Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report / Asia 4 minutes

Nepal’s Troubled Tarai Region

Unrest in the Tarai plains has exposed the weaknesses of Nepal’s peace process, could derail elections for a constituent assembly in November and, if not properly addressed, could start a new form of conflict.

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Executive Summary

Unrest in the Tarai plains has exposed the weaknesses of Nepal’s peace process, could derail elections for a constituent assembly in November and, if not properly addressed, could start a new form of conflict. Madhesis – plainspeople who are some one third of the country’s population – have protested, sometimes violently, against the discrimination that has in effect excluded them from public life. Weeks of demonstrations and clashes between political rivals recently left several dozen dead. The government has offered to address issues such as increased electoral representation, affirmative action for marginalised groups and federalism but has dragged its feet over implementing dialogue. Tension had been building for several years but was largely ignored by the political elites and international observers, and the scale of the protest shocked even its own leaders. The problems will only be resolved by strengthening the national political process and making it both inclusive and responsive – starting with free and fair elections to a constituent assembly later this year.

The Tarai plains stretch the length of the southern border and are home to half the total population, including many non-Madhesis (both indigenous ethnic groups and recent migrants from the hills). With comparatively good infrastructure, agriculture, industrial development and access to India across the open border, the Tarai is crucial to the economy. It is also an area of great political importance, both as a traditional base for the mainstream parties and as the only road link between otherwise inaccessible hill and mountain districts.

The leaders of the Madhesi movement face difficult choices: they have mobilised public support but have also angered powerful constituencies. They now need to decide between a strategy of accommodation or continued confrontation. The Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) has emerged as a powerful umbrella group but lacks an organisational base and clear agenda. It is entering the electoral fray but if it is to challenge the established parties, it must first deal with rival Madhesi politicians competing for the same votes. There has also been a proliferation of Madhesi armed groups; some have expanded significantly in numbers, and their strategy and attitudes will affect the political process.

The mood among Tarai residents is increasingly confrontational, with collapse of trust between most Madhesis and the government. Most believe that further violence is likely. Unresolved grievances and the hangover from the Maoist insurgency, especially the lack of reconciliation and the greater tolerance for violence, make a volatile mix. The unrest has given a glimmer of hope to diehard royalists and Hindu fundamentalists, including some from across the border, who see it as a chance to disrupt the peace process.

The mainstream parties have changed their rhetoric but are as reluctant as ever to take action that would make for a more inclusive system. Strikes in the Tarai squeezed Kathmandu but not enough to force immediate concessions. Mainstream parties, particularly the Nepali Congress, rely on their Tarai electoral base but are unsure how to deal with the new state of flux. Unable to compete with Madhesi groups in radicalism, they have also been ineffective at communicating the positive steps they have taken, such as reforming citizenship laws. Competition within the governing coalition is hindering any bold moves. For the Maoists, the Tarai violence was a wake-up call: much of it was directed against their cadres, whose appearance of dominance was shattered. Nevertheless, they remain well organised, politically coherent and determined to reassert themselves.

Engaging in serious negotiations will be a delicate process, with no party wanting to lose face. But the key issues are clear and still offer room for a reasonable compromise:

  • fair representation: the critical issue is ensuring the electoral system gives Madhesis a serious stake in the constituent assembly;
  • federalism and autonomy: the government’s commitment to federalism has yet to translate into action; without pre-empting the constituent assembly, steps are needed to demonstrate more serious intent, such as formation of a technical research commission that could develop a knowledge base for future discussions;
  • rebuilding trust: confidence in national and local government will only come if there is decent governance, public security based on local community consent and improved delivery of services;
  • redress for heavy-handed suppression of protests: demands for compensation, honouring of dead protestors and follow-through on a commission of enquiry need to be met; and
  • steps towards affirmative action: some immediate moves to increase Madhesi representation in parties and state bodies could pave the way for longer-term measures to remove inequalities.

Fixing the Tarai means first fixing some issues in Kathmandu and then dealing not only with Madhesis but all excluded groups. Cross-party unity in listening to grievances and pushing for their resolution through a legitimate, elected constituent assembly is the only way to a lasting solution. This requires a change in outlook and a delicate political balancing act: the Kathmandu government must do some things immediately in order to earn Madhesi trust but deciding any major issues before the elections to the constituent assembly could compromise the constitutional process. Despite the instability, elections are still possible and essential. But reshaping state identity and institutions to make all Nepali citizens feel part of the nation is a long-term task that will present challenges in the constituent assembly and beyond.

Kathmandu/Brussels, 9 July 2007

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