Sunday, March 25, 2007

Madhesi Movement:Blessing in disguise?

The violent protests in terai, which started on January 19, claimed over one and a half dozens of innocent lives. Public property worth millions of rupees has been destroyed. The lives of the poor, who work daily to make their ends, have been seriously jeopardized. While the government is hesitatingly signaling its willingness to have a dialogue, the damage
might have already been done. The social harmony has been seriously disturbed.

The current violence shows the level of anger in Nepali society, which can vent at any time. The challenge ahead in addition to establishing peace, security, and democracy, is to reconcile ethnic and cultural diversity with the concept of a mature and cohesive nationhood. However, it is not an easy task to construct political and economic institutions that will enable the existing ethnic diversity to be readily compatible with the perception of belonging to a single country.

Bismarck famously noted politics as the art of the possible. Jean Monnet, a century later, updated this notion and made it even more appealing. According to Monnet, politics is the art of making possible what is necessary. At this point in time, it is necessary to address the grievances of Madhesis, Dalits, women and the people from the mountains. They do not have enough say in the process of nation-building, and the government should leave no stone unturned to change this.

Irrespective of who was raising the issue, the grievances of Madhesis to a large extent were valid to be addressed. The Madhesi youth, like youth of any other ethnicity that are largely unemployed, may get trapped into the game plan of Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha (JTMM) and get swayed with the idea of the armed separatist movement.

It is not possible to establish a new Nepal when approximately 40 percent of people from terai, women, Dalits, and marginalized people from hills and mountains, feel alienated and have grievances that need to be addressed.

So the grievances of Madhesis were genuine but the tone of Madhesi leaders and intellectuals show that they are more troubled by the ethnic slurs they encounter in their day-to-day lives than the real empowerment that has eluded them so far. The missing link in this debate is that it is not only Pahades that are discriminating Madhesis, but also the upper caste Madhesis, such as Jha, Mishra, and Bhumiyars that discriminate against Dalit Madhesis such as Dom and Chamars. A change of heart is necessary among upper caste Madhesis too.

Trying to bring down Pahades onto their knees by burning down their property will not result in a change of hearts and attitudes among Pahades. Old habits die hard. The malaise of discrimination and ill-treatment will die a natural death with an increase in the level of education both among Pahades and Madhesis and modernization of society. Eventually, it will be a thing of our past. It will not happen overnight; perhaps not even in our lifetime, but it will definitely happen if we construct an adequate political and economic institution that enables ethnic diversity now.

Although the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in the United States in 1865, blacks and other minorities are still discriminated against, and still have to encounter racial slurs. Nobody likes to talk about it or acknowledge it, but it is there.

Former Senator George Allen of Virginia used the term Macaca—a monkey native to Asia—to insult a volunteer of Indian descent working for his opponent. Although that very racial slur proved to be exceptionally expensive to his race for the United States senate, it shows how deep racial discrimination is ingrained in American society.

Recently, Senator Joseph Biden, the ranking democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, called fellow Senator Barrack Obama, "a fellow democrat and presidential hopeful for 2008 as the only African-American who is articulate, bright, clean and nice-looking" in his article published in The New York Observer.

Such racial slurs which are neither politically nor socially correct are still not uncommon even in the Western democracies, and they often come from people who are supposed to push for ethnic and racial equity. Consequently, instead of laying too much emphasis on ethnic slurs that Pahades use and venting anger to settle vendetta, Madhesis should make sure that the government builds institutions that are necessary to ensure their empowerment.

The window of opportunity is now open, and the Madhesi leaders should do their best to grab it. They should push for a system that works on the basis of recognition of separate identities born out of ethnicity, and demonstrate the potential to accommodate, reconcile, and manage social diversities within an overarching polity. Institutional safeguards should be in place to ensure that no group feels privileged or discriminated in the process, or else the actual empowerment will never happen.

The ongoing violent protests have provided Madhesis with tremendous bargaining power, and opportunity to regain political landscape that has been lost to the Maoists. The ongoing protests have put Maoists on a back foot; they are scrambling hard to reorganize their agenda and devise their future strategy with regard to Madhes and Madhesis. It has made Maoists more politically insecure than ever, at least in terai. In order to maintain their political stature and fiefdom, they will covertly store more weapons than they had planned to. Thus, we will not have absolute peace any time soon.

However, at this point in time if Madhesis are somehow able to unite and establish a democratic front, they can seriously challenge Maoists' fiefdom in terai, annulling Maoists' aspiration of establishing a proletarian communist state; this will be a great achievement in itself.
In addition to many things, the ongoing political protests have proved that it does not take a lot of time for people to unite and there is a potential for a serious political force to develop in Nepal. It also has proven that the fear psychosis that Maoists have been able to instill in Nepali society can be evaporated with a strong slogan and comprehensive mass mobilization. Thus, Madhesis should use the existing inertia to establish a meaningful democratic political force that can challenge Maoists' terror reign and bring them into a democratic framework so that they do not indulge in politics of violence and embrace modern politics based on human values.

The only way to bring Maoists into the mainstream is by mass mobilization, and challenging their fiefdom. Maoists will remain faithful to their commitment towards democracy only when they realize that they cannot rule Nepal by resorting to guns and terrorizing people. Other methods, including endlessly conceding to Maoist demands, are politically suicidal for Seven Party Alliance (SPA) and are doomed to fail in the long run.

The Madhesi movement should be seen as an opportunity by SPA to institutionalize democracy and ensure their survival. SPA and the international community should try helping Madhesis—even if it requires a covert operation—to establish a democratic front. As several senior Maoist leaders have already made it clear that they will not settle for anything less than a proletarian communist state, the only force that can checkmate them is Madhesi in terai. Maoists in terai are running for their lives now. The ongoing violent protests in terai have clearly demonstrated that Madhesis can reverse the trend of Maoist run over the democratic forces.

As far as Madhesis are concerned, the time is ripe for them to organize and establish themselves as a democratic force. All Madhesis need now is charismatic leaders that can see things beyond race, ethnicity, and political vendetta. Madhesis can seriously help establish inclusive democracy where different ethnic groups can coexist and realize their dreams.

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