In one of the most promising developments in Nepal in recent months, the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum, which represents the thirteen million people of the Terai region, has succeeded in getting Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala to agree to future federal government and fresh delimitation of constituencies on the basis of population and geography. The Forum, which sacrificed eight lives in the course of a tumultuous two week protest for adequate representation in the forthcoming June elections for a new constituent assembly, had been agitating against the gross under-representation of the nation'sfood basket in the country'selected bodies.
Its struggle has forced the beleaguered Shri Koirala to announce that the eight parties in the interim government (seven party alliance plus Maoists) have agreed to restructure the state within a federal framework, and that the existing 205 constituencies will be freshly delimited on the basis of population and geography.
This will be no mean triumph for the Madhesis, who comprise as much as 35 per cent of the population of the Himalayan kingdom, but lack commensurate presence in Parliament as also the political structure of all parties. On the one hand, Nepal'spolitics have been traditionally dominated by Brahmins and Kshatriyas (Bahuns and Chhetris), and on the other, the delimitation of constituencies has largely ignored the population layout. The result is that in hilly areas a constituency may have just 5,000 voters, while in the Terai region, a constituency could have over five lakh voters. This has naturally led to gross under-representation of the populous Terai in the public arena.
The announcement is a blow to the Maoists who despise the Maithili, Bhojpuri and Awadhi-speaking Madhesis on account of their affinity with Indian (read Hindu) culture, and a victory for the royalists who took the campaign for retention of the monarchy into the Terai region. But it is not yet a complete victory for the Madheshi Janadhikar Forum, as Shri Koirala has not so far invited the Madheshi leadership for negotiations on the issue. Instead, he has only made an appeal to resolve problems through peaceful negotiations and has directed Home Minister K.P. Sitaula to talk to the agitators. The latter detest Shri Sitaula and want him to resign. The Home Minister, however, enjoys the support of the Maoists, who do not want the interim government to recognise the pro-monarchy Forum.
The Forum is also angry that so far the regime has not expressed any regret for the loss of eight lives in the agitation by the Terai people for recognition of their political rights. The Madhesis intensified their agitation after the peace deal brought the Maoists right into parliament with as many as 83 seats, without prior surrender of weaponry, and without any assessment or testing of their ground strength.
But it was the 48-hour wild cat strike last December, when Maoists resorted to violence and highway blockades to protest against the SPA government'sappointment of envoys to fourteen countries, including India, that alerted other groups and communities in the country to their menacing potential. At that time, the cadres walked out of the camps with impunity, displaying their arms in public in a show of strength that rattled the regime and put the appointments on hold.
Seeing the writing on the wall and rightly assessing the weakness of the Koirala regime, the Limbuwan Liberation Front, a formation of the Limbu community in the Himalayan kingdom'seastern and northern regions, has joined the clamour for autonomy raised by the Madhesis. The Front'sthree day general strike (February 1-3) may trigger off similar claims by other groups feeling sidelined by the easy walkover afforded to the Maoists by the weak Koirala regime, and thus bring altogether unexpected results in the June polls.
Much will depend upon how developments unfold in the coming weeks, as the Maoists join the interim government this month, as part of the so-called peace process. In January this year, Maoists joined the interim parliament. Though their promise to surrender arms is supposedly being monitored by the United Nations, media and other reports suggest that in the countryside, the armed goons are continuing to badger and intimidate other political parties. Some foreign observers have also observed that the Maoists are purchasing cheap local weapons from the Indian border and submitting these for lock-up, while retaining the sophisticated weaponry, ostensibly for election time.
The growing power of the Maoists has caused alarm to other groups and communities residing in Nepal, especially after the peace deal gave them a significant parliamentary presence and access to huge resources. Last December, the interim government released Rs. 110 million for the management of the cantonments were the rebels are residing, with the UN ostensibly monitoring the arms and the armed cadres.
King Gyanendra has not been slow to fish in troubled waters, especially in view of India'svirtual betrayal of such a close ally and neighbour. The pro-monarchy Lok Janshakti Party of former prime minister Surya Bahadur Thapa; both factions of the Rashtriya Prajatantrik Party led respectively by Pashupati Shamshere Jang Bahadur Rana on one hand and Kamal Thapa and Rabindranath Sharma on the other; as also the Sadbhavna Party, are active in the Terai. For the Madhesis, the election of the new constituent assembly and the writing of a new constitution is a heaven-sent opportunity to assert their claims for political justice. Given Maoist hostility to their legitimate aspirations and the weakness of the Seven Party Alliance, a tacit alliance with the monarchy may yet be their best bet to gain fair political representation and retain cultural identity in Nepal'semerging political system.