Nepal Conflict Alert
Nepal Conflict Alert
Report 136 / Asia

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

AFP/Manish Paudel
Nepalese police and United Democratic Madhesi Front activists clash in Birgunj, south of Kathamndu, on 31 August 2015. AFP/Manish Paudel
Alert / Asia

Nepal Conflict Alert

Spiralling protests against a draft constitution have left 23 dead and hundreds injured in Nepal in two weeks. An over-militarised security reaction and inadequate political response from the centre threaten to fuel deep-seated ethnic, caste and regional rivalries less than a decade after the civil war’s end. The major parties should recognise the depth of discontent and the fundamental challenge this poses to the legitimacy of the proposed constitution. A hastily-passed document, weeks after mobilisation of security forces to counter citizens’ protests against it, is unlikely to be the social contract Nepal needs.

The constitution, nine years in the making, was envisioned as an instrument to address longstanding grievances of large parts of society, who argue that the old system marginalised them from state institutions and political authority, deprived them of a fair share of the benefits of development and discriminated against them. These groups include plains-based Madhesi, Tharu and smaller groups, Dalit caste groups in the hills and plains, hill ethnic Janajati (“indigenous nationality”) groups and women. Many have concluded that the 8 August draft does not adequately deliver on commitments to a federal system and inclusion.

The government and its opposition partners in the constitution deal say they are under pressure to end years of uncertainty by passing the draft quickly. They downplay the significance of the protests, arguing that not everyone in a democracy can be satisfied and that the constitution can be amended. The state response to the protests has been security-heavy and in some areas, the army has been mobilised to deal with civic unrest for the first time since the civil war.

Kathmandu circles underestimate the scale and intensity of disagreement and the complexity of the often-competing grievances and claims. There are high-voltage public debates over disadvantage and structural discrimination that feed social resentments and grievances. These deeply-felt issues will continue to find expression in agitation and opposition if the present moment is handled badly. A botched solution risks entrenching communal polarisation in society and radicalising groups that feel their concerns were not seriously considered.

Reconciling the expectations of all Nepalis was always going to be a challenge for the Constituent Assembly. The 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the then Maoist rebels and representatives of political parties, as well as the 2007 Interim Constitution, promised political reform and redress for past inequities. Numerous social groups based on caste, gender, ethnicity, and regional interests lobbied for their agendas. Often, movements turned violent to force the government to take them seriously. Since 2007, governments have signed over 40 agreements, often contradictory, with different groups.

The recent violence was mainly sparked by delineation of the six-, now seven-state federal structure proposed to replace 75 administrative districts. Tarai-based groups wanted to keep stretches of the southern Tarai plains together, including by changing the traditional north-south administrative divisions, which mixed plains, hills and mountains in administrative zones. In the hills, some Janajati groups want to keep areas traditionally considered homelands intact, though this is not a focus of protests. Other issues are also highly contentious though not explicitly part of the current demands: a proposed citizenship measure which makes it difficult for children with a single Nepali parent to gain citizenship with the same rights as those who receive citizenship by descent; and the proposed electoral system and standards for demarcating constituencies, which may not deliver better representation of the agitating population groups.

Madhesi communities, one of the country’s biggest population blocs and the largest group across the Tarai, and Tharu communities, many concentrated in the far-western Tarai, say the current system puts them at a demographic disadvantage politically. They anticipate gains under the new system but object to some parts of the plains being included in hill states. Traditionally hill-based communities, and the framers of the draft constitution, counter that migration continues from hills and mountains to the Tarai, forming mixed communities, and that hill community members have land or commercial ties to the disputed areas. Madhesi and Tharu groups believe the major parties want to renege on the letter and spirit of earlier commitments to political empowerment and reform.

Within the Constituent Assembly, which functions as the parliament, there is discontent. The governing coalition consists of the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) and the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Democratic (MJF-D); its opposition partners in the constitutional deal are the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M). The MJF-D last week said it could no longer support the deal if Tharu concerns were not addressed. The NC and UML have forbidden their members from trying to amend the draft; 33 smaller parties have refused to be part of the process, and the oldest Madhesi party, Sadbhavana, resigned from the Constituent Assembly last month.

There are protests and agitation in much of the Tarai. Kailali district in the far west, parts of which Tharu groups and the hill-based Undivided Far West Movement want for their respective new states, had the worst violence last week. The major parties revised the federal model to add a seventh state in response to the latter’s demands. That added to the discontent of Tharu groups, considered among the most historically marginalised in Nepal, who said their grievances were ignored as they lacked close ties to Kathmandu power centres.

Since the protests began three weeks ago, at least fifteen people have been killed by police in various parts of the country. On 24 August, seven police and a child were killed in an apparent attack by protesters in Kailali’s Tikapur town. Kailali remains under a 24-hour curfew. Given restrictions on movement, it is difficult to verify reports of significant displacement of Tharu families fearing or following retaliatory violence. Birgunj city and areas in the central Tarai are tipping into serious violence, with nine people killed by police this week. The National Human Rights Commission has not officially investigated any of the deaths. The army has reportedly been mobilised at different times in Kailali, Dang, Parsa, Rautahat and Sarlahi districts. There are concerns about communally driven violence and about the state’s response. An indefinite banda (strike) across the Tarai is in its third week.

It is unlikely the discontent can be resolved by a deal between power-brokers in Kathmandu that does not address core issues. While some district-level political leaders and parties that represent Tharu and Madhesi groups in the Constituent Assembly have been involved in the protests or support them, the mobilisation and leadership comes largely from within local communities. Many of the protests do not involve huge numbers, but rely instead on better organisation and target the shutdown of specific infrastructure, such as government offices and stretches of the national East-West highway.

The government must act urgently to address tensions, reduce the risk of more violence and to restore confidence in the constitution-writing process. The enormous trust deficit between agitating groups and Kathmandu’s political leadership will worsen if the government and major parties persist with a heavily securitised response to fundamentally political protests, and if they and the media portray the protests as marginal or criminal. The government should also urgently form an independent commission to investigate the recent killings.

All protesting groups must denounce and guard against violence from within their ranks, and avoid threatening or extreme rhetoric. They must also offer realistic alternatives, not just reject Constituent Assembly proposals.

The major parties say they are open to amendments and willing to talk to any group that feels it has been excluded. The government in early August conducted a four-day exercise to obtain feedback on the draft, though there is a public perception it will ignore suggestions that do not fit the current draft’s form.

The timing, sequencing and design of talks will be challenging. It is essential the government does not insist on artificial deadlines or preconditions and is ready to discuss the status of past commitments. The agitating groups are wary of being forced into an accelerated timetable within the Constituent Assembly. The government anticipates speaking to each agitating front separately, but Tharu and Madhesi groups may seek a joint negotiation. Small adjustments to the proposed boundaries of states in the far west and east would significantly lower tensions but are strongly resisted by some leaders.

Tenor will matter as much as issues. If there are more deaths and if groups feel negotiations are not respectful or in good faith, this could jeopardise confidence in other contentious compromises on citizenship, the electoral process, the number and distribution of constituencies, the threshold for political parties, representation and inclusion.

The anger in the Tarai and among various social groups is real. If it is ignored or mishandled, the violence will grow. If the new constitution is truly to be one for all Nepalis rather than a starting gun for new forms of conflict, its framers must recognise that getting it done right is more important than getting it done fast.