A member of the six-member presidium of the newly formed Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), Rajendra Mahato claims his party is still keen about taking part in the second phase of local election. Yet his party has just announced to actively disrupt the second phase. Many people are left wondering what exactly the RJPN wants. Why is it not taking part in the second phase even though the two biggest Madhes-based parties are already in? And is there still a possibility of a negotiated settlement in the next few days, clearing the way for the party to take part in the second phase? Thira L Bhusal and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with the veteran Madhesi leader.
Don’t you think you are making a big mistake by boycotting and disrupting the historic local election?
Boycott, disruption and protest are our compulsion. Let me remind you, our movement for constitution amendment started before the constitution was even promulgated. It started when framers of this constitution decided to sweep aside agreements signed with us in the past and backtracked from Madhes-friendly provisions of the Interim Constitution. This constitution is stained with blood of Madhesi people and is inherently flawed. We have thus been demanding an amendment. This government, and its predecessor, had promised to amend it before the second phase. They did not. We were left with no other alternative.
The government had taken some steps to bring you on board. But you seem to be hardening your position by the day.
The prior government of Pushpa Kamal Dahal had promised to implement the three-point deal that Nepali Congress and Maoist Center had signed with us ten months ago. It is true that Dahal tried to address some points of the three-point deal. But he could not create an environment for us to go to election. In many ways, Deuba government is a continuation of Dahal’s coalition. So Deuba should have continued where Dahal had left. We voted for him in the prime minister election because he had promised to complete unfinished work. For example, he had promised he would immediately withdraw cases against Madhesi cadres, release political detainees, declare those killed in police clash ‘martyrs’ and provide compensation to victims. He did none of this. And yet you accuse us of hardening our position?
Were these the only concerns of RJPN, or were there disagreements on other more substantive constitutional issues too?
Basically, there was no willingness on the part of the government to address our concerns. It was not ready to readjust local units on population basis, let alone get the constitution amendment bill passed. This led to a breakdown of talks, which in turn prompted us to start fresh protests.
Your cadres have manhandled Election Commission officials and set fire to vehicles and offices of opponent parties. How will you ensure your protests will be peaceful?
Our protest is already peaceful. But if the government provokes protestors, then any political movement may turn violent. If the government exercises restraint, there will be no violence. We won’t cooperate with the government. Instead we will protest against, as well as obstruct and boycott polls. If the security forces tell us ‘you have no right to do so’ and use force against us, there will be violence. The protestors are always unarmed. Nepal’s security forces do not follow basic norms while using force against protestors, especially in Madhes. They do not use water cannons to disperse protestors there, which they do in Kathmandu. And they do not fire in the air or use rubber bullets. They aim at the head and chest of protestors and they shoot to kill. It is such behavior of the security forces that makes protestors violent. So whether our protests will be peaceful will depend on how the government responds.
Could you still take part in the second phase of local election?
Politics is the art of possible. So there is no question of us not joining the election process. When Sher Bahadur Deuba can garner 388 votes to become prime minister, why cannot he put together eight more votes to amend the constitution? Had he tried, he would have been able to amend the constitution. It is accepted everywhere that local units should be based on population density. Why can’t Deuba ensure the same? What has prevented the government from withdrawing cases against our cadres and releasing them from prison? What keeps it from declaring people killed in police clash martyrs? And when did it provide compensation to victims? The government has not fulfilled even our minimum conditions.
I ask the government: How long will you take to address these concerns? How long will you take to complete remaining business of amendment and addition of local units in Tarai-Madhes? If you need time, we are ready to give you more time. But the government should at least try to create an environment whereby we can take part in local election. Without our participation, election in Madhes will be meaningless. And the election conducted my using force will be illegitimate.
What do you want the government to do right now? Please be specific.
For the moment, the government should postpone elections in 19 Madhes districts until our demands are addressed. Or it could postpone election in all four, or even one or two provinces. It is up to the government. Or let me put it this way. The government should hold elections in the districts where we have political problems in the third phase. Let us hold this third phase after sorting out remaining issues. But the government may go ahead with the second phase in places where there are no problems. This is not our official position. But it could be an alternative. Let there be no confusion. We are keen on participating in local election, if the government is serious about taking us along.
Sher Bahadur Deuba should look back at the time when he was prime minister 22 years ago. The Maoist party had submitted a 40-point charter of demands and asked the government to address them. Deuba ignored them. It led to a disastrous war, in which around 18,000 people lost their lives and led the country to ruins. One single mistake of Deuba and Nepali Congress led the country to disaster. Deuba has returned as prime minister after 22 years. I would like to believe he won’t repeat the mistake by keeping us out of the political process. We are trying to establish our agenda through constitutional means. If we fail, separatist elements in Madhes will take advantage. And Madhesis might tilt towards those forces. So the Madhes issue is even more serious than issues the Maoists had raised 22 years ago. The government must handle it with care.
You mentioned separatist elements and Maoist movement. Is there a possibility of your party taking up arms?
Not at all. We are for establishing our agendas by staying within the democratic and constitutional framework. What I am saying is, if we fail in Madhes, the region won’t be under our control. And this might lead the country to unimagined disaster. I am only making the government alert about the repercussion of its neglect of Madhes. I am not warning of an armed struggle. The three parties which drafted this faulty constitution should be ready to rectify its flaws. Congress and Maoist Center are ready to do so. UML should also join hands.
You say you believe in democratic process but you are against an election to institutionalize grassroots democracy.
Nobody should preach us about democracy. We have made sacrifices during every democratic movement in this country. Equality is a fundamental principle of loktantra (democracy). But the kind of loktantra we have today rejects equality. One dominant caste group has taken control of state machinery. This is not the loktantra we had fought for. One single caste group has hijacked all organs of state. This state of discrimination, exploitation and inequality cannot be a part of loktantra.
The international community, including India, seems to be in favor of timely second phase of local election. Why are you ignoring their advice?
Nobody can tell us what we should or should not be doing. We are well aware of our responsibilities towards our people. We know about democratic norms and values. If the international community says we should live under subjugation, it is not acceptable to us. This movement for our rights will continue. It would be suicidal to facilitate the implementation of the flawed constitution. We won’t listen to those who egg us on to this faulty path.
You have the right to boycott the election but how can you force other people not to vote?
This election is wrong. It is against the interest of Madhesi people. This is being held in the process of implementation of the constitution, which has many flaws and which does not grant enough rights to Madhesis. This is why we will educate Madhesis why this election is not in our favor. We will ask them to boycott and disrupt it.
If this election was really against Madhesi people, why would Upendra Yadav and Bijay Gachhadhar opt in? And why would people welcome it?
You should ask this question to Yadav and Gachchadar. They should understand that Madhesi people sacrificed their lives not to make certain leaders mayors and mukhiyas. They sacrificed their lives to correct the flaws in this constitution. People in Madhes are actually chasing away Yadav, Gachchadar and their followers.
But Yadav’s party also seems to have strong support in many places in Tarai-Madhes.
That’s not true. Nobody supports him there. Social media has created false impression about Upendra Yadav. Since Kathmandu’s media also serves the interests of the ruling class, they are projecting Upendra Yadav in positive light. If you go to the grassroots, you will see how unpopular he has become after his decision to unconditionally take part in election.
Your anti-election protests have created fear among Madhesi voters. Will they be targeted on the voting day?
People won’t come to vote in the first place. They have realized that this election is being used to justify killing of Madhesis. But election candidates and their supporters might come to vote. They don’t need to fear. We won’t attack them. But we will try to stop them by convincing them about why it is not right to participate in this election. We will tell them that this election will pave the way for implementation of the discriminatory constitution. We will only inform people about these issues. It is up to them who decide whether to vote.
Earlier you expressed your grievances against PM Deuba. Is RJPN thinking about withdrawing its support from him?
It is not through our support that Deuba became the prime minister. He would have become prime minister even if we had not voted for him. We voted for him because he vowed to address our concerns. Now that we have gone back to protests, you may consider our support for the government withdrawn.
Finally, there are indications India has stopped supporting RJPN. Is that the case?
The world, including India, has recognized that this constitution is flawed and needs to be corrected. I think the international community has not backed down from this stand. I do not believe in the international community which first said the constitution needed to be corrected but is now saying this constitution is perfect. They had supported our 2015/16 movement for the same reason. International community always supports elections. They cannot say in public election should not happen. But nobody has told us to give up on our struggle for rights and instead go to the election. There is such an impression in Kathmandu because the government as well as Khasbadi (khas-dominated) media believe in half truths.