Nepal Political Turmoil: More Devastating To Economy Than Earthquake

The ongoing Madhesi agitation in the southern plains of Nepal that has crossed the 50 day mark has been noted as more devastating to the national economy than the earthquake months earlier by the leading entrepreneurs in the country, the damage estimated in the billions. Close to 50 people have lost their lives, over a thousand have been injured, the southern plains have been shut down the entire time, and security forces have enforced large scale sweeping curfews. They are known to break into homes, beat up people in custody, bordering towards the fascist. The Nepal Army is out in force, although more in a standby mode. And all the major border entry points with India have been blockaded since late September as a step up by the agitators since the government in Kathmandu was seen deaf to their demands. This has resulted in massive shortages of fuel and essential supplies across the country, and especially Kathmandu. On October 1 over 1.5 million people formed a 1,135 kilometer long human chain, a world record, and efforts are underway to collect four million signatures to be submitted to the United Nations Secretary General.

There is widespread anger that the newly promulgated constitution, the country’s seventh in seven decades, renders large segments of Madhesis, by some estimates 4.3 million, stateless, and the rest as second class citizens not qualifying for one person one vote in electoral arithmetic, and officially unfit to hold the top offices in the country. The ruling elite, the Khas, all of whom migrated from India over hundreds of years, have barely hidden fears that the Madhesis, who are natives by all historical accounts, are Indians hellbent on turning Nepal into a Fiji or, worse, Sikkim. If you let them, they will take over, and so they have to be stopped by all means necessary, is the common refrain. The southern plains were gifted to the rulers in Kathmandu by British India in 1816 and 1860. As late as 1958 Madhesis were required to get visas to go to Kathmandu. Cross border marriages are the norm. The Nepal India border is an open one with no parallel in the world. A 1950 treaty allows Nepalis to go work in India without restrictions with no reciprocal arrangements in place. Sita and Buddha, two of the most celebrated figures in Nepali history, both were born Madhesi. But Khas folklore has it that the Madhesh was until recently largely a forested area and all Madhesis are Indian migrants. But if the prejudice, or rather soft apartheid, were about who is Indian and who is not, the Khas elite also has equally strong structural inequalities in place to put down the Janajatis, the indigenous peoples. Between them the Madhesis of the southern plains, and the Janajatis of the hills and mountains (Sherpa, Tamang, Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu, Newar) are over two thirds of the population.

Federalism has been the central point of the agitation. It was Madhesis who put the concept into the previous interim constitution through a mass uprising a decade ago. But the state boundaries have been drawn in a way that makes the Khas the largest group in six of the seven provinces. The judiciary has been left unitary, and the state governments have been given only cosmetic power. One can argue what has been put in place is not even federalism, but a severely watered down version.

Electoral constituencies have been proposed to be drawn in a way that although the Madhesh has half the country’s population, it might get only 35-40% of the seats in the national parliament. The upper house is even more skewed against the Madhesis. Citizenship provisions are regressive and punishing, not just to Madhesis but also Khas women.

Mahanth Thakur, the most senior Madhesi leader, has drawn out a list of 35 amendments that need to be made to the constitution to rectify the structural inequality, at which point the agitation and the blockade would be called off and normalcy restored. At the pace that the provisions of the constitution was passed, all amendments could go through in a single sitting of the parliament, granted the three big parties agreed. That might be a welcome move since Nepal’s festival season has already begun. But the three party bosses seem to be more interested in the musical chair game of who will be the next Prime Minister than in the agitation’s just demands, hence prolonging the crisis.


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