The Silent Majority: A Civil Rights Movement Grows in the Shadows of Nepal
A new constitution was supposed to create a more inclusive Nepal. But instead it deepened ethnic fissures.
All photos by the author
This story appears in the November Issue of VICE.
On a steamy day in July, hundreds of disenfranchised people from Nepal's Madhesi region gathered outside a local government building in Janakpur, less than 100 miles southeast of Kathmandu, the country's capital. Locals had been told they could offer feedback on the draft of Nepal's new constitution, and they leaped at this unexpected opportunity to voice their concerns. When they arrived at the government building, however, they discovered that the gates were locked and guarded by rows of police officers. They had been lied to.
Anger began to swell as the crowd grew larger. Protesters shook the metal bars of the gate until its concrete reinforcement cracked and they uprooted it in a cloud of dust. The entire city soon became a theater of war between police and the demonstrators. Beaten with clubs and exposed to tear gas that protesters allege was fired from canisters that had expired in 2012, many civilians were hospitalized, including a 14-year-old who was critically injured while taking a beating to the skull.
What transpired in Janakpur in July was a tipping point for the turmoil that has now engulfed the region, an uproar among ethnic groups such as the Tharu and the Madhesi that, for decades, have been denied equal rights and proper representation in government. In September, a new constitution was promulgated to introduce a federalist system that would create a more inclusive Nepal. But it failed to address those inequalities and instead deepened ethnic fissures.
Madhes occupies the lower strip of Nepal that borders India, and the low-lying Terai region is geographically distinct from the mountains and hills that compose the rest of the country. It was given to Nepal through agreements signed by the British Empire in 1816 and 1860, and many claim that, since then, the country's government has not regarded the people of Madhes as "real Nepalis." Many are even denied official identification cards.
Madhesi culture more closely resembles that of peoples in neighboring India than that of the Nepali communities in the Himalayan foothills. Inhabitants of the Terai speak a variety of non- Nepali languages, and before the 1950s, fewer than 4 percent of Madhesis spoke Nepali as their native tongue.
But the area is vitally important to Nepal's existence, occupying 17 percent of its land mass and producing more than 45 percent of its GDP. Despite being the economic backbone of the country and the Terai accounting for nearly 51 percent of Nepal's population, the region is little-known internationally, and its people suffer misrepresentation and discrimination. Madhesis occupy only 5 to 10 percent of all government sectors, including the police and armed forces, and receive approximately 15 percent of the national budget to develop their infrastructure.
"When the police started hitting, they hit indiscriminately. Children, women, disabled, all people." —Roshan Janakpuri
A day after the Janakpur protests, I traveled to the city to interview Madhesi leaders who had come to voice their support for the civil rights movement. Among the supporters was Vijay Kant Karna, a former ambassador to Scandinavia and Finland and a professor of political science at Tribhuvan University.
We met late at night in a conference room of the modest Hotel Welcome, a crossroads for leaders traveling through the area. Motorbikes hummed by outside as we sat around a glass table drinking Coca-Cola.
The dark-complexioned Madhesi compose a minority of the police, so protests often become de facto race wars, as was the case at the Janakpur demonstrations in July. Video footage from that day shows blatant abuse of force as officers hurl rocks at protesters behind the cover of plastic shields.
"When the police started hitting, they hit indiscriminately. Children, women, disabled, all people," recalled 56-year-old activist Roshan Janakpuri, still wearing a bandage around his head from being clubbed by the police.
Karna recalled similar events: "While beating, they always tell that 'you Madhesis try to dare us? You want rights?'" he said, lifting up his clenched fist with wide-open eyes. "'These are your rights.'"
More than 40 people were killed in a 45-day period between August and September. Protesters shot by police make up the bulk of this tally, but police also found themselves as victims. In one of the most brutal clashes, a senior police officer was killed with a spear, the two-year-old baby of another cop was shot, and still another officer was burned alive. Many fear that this situation could return Nepal to civil war, a state the nation left behind only nine years ago.
"Madhes has been as a colony for a long time—250 years before, when the former kings of this part of Madhes were defeated by the hill rulers," Karna said. "At the time we were defeated, and we became the second-class citizens of the country." Those discriminatory policies, he said, have remained unchanged. Disenfranchised and unable to govern their own territory, Karna and other Madhesi leaders refer to the situation as an "internal colonization."
"We never became equal citizens of Nepal," he said. "We have long been denied national identity card[s]... and still, almost twenty percent of the Madhesi dwellers are stateless."
Nepal and India share an open border, and the cultures on either side blend—inhabitants of Madhes often marry people from India. Many children of such marriages are given what Madhesis call a "second-class" citizenship that prevents them from holding high-level positions in politics. A clause in the new constitution will make it difficult for Madhesi children with foreign fathers or single mothers to attain full citizenship. Many are outraged that women are not given the same citizenship rights as men and consider the new constitution to be misogynistic. Parents must be able to prove they live in Nepal (which is quite difficult because many do not possess land), and children must be registered with district offices. If these requirements are not met, children are rendered stateless. Some estimate their number to be in the millions. These individuals are unable to vote, buy or sell land, open bank accounts, access public facilities, take high school exams, or even purchase mobile SIM cards.
Many Nepalis from the hill region believe that Madhesis are just Indians trying to leech off of Nepali rights and overrun the country. "Giving all Madhesis rights to our political system is like handing our parliament over to India," said Hem, the owner of a small trekking company in Kathmandu. "Many other countries don't naturalize the spouses and children of foreigners. Why should we? Is it unreasonable that we don't want the reins of our country handed over to a foreign country?"
Before the promulgation of the new constitution, Nepal was composed of 75 districts controlled by a highly centralized government. The new constitution, more federalist in nature, divides the country into seven provinces and gives more power to regional authorities in an attempt to bring governance closer to the people. But it does nothing to remedy the problems surrounding citizenship, and many Madhesis are concerned about the boundaries of the new provinces.
Members of the Nepali parliament, notorious for staying silent on Madhesi issues, have begun speaking out. On a characteristically hot day in Janakpur, I met with Amresh Kumar Singh, one of the few Madhesi parliamentary seat holders, at Hotel Welcome. He was unafraid to speak on record about the move to federalism. "During the process of drafting the new constitution," Singh explained, "ruling elite hill Brahmin and Chhetri completely marginalized and ignored the aspirations of the Madhesi people."
As protests intensify, many Madhesis are finding leadership in the outspoken activist C. K. Raut. A controversial figure, Raut returned to Nepal after studying in Japan and the UK and working in the US as an engineer, and he is now the face of a growing movement calling for an independent Madhes. He has been arrested 11 times and is currently living under an unofficial house arrest in the southeastern district of Saptari. In 2011 Raut directed a documentary called Black Buddhas to help spread awareness of Madhesi issues. His name elicits strong contempt among Madhesis and non-Madhesis alike who feel he is trying to destabilize the country.
"We are basically a colony of Nepal. They are not interested in developing for the Madhesi people's sake, but for their own economic benefit. They want to generate revenues here and exploit." —C. K. Raut
Knowing that our emails were likely being monitored, I maintained a vague correspondence with Raut over the course of several weeks before he invited me to his home.
It was the rainy season, and with bus services shut down due to strikes, reaching his home in the village of Rajbiraj was not easy. My translator and I ventured through pouring rain on a tiny motorcycle with heavy bags of camera equipment.
Raut is calling for an independent state, but he explained that "separatist" is a pejorative term used by the minority Pahari class that rules Nepal. "It is a matter of perspective," he said. "In the case of British rule in India, from the British angle it is separatist, but from Indian people's perspective it is freedom."
"Whatever revenues were created in India, the majority of the resources went to the British. The same thing is happening here," he said, sitting in front of a collection of books, his hair blowing in the wind of a small plastic battery-operated fan on his desk. "We are basically a colony of Nepal. They are not interested in developing for the Madhesi people's sake, but for their own economic benefit. They want to generate revenues here and exploit. They don't treat [Madhes] as their own land, but as an income source." Raut claimed to draw inspiration from Mahatma Gandhi and emphasized that the revolution must be peaceful if its gains are to last long into the future.
However much they may agree with Raut's descriptions of Madhesi marginalization, many are not so quick to believe in his claim that revolution would be peaceful. "C. K. Raut talks about peace, but this is bullshit," said Madhesi youth activist Rajeev Ranjan Jha. "Stories of peaceful revolution in history are fabrications. Gandhi would not have been successful in liberating India if his peaceful protests weren't accompanied by violent protests, and the same is true with [Martin Luther] King in America and the downplaying of the role of Malcolm X's following in the civil rights movement. I support my people's struggle for freedom, but if this movement continues to grow, right or wrong as it may be, there will be more fighting."
Despite his growing following, most Madhesis consider Raut's calls for a separate state to be far-fetched and view the economic logistics of how this approximately 16-mile-wide swath of land would exist on its own as ill formed. But Madhesis, particularly the youth, are beginning to feel that the uncompromising Nepali government has left them with few other options. Raut's call for separation as a last resort may slowly become their only option for survival.
The new constitution's failure to address discriminatory policies has removed a certain hope for change within Madhes and has brought tolerance in the region to its breaking point. Fissures in the country have opened wide, and Nepal must now either amend its constitution to accept the people of Madhes or face what could be a violent uprising of the millions who feel they've had enough.
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