committee, upped the ante. "We will take part in the next round of talks only if the government team is led by the Prime Minister.”
The following day, the Telegraph came out with a blistering interview with Laxman Tharu. Excerpts are worth repeating because Laxman, a longstanding member of the Maoist party, assailed Maoist leadership on both personal and ideological levels:
I was the General Secretary of the Maoists' affiliated Tharuwan Liberation Front and a member of the Maoists' regional bureau. I was affiliated to the Maoists party since 1993 and went underground after 1997. I have also served in the Maoist's People's Liberation Army, however, I quit the party in 2007.
I adhere to the Marxist principles, I like communism, thus, to fulfill my inner desires, I had joined the Maoists' Party. I always believed that the Maoist party was a real communist party. Not to be so, after the New Delhi engineered and sponsored 12-Points Agreement, the party turned out to become the stooge of the expansionist and is involved in anti-Marxist activities which is prevalence of nepotism and favoritism in the party and more so some leaders have been involved in trafficking as well. Thus, I quit the party and have the inner feeling that the Maoists party is no more a communist party. Now, I believe that Prachanda remains no longer a Communist worth the name. There is not a single real communist party in Nepal, nor could we make one.
Laxman Tharu on Tharu Exploitation:
Not just the so-called communist parties of Nepal but the Nepali Congress which is more so an anti-national party too has used the Janajatis, Muslims, Tharus, Dalits and other backward communities as a mere vote bank. We had heard that those parties had been using and throwing the backward communities but now we have seen it happening through our naked eyes.
Our Communist leaders now own big houses and luxurious big cars…they have exploited the backward communities to fulfill their inner desires, the NC and UML did that in the past, now the Maoists are doing the same. So where lay the difference?
On Communist Revolution to Ethnic Uprising
Look, the Communist movement in the world has acquired a defensive posture. It is so, not because of the communist cadres but because of the so-called communist leaders. The Communists have won many revolutions but because of the betrayal by their top leaders the communist movement have failed the world over. Clearly, there are two factions in Nepali politics, one adapts to the parliamentary democratic system---they are all anti-nationals and there is the Communist faction---they are just namesake communists. I do not want to join any of the two fronts mentioned above. We are soon to launch a new political entity comprising of Dalits, Janajatis, Muslims, and the Brahmin and Chhetri of Khasan Pradesh. Thus, we are not only concentrating on Ethic liberation but of the entire nation. To be frank, this country is yet to become a nation as such. If this country was a nation in its entirety then the Tharus and the Dalits would not have remained exploited and the Communist leaders would not have been millionaires, our Mahakali River would not have been sold at a dirt cheap price? To make this country a nation, there is the need for new uprising- an ethnic revolt. This revolt will be the final one against the so-called Communists, against the anti-national Nepali Congress and against the expansionists. We are currently involved in this national uprising which will also be a class, an ethnic and regional uprising.
On Prachanda, Girija, Madhav or Jhal Nath?
Comparatively speaking, Prachanda is much ahead of Girija, Madhav and Jhalanath Khanal in terms of political acumen and capabilities. But Prachanda is a conspiratorial personality from within. His presentation style, views are equally good but internally he is very dangerous. He forced people to die at time of the revolution, but he finally sold-out the entire revolution. He compromised with the ideals of the revolution, however, other leaders of the revolution do not even know this hidden fact. Prachanda is good in doing good things but equally good to doing the otherwise. He is also good at hiding and conspiring. In the past, I used to think that he was a committed revolutionary but now I take him as a conspirator. Anyway, compared to other contemporary leaders, Prachanda is forward-looking one.
After I quit the party, we rarely meet. Personally we never met. Even if we happen to meet in a group, he does not talk to me, I prefer avoiding him. Sometimes we just shake hands. That’s all.
On Tie-up with the Revolutionary Left Wing
I will not join any communist party. I have already told you we will form a party taking on the Socialist-Federalist principles---which will be emerge through an ethnic uprising.
On One Madhesh One Province
There is no Madhesh in Nepal. From Jhapa to Kanchanpur, it is only Tharuhat. The real sons of the soil are the Tharus. Those who have recently sneaked into Nepal to carryout business activities are saying that they were the real sons of the soil and are trying to make our Tarai another Sikkim. We must remain careful and ever vigilant of the Yadavs and the Baniyas who have come all the way from Madhesh (Madhya Desh- in India) to Nepal.
The recent Ordinance brought by the government was aimed at making Upendra Yadav happy in order to prolong the life of the government. That’s all.
The demand for One Madhesh One Province is not just a way to further exploit the Tharus but aimed at disintegrating the nation. We must retaliate with full force against this dangerous intent. The Tharus have come to the front to fight against the One Madhesh demand. Thus the entire Nepali population supported the Tharu uprising, they were very happy.
To add, our protest was not against any group as such, it was a fight for our own identity. We are by now clear that in this fight for the identity of 4 million Tharus, no Yadav or a community as such would dare retaliate.
Thus the gantlet was dropped in a very public manner.
Finally, Prime Minister Prachanda relented and chaired talks in his residence at Baluwatar in Kathmandu. There, the two sides agreed to amend the offending constitutional provisions that overshadowed indigenous identities. Represented at the meeting were:
Laxman Tharu, Tharuhat Joint Struggle Committee and Indigenous Organisations
Raj Kumar Lekhi, Tharu Welfare Council
Baburam Chaudhary, Nepal Loktantrik Tharu Association
Pasang Sherpa, National Federation of Indigenous Nationalities
Indrajit Tharu,Tharu National Liberation Front-Nepal
After the agreement was signed, Prime Minister Prachanda said, "It is natural for all castes, ethnic and indigenous nationalities and others to seek their distinct identities. The agreement has addressed the demands and voices of all people."
Laxman Tharu didn’t let the government off the hook: "We have withdrawn all the protest programs with this agreement, but we will wait and see whether the government will be sincere in its implementation.”
Salient Points of the Agreement
1) All acts relating to police, armed police, army, education, development, health service and Nepal special service promulgated through ordinances will be amended to ensure proportional representation of these groups.
2) The government will declare Kamal Chaudhary, Bipin Chhetri, RamPrasad Chaudhary and Prakash Chaudhary, killed during the Tharu movement started from the beginning of this month, as martyrs. Their families will be given due financial support.
3) The government will arrange treatment for those injured during the movement and provide compensation for the loss they incurred.
What the Tharu Demands Means to Future Politics in Nepal?
Yesterday, Prashant Jha of NepaliTimes wrote a penetrating piece. Excerpts follow:
“The first thing to recognize and accept is that the Tharu agitation is genuine and adds political strength to all those who seek change. …Irrespective of the trigger, their assertion marks a great leap towards political empowerment.
“It does not matter who is backing the movement -- UML, NC, the Maoist Tharu front that realized they would lose out by keeping silent, or international players. Remember the royalists said the April movement was solely India-backed and donor funded? Remember the Maoists said the Madhes movement was a conspiracy of royalists and Hindutva types? The Madhesi leadership gripes that the Tharu protests are a Pahadi conspiracy, but the key point is that at its root, this is a movement born out of discrimination and anger. And, it will have a major impact on national politics.
“For one, the Tharus have emerged as a powerful new force. They maybe using other parties but like other ethnic movements in Limbuwan and Madhes this process will finally weaken central authority and national parties. The road to popularity in the western Tharu belt lies in opposing Kathmandu, not in allying with the capital.
“The Maoists may be happy they have exposed the contradiction between Tharus and Madhesis. But finally, it will be the Maoists who will lose out the most in their west Tarai stronghold as newer Tharu parties take root. The former rebels should wake up to their steadily diminishing credibility with the same ethnic groups they once mobilized.
“But the Tharus will have to make strategic choices. Their real enemy is the state structure that made them landless and, despite the facade of democratization, rarely gave them rights.
“While the movement’s present targets are the over-ambitious, insular and narcissistic Madhesi leaders, the Tharus and Madhesis know they will have to cooperate, if for nothing else than the sake of eastern Tharus and western Madhesis. They live together, speak common languages, share similar grievances and will share and compete for power once federalism sets in, regardless of the number of provinces in Tarai.
“That is why the Tharu leadership will have to ally smartly with groups according to circumstances. The leaders are a mix of Pahadi party loyalists (Lekhi), Madhesi party defectors (Biswas), conservatives (Dahit), Maoist defectors who are strong but untested (Laxman) and thugs. Notice that the background is similar to those who initiated the Madhes movement. How this dubious leadership channels genuine aspirations will be critical.
“Third, the movement has given a glimpse of how the CA will be utterly irrelevant when it comes to deciding key issues like federalism. Yes, the government never took the controversial ordinance to the house. But it is clear, whether we like it or not, that key players have more faith in the streets than in elected representatives who usually react rather than set the agenda.”
Is it possible, as some would have it, that the Tharu demonstration of ethnic solidarity is just the latest phase in an underlying destabilization of the country? Has it exacerbated, not diminished, Nepal as a breeding ground for extremism? Is it a move forward, or a serious blow to the country’s territorial integrity? Is appeasement suitable only when the issue is forced on the government, or is preemptive inclusion a better idea?
Is the Tharu development building walls or tearing them down?