The right fight, SUKHDEV SHAH

The arrest and possible imprisonment of Madhesi intellectual and political activist Chandra Kant (CK) Raut by Morang police on September 13, 2014, has opened new fissures in Nepali politics and has far-reaching consequences for the future of democracy and the country’s sovereignty.

The charges against CK Raut are serious and disturbing. He is accused of advocating a break-up of Nepali state, separating its Madhesh region from rest of the country, through all possible means, including an armed struggle.

Until now none of Madhesh-based parties has come out in support of Raut on separation and independence, although most Madheshi leaders have issued statements asking for Raut’s immediate release, arguing that in a democracy citizens have a right to debate any issue and express any opinion, even when it is not to the liking of the administration and law enforcement officials.

While the administration doesn’t deny that people are free to exercise their democratic rights to speech, they contend that Raut’s advocacy of secession and independence far exceeds democratic norms and is hence a treasonous act, aimed at creating disorder, rebellion, and break-up of the country.

Raut’s categorization as a trouble-maker, separatist, and violent rabble-rouser doesn’t fit the mold of ordinary activists. His case is extraordinary and his motivation for this struggle can be taken as nothing less than a divine intervention to salvage the pride of millions of people who have suffered from a different kind of tyranny—of keeping a whole people in a sort of solitary confinement.

Most likely, the court will show leniency towards Raut, releasing him on a conditional basis, most likely ordering him to refrain from his secession and independence rhetoric.

Probably this is the highest punishment that can be meted out to Raut. If so, it can help calm the situation and induce the entire gamut of stakeholders to look at root causes of Raut’s militancy and rebellion, and then decide on longer-term solution to Madhesh problem.

To preempt further troubles, the government—the current one as well as any future government—must listen to the grievances that have now got public attention through Raut. Ignoring the issue, on the other hand, will ensure that such eruptions could take place in the future as well, with much uglier

The Madhesh issue that Raut’s activism has brought to the fore can be accessed from two opposite angles. One is that Raut has engaged in anti-national activities—remember the Arashtriaya Tatwa labeling of democracy advocates by panchayat regime eons ago!— aimed at dismemberment of the State and, accordingly, he deserves to be punished for treason.

But another—more reasonable and appropriate—view would be that Raut’s outrage and extremism are a result of denial of civil rights to Madheshi citizens and, more generally, the government’s exclusionary politics intended at minimizing their participation in state affairs.

Whether Raut is absolutely right or absolutely wrong (or somewhere in between), that is up to each person to decide for himself. I for one like to call myself a liberal, someone who takes great pride in his country, someone who has had international exposure, and above all a full-blooded Madheshi. As such, I completely agree with Raut’s depiction of Madheshi citizens’ plight while I as strongly disapprove of his means for attaining his goals—secession and armed struggle.

Raut’s grievances against the Nepali State with respect to its treatment of Madheshi residents are credible and compelling. In fact, Nepal’s exclusionary politics has no close parallel anywhere in the world; for that we need to go back to South Africa’s apartheid a quarter century ago.

Not only do Madhesis have no effective representation in core administration and constitutional wings—army, police, civil service, diplomacy, and government in general—they face exclusion even in the private sector.

How many of 2,000-3,000 taxi drivers in Kathmandu are native Madheshis? None! Of a dozen supermarkets in Kathmandu employing thousands of clerical and sales staff, not a single Madheshi is visible. In high-class hotels in Kathmandu, there is hardly a Madheshi working, except may be as barbers.

Also, a minuscule number of native Madheshis are employed in private sector—in banking, finance, travels or telecom services. Over fifty years of traveling in Nepali air carriers, I haven’t met a single native Madheshi hostess or service staff. And, finally, airport services in places like Kathmandu and Janakpur are almost completely manned by non-Madheshis.

Looking at security establishments, almost 100 percent of people are from Pahade communities, making the whole of Madhesh appear like an occupied territory!

Overall, considering all aspects of Nepali life—especially the way this has been projected overseas—exclusion of Madheshi natives is almost complete, much so than of Indians in British India; of Bengalis under Pakistan; or even of Tamils in Sri Lanka.

Therefore, the grievances of Madheshi people against exclusionary politics and economics practiced by an ethnic Pahade state are genuine and compelling and can’t any more be ignored or suppressed—a tactics that has been in official consciousness for the entire duration of the existence of Nepali state.

Segregation and exclusion policy has been so complete that the whole region gives the look of an abandoned property.

There is no development, no modernization, and no opportunities except primitive farming and petty trades. Labor migration from Madhesh to foreign countries is driven, in the main part, by a total absence of alternate means of livelihood.

Equally harmful but less visible has been the effect of exclusionary politics on national interest, most importantly on development and growth of national economy. Madhesh region provides easily exploitable resources for job creation, income generation and poverty alleviation, at a fraction of the cost the same would involve in hill regions.

But because development efforts have been concentrated in non-Madheshi regions, yield on investment has been miniscule. Such misattribution of available resources has meant wasteful use of local savings and foreign aid, reflected in their lowest output per unit of capital, which means persistence of low growth for the national economy.

There are many things that hold back Nepal’s growth and development, but the most powerful ones are the country’s exclusionary politics, especially as practiced with respect to Madhesh. On a broader level, the apathetic Madhesh policy underlies government’s cooling relations with India and reluctance to open up for global trade and investment.

Published on 2014-09-23
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