Mission Madhesh, BISHAL THAPA

Dr CK Raut wants an independent Tarai state, largely representing the Madheshi population, to secede from Nepal. For that belief, he is now in prison.

Raut was arrested back in September and has been charged with several offenses amounting to sedition. In the initial days of his imprisonment, Raut started a hunger strike to protest his arrest. Eleven days into the strike, the government committed to respect his right to free speech. Despite that, he continues to remain in prison. The government is pressing ahead with its charges.

Raut asserts that his demand for an independent Madhesh stems from centuries of state sponsored neglect and exploitation of Madheshis. He argues that even the new Republic of Nepal with its federal structure will not offer Madheshis a path to prosperity. The bias against and exclusion of Madheshis are so entrenched that they will remain forever excluded in Nepal.

Through his work and activism, Raut has credibly documented the systemic exclusion of Madheshis. Decades of neglect come across visibly. Today, Madheshis remain one of the most vulnerable communities in Nepal with little access to even minimal health, education or financial services. Many of them are excluded even from the basic safety net of a citizenship. Many Madheshi communities remain in a vicious cycle of poverty with little opportunities for employment and without even a small patch of agricultural land.

The new generation of Madheshi leaders have done little to help their lot, and have integrated nicely with the same political machinery of Kathmandu that has systemically marginalized Madheshis. Raut offers a different vision: an independent sovereign Madhesh with complete decision making authority including the right to self-determination and offering Madheshis an inclusive path to development and prosperity.

The issue of integrity of Nepal’s national borders technically remains under discussion in the Constituent Assembly. Members haven’t resolved whether the point on the integrity of Nepal’s borders should remain in the preamble that cannot be amended or whether it should belong to the section that can be subsequently amended.

Raut is merely playing out that debate outside the Constituent Assembly and increasingly large numbers, particularly Madheshis, are flocking to hear him speak. If Constituent Assembly members can participate in that debate, why can’t he?

Raut’s argument raises some soul-searching questions about what Nepal means and what it means to be a Nepali. His argument raises some very troubling question about whether the natural glue—shared historical experience; cultural, social and economic ties—is strong enough to hold Nepal together.

It is a question we don’t want to ask because we fear the answer we might receive.

Prior to Prithivi Narayan Shah, Nepal was a collection of principalities and independent states. The unification was the result of brute force rather than natural alliances. The Shah and Rana dynasty ruled for two and a half centuries, drawing its authority not just from divine powers of Gods but also from the fact that they had unified the country. The unification of Nepal entitled them to ultimate authority in the land.

This source of authority remained the basis of political power until the last king was unceremoniously deposed in 2008. Since then the monarchy has been discredited—history rewritten, statues of monarchs blackened and dismantled; palaces seized; the royal palace in Kathmandu has fallen into disrepair with overgrown vines and poor maintenance.

If the monarchy is now irrelevant in Nepal why should the genesis of their authority—the unification of Nepal—continue to remain valid and relevant?

Every year millions of Nepalis travel abroad for jobs and education. Approximately 30-40 percent of our working population is abroad at any time. Most of them are not coming back. Many of them will surrender their Nepali citizenships (or at least hide their new ones) to assume the identity of their adopted host country and join the ranks of Non-Resident Nepalis.

Almost all young Nepalis aspire to go abroad—not just temporarily for education or job, but also to settle there permanently. Except student political leaders sponsored by national parties and young people from rich families who don’t have to work for a living, all the other youth believe there is a better future outside Nepal.

It is inspirational to stand up on a podium, as many of our leaders do, and quote from the likes of John F Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”

But when the grim realities hit, it is important to ask what Nepal has done for Nepalis, particularly the poor and disadvantaged communities. Why shouldn’t they be entitled to a better future, even if they believe it is outside of Nepal?

Raut’s movement doesn’t merely boil down to a philosophical question about whether a state within a federal union should ultimately have the right to secession. It raises far more deep-seated questions about the cultural, social and historical ties that define Nepal and whether those bonds continue to remain relevant in a situation where the State and the Government perpetually fail to deliver.

One way to respond to Raut is to muzzle him, slam in the locker and file charges of sedition. Make him a lesson for anyone else wanting to secede.

But our leaders have a bigger responsibility. With the monarchy gone, and after two decades of a brutal war and a long-drawn constitution framing process, Nepalis are tired of Nepal. The romantic songs of harmony and prosperity are nice at flag-waving ceremonies but in the grind of daily life where hope fades and the state fails, there must be a more compelling vision for why Nepal is still the future for Nepalis.

Our leaders need to offer a clearer argument for why Nepal still represents the best hope for all Nepalis—the rich, poor, privileged and marginalized. It is an argument that must be made within the same forums where Raut drew his crowds, often to thunderous applause. There must be a new cause to celebrate the notion of Nepal—a cause for celebration that is free of the sticky biases of past regimes, free of patronage, free of the allure of easy symbolism and with hope for a new generation that want to believe in Nepal.

The best way to respond to Raut is to demonstrate that only one person would voluntarily offer to secede from Nepal and take up citizenship in the Kingdom of Raut: Dr Raut himself.

Every cabinet member of this government should be made to travel from East to West, South to North, much as Raut did, speaking with communities and families, particularly the young, explaining why a unified Nepal is still the best option for all Nepalis.


Published on 2014-10-28 00:10:40
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