One Madhesh one state: Against Madheshi aspirations

Murari Sharma

Inclusion of the heavily populated, Pahadi-majority Terai districts in Madheshi state/s will be extremely counterproductive to Madheshi aspirations.

The Terai people are fighting for dignity, honor and greater role in shaping their own destiny within the union of Nepal. Among them, two Terai Janajatis – Tharus and Rajbanshis – want ethnic states but the Madheshis of Aryan stock – Brahmins, Chhetris and Vaishyas – want one non-ethnic state in the plains.

Common heritage — such as ancestry, race, culture, language, and religion – defines ethnic identity. The Terai people do not have it. They come from Aryan, Dravidian and Mangoloid stocks; speak different languages: Maithili, Tharu, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Rajbansh, Urdu, Santhal, etc.; and believe in different religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Animism, etc.

Ironically, Madheshi leaders, who are demanding a non-ethnic state, have tactically supported ethnic states for Hill Janajatis to build a common political platform. For the same reason, Hill Janajatis have supported a non-ethnic state in the Terai. It is a good marriage of convenience.

Maithili Brahmins helped write laws and establish social norms for Malla kings. Shah kings had Maithili blood in their veins. So they enjoyed power and respect. But the Ranas treated them and other Terai groups as second-class citizens. Although the post-Rana regimes offered equal treatment to them on paper, they not much was done to translate it into practice. So it was only reasonable for Terai people to demand equal dignity and opportunity from Pahadi rulers.

Federalism is one way of offering the disadvantaged people dignity and opportunity. Identity, geography and economic viability constitute the pillars of provinces in a union. Where people sharing common heritage outnumber other groups, identity-based states are usually the norm. Otherwise, multicultural geographic division has been widely accepted as a basis for states. In both cases, economic viability remains the critical element for success.

We ought to learn from India’s experience. India has created West Bengal, Gujarat, Maharashtra, etc. on ethnic-linguistic identity basis and Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh on non-ethnic basis.

I have no problem with naming states after an ethnic group if it commands an absolute demographic majority in their territories, provided such a group is prepared to provide other groups equal access to and proportionate representation in state power, resources and opportunities.

It becomes troubling only when ethnic groups demand ethnic states where they are in minority, claim priority rights and want to impose their language and culture on the majority. Doing so is against democratic norms and principles and becomes a perennial source of conflict. Such a road leads to Bhutan, not to Britain.

That brings me to the Terai districts where the Pahadi people already outnumber the Terai people or are close to doing so: Jhapa, Morang, Chitwan, Nawalparasi, Dang, Kailali, and Kancharpur.

These large districts, if included in Terai state/s, will dilute the dignity and opportunity of the Terai people. Pahadi leaders from them will continue to dominate Terai politics and Terai people will not feel much of difference between the past and future, which will generate frustration and resentment.

For the sake of simplicity, I have used languages as the key parameter of dominance in the following table:

Districts Five major languages spoken in %
Jhapa Nepali  (57.70) Rajbansh (13.40) Limbu (5.49) Santhal (3.59) Maithili (3.46)
Morang* Nepali36.19 Maithili (22.12) Tharu (7.27) Rajbansh (5.12) Limbu (4.27)
Chitwan Nepali (68.96) Tharu (12.15) Tamang (5.24) Gurung (2.91) Chepang (2.56)
Nawalparasi Nepali (39.55) Bhojpuri (32.59) Magar (14.23) Tharu (9.14) Gurung (1.40)
Dang Nepali (64.52) Tharu (30.08) Awadhi (2.13) Magar (1.70) Hindi (0.89)
Kailali Nepali (52.37) Tharu (41.76) Magar (2.03) Hindi (0.78) Maithili (0.38)
Kanchanpur Nepali (68.28) Tharu (25.61) Tamang (1,45) Magar (0.69) Hindi (0.49)

Source: Population Census 2001.

Note: *Rai language is spoken by 5.25 percent in the district.

As the table demonstrates, in Chitwan, Dang, and Kanchanpur, more than 60 percent people speak Nepali as their mother tongue. In Jhapa and Kailali, more than 50 percent do the same. If you include other Pahadi tongues, these numbers go up significantly.

In Nawalparasi, more than 50 percent of the population speaks Pahadi languages — Nepali, Magar and Gurung — as their first tongue. In Morang, the speakers of Nepali, Limbu and Rai languages constituted more than 45 percent in 2001. The 2011 census data suggests that the Pahadi people might have already outnumbered the Terai people.

The preliminary understanding among the main political parties indicates that there could be 171 national electoral constituencies nationwide and double that number in states. Each district will have at least one national level and two state level representatives from even the smallest districts. The remaining constituencies will be allotted to other districts based on population.

Evidently, the large Pahadi-dominated seven Terai districts will get a lion’s share of representatives in national and state assemblies. They have together more than four million people, one in every seven, in the country. This will enable Pahadi elites from these districts to continue calling shots both at the state and federal levels, causing frustration and resentment among the Terai people, for they will experience no change due to federalism.

Madheshi leaders will have but themselves to blame for such a situation. Egypt’s experience should be instructive. During the Arab Spring, the Egyptian people shed blood and sweat to remove the dictator, Hosni Mubarak, only to be replaced by the old guards and Mubarak cronies.

Of course, these Pahadi-dominated Terai districts could be a source of strength for Terai state/s because of their population and economic vibrancy. But they could also be a source of constant irritation and frustration, such as Darjeeling for West Bengal and Jharkhand for Bihar in India, as their Pahadi elites seek greater role and political control at the state level or fight for separate states.

These big Pahadi-dominated Terai districts, if included in Madheshi state/s, could prove bhaluko kanpat (the bear’s ears) for Madheshi leaders. Madheshi leaders will be able to neither let them go nor  continue holding without seriously hurting themselves.

(Published in The Kathmandu Post of 8 June 2012)

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