The Madhesh I know

Published On: August 25, 2016 12:00 PM NPT By: Parbati Subba

Parbati Subba

Parbati Subba

The contributor for Republica.

Violence has been perpetuated through polarized political narratives and divisive campaigns led by those in Kathmandu
Representatives of international community seem to be misguided by the construct “Madhesh” created by Kathmandu-based upper-caste Madheshi activists, NGO workers and other English-language analysts. There is a mutual relationship based on benefit and favors among such actors within Nepal’s foreign aid complex. There’s also another commonality that underlines such construct, evident in the coherence and well-planned nature of the message.

The language, craft and rhetoric in these messages are disconnected from Nepal’s ground reality and real issues in Madhesh. Generalizing Madhesh as a single group hides, and even aggravates the complex and diverse nature of the problem. But it seems to work well when the intended audience is a group of aid workers, development consultants and diplomatic staffs looking for adventures and self-congratulatory experiences to take out from their short stints in Nepal.

As a person groomed in Madhesh and a woman of hill-Janajati origin, I can give several examples regarding the “Madheshi” construct that are misleading. The imposed “supremacy of ethnic identity” construct is now in vogue. In this article, I will focus on only a couple of such examples, regarding “Madhesh” issue.

Which Madhesh?
Some interest groups seem hell bent on proving Madhesh as a single homogenous entity. The fact, however, is that Madhesh is full of diversity including that of class, caste, culture, and ideology. It is more diverse than hills in all regards. It is in Madhesh that some of the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised communities live, under a social structure that has some of Nepal’s most advantaged communities on the top of the hierarchy.

It is in Madhesh that several big political demonstrations and gatherings in support of Hindu state and monarchy frequently take place. Also in Madhesh one can find some of the most elite and over-represented communities in terms of their share of population. Statistics from an extensive research funded by the Royal Norwegian Embassy (RNE) in Nepal and conducted by a multidisciplinary team of Nepali researchers at Tribhuvan University found that Madheshi high-caste groups like Rajput, Kayastha and Madheshi Brahmin are the most advantaged groups in Nepal. These statistics agree with high Human Development Index (HDI, published by UN) figures for upper caste Madheshi groups.

An imposed monolith
Many people seem unaware that Madhesh comprises of a large number of Adivasi and Janajati (indigenous people and nationalities) groups. Diversity is deliberately suppressed by those who control narrative on Madhesh issues. Madhesh comprises as many as 67 caste groups compared to 59 in Pahad, according to Population Monograph of Nepal published by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2014. But the voice of only four or five caste groups is heard in Kathmandu.

The upper caste Madheshi groups (Rajput, Kayastha, Madheshi Brahmin) comprise about one percent of the total population of Nepal. The remaining Madheshi population includes people of Madheshi Janajati, Yadav, Muslim, Dalit and other origins.

Further, it is often claimed that “Madheshi groups make half of Nepal’s population”. This is true only if we agree that Madhesh is a geographic but not an ethnic entity. The latest census data show 50.26 percent of Nepal’s population lives in the Tarai/Madhesh, which includes Tharus and hill-origin communities. Demographically, according to the same census, the share of Madheshi Brahmin-Chhetri and other Madheshi groups together comes to around 20 percent of Nepal’s population. In Madhesh itself, they comprise about a third of the population.

Madheshi upper and ruling elite castes and groups, especially Madheshi Brahmin, Kayastha and Rajput do not want a strong voice of other Madheshi groups, like the Madheshi Janjatis. That is precisely the reason why Madhesh-activism had conveniently ignored the vast diversity of Madhesh. The Tharus, a large ethnic community from Madhesh, had to fight against their clubbing together with the monolithic “Madheshi” identity, which they do not identify with.

Madheshi Dalits would find it impossible to compete with the Madheshi Brahmin and upper caste communities. But all affirmative action quotas put these disparate groups together. This gives an already over-represented Madheshi upper-caste community an even greater advantage. This is true also about the activists, analysts and other experts close to the foreign aid industry who claim to be Madhesh-experts. An overwhelming proportion of them belong to the highly advantaged upper-caste Madheshi groups.
Perpetuating division
A few years ago, Maithili language activists became victims of the rising ethnocentrism when they were shot to death in Janakpur. They were on a hunger-strike demanding recognition of Maithili language, a protest against the kind of portrayal of Madhesh that I’m also taking issues within this piece.

Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Bajjika, Tharu, Nepali, Limbu and other languages are spoken in different areas of Madhesh, depending on where you are. In fact, among the urban and educated classes, Nepali is more common and this has helped the process of national cohesion. Nepalis of hill, mountains and Madhesh origins have been brought together by the Nepali language.

Thousands of hill origin people became victims of ethnic cleansing during several stages of political violence in the Madhesh. Their physical and mental trauma continues to this day. But it never became news and cause for concern in the popular discourse. I personally know and have met many of them. Many people in Nepal know at least a few people in their circles who have been through this torture.

The current crop of ethnocentric activists, together with Kathmandu’s aid and diplomatic complex, has been successful so far in suppressing the diverse identities of Madhesh under a monolith construct. What’s more worrying is the level of violence and ethnic hatred that’s being normalized under this arrangement. It always starts as some non-mainstream element voicing something unacceptable. But it is slowly made acceptable, encouraged and sneaked into the mainstream discourse under several guises.
Avoiding disaster
Why should ideas, agendas, categories and monoliths originating on contexts alien to our own lived experiences be imposed on Nepal? If all of this sounds like forms of imperialistic and neo-liberal missions to you, perhaps there’s a good reason to it. This has played out adversely against the process of nation-building and increasing national cohesion that Nepal could chart within a democratic process that we’re only beginning to learn.

Violence—both physical and verbal—has been perpetuated through polarized political narratives and divisive campaigns led by those in Kathmandu, with the help from the foreign aid and diplomatic complex. All together, this campaign is aimed against Nepal’s diverse linguistic and ethnic groups and their identities. The victims include many Madheshi communities, but also hill communities and unifying language like Nepali.

The normalization of incidents like Tikapur carnage and Indian blockade are but logical consequences of such campaigns. Nepali society became deeply divided and was hurt even more by the subsequent police violence against some civilians. But for many others, it is only another opportunity for easy categorizations, loud voices and simplistic prescriptions.

In the end
Over the years, our intellectual issues have descended to newer and more unimaginable levels of low. We should not wait to see the end results of Trump-ism or Brexit before pointing out and resisting what looks like an attempt to push us in the same direction. Repeating the same thing and expecting different results is insanity.

The author is a Siraha-based development professional

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