Still call the shots

Murari Sharma

JUN 08 –

Including heavily populated Pahadi-majority districts of the Tarai in the proposed Madhesi state will be extremely counterproductive for Madhesi dignity, opportunity, and politics. The people of the plains are fighting for dignity, honour and a greater role in shaping their destiny within the union of Nepal. They are not fighting for ethnic identity or states.

For a population to be identified as an ethnic group, there must be a common heritage such as common ancestry, race, culture, language and religion. The Tarai people do not share such a common heritage. They come from Aryan, Dravidian and Mongolian stocks, and speak different languages like Maithili, Tharu, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Rajbansh, Urdu and Santhal. And they believe in different religions like Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, Animism and Christianity. Brahmins, Chhetris and Vaishyas of the Tarai do not share a common ethnicity with Tarai Janajatis such as Tharus, Rajbanshis, Bantars, Satars and Musahars. They are cousins of their hill counterparts as both belong to the Aryan stock and Hindu faith, and speak languages derived from Sanskrit.

Madhesi leaders are demanding non-ethnic states in the Tarai, but they are tactically supporting ethnic identity and states for Hill Janajatis to build a common political platform to strengthen their demand. Likewise, Hill Janajatis are working with Madhesi leaders to bolster their own demand. It is a good marriage of convenience, which is accepted in politics. If Madhesi leaders were demanding ethnic identity, they would have called for carving the Tarai into several states based on ethnicity and language. They are insisting on one state in the Tarai, at the most two.

Maithili Brahmins, who helped draw up laws and social rules for the Malla kings, were powerful during their period. The Shah kings respected them because, from Girvan Yuddha onwards, they had Maithili blood in their veins. But the Ranas treated the Maithili Brahmins and other Tarai groups as second class citizens. The post-Rana regimes did not do much to uplift their status either, although they offered equality on paper. So it was only reasonable for the Tarai people to demand equal dignity and opportunities from the Pahadi rulers.

Federalism is one way of offering dignity and opportunities to disadvantaged people. Identity, geography and economic viability constitute the main parameters for creating provinces in a union. Where people sharing a common heritage outnumber other groups, identity-based states are usually the norm. Where such identity cannot be established, a multicultural geographic division has been the widely accepted basis. You do not have to go far to see it. India has created West Bengal, Gujarat and Maharashtra, among other states, based on ethnic-linguistic identity while Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh have a non-ethnic basis.

I have no problems with naming states after an ethnic group if it commands an absolute majority in the state. But such states must ensure that all other groups have equal access to and proportionate representation in state power, resources and opportunities, as a democratic system demands. It becomes troubling only when ethnic groups demand ethnic states where they are in a minority 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 Britain.

That brings me to the Pahadi-majority districts in the Tarai — Jhapa, Morang, Chitwan, Nawalparasi, Dang, Kailali and Kanchanpur. These are large districts in terms of population where the Pahadi people already outnumber the Tarai people, or are close to it. If these districts are included in the proposed Tarai states, they will weaken the dignity and opportunities of the Tarai people. The Pahadi elite will continue to dominate Madhesi politics, and the Tarai people will see little difference between the past and the future.

For the sake of simplicity, languages have been used as the key parameter of dominance in such large Tarai districts in the table.

As the table shows, Nepali is the mother tongue of 57.70 percent of the population in Jhapa. Similarly, in Chitwan, Dang and Kanchanpur, more than 60 percent of the people speak Nepali as their mother tongue. In Kailali, more than 50 percent speak Nepali. In Nawalparasi, more than 50 percent of the population speaks Nepali, Magar and Gurung as their first tongue. In Morang district, Nepali, Limbu and Rai speakers constitute more than 45 percent of the population. In 2001, these seven districts had a population of four million. Since then, the population could have jumped due to Pahadi people fleeing here to escape the Maoist conflict.

According to the preliminary understanding among the main political parties, there could be 171 national electoral constituencies and double that number in the states. There will be at least one national level representative and two state-level representatives from even the smallest districts. The remaining constituencies will be allotted to larger districts based on population. Hence, large Pahadi-dominated Tarai districts will get to send a large number of representatives to the national and state assemblies. This will allow the Pahadi elite in the Tarai to continue calling the shots at both the state and federal levels.

These Pahadi-dominated Tarai districts could be a source of constant irritation and frustration, like Darjeeling is proving to be for West Bengal and Jharkhand for Bihar in India, as the Pahadi elite seek a greater role or fight for a separate state. These big Pahadi-dominated Tarai districts, if included in the Madhesi states, could prove to be like the proverbial bear’s ears. Madhesi leaders will not be able to let them go, nor continue holding on to them without seriously hurting themselves.


Language of terai


Districts     Five major languages spoken in %

Jhapa    Nepali  (57.70)    Rajbansh (13.40)    Limbu (5.49)    Santhal (3.59)    Maithili (3.46)

Morang*    Nepali (36.19    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)

Posted on: 2012-06-08 08:22


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