13 March, 2009

You are now Madheshis

Sushma Joshi
Of all the groups who have blocked our highways, the Tharus are one group who need to be heard more than anybody

Blocking highways has become the de facto way to exhibit political protest. Everyone gets up in arms about this; perhaps we have no one to blame but our political leaders who started this method of guerilla warfare to bring attention to their presence and issues. Highways appear to be easily blocked in Nepal. More importantly, disrupted highway traffic garners immediate attention. Did I hear somebody say something about putting highway blockers in prison? Now that would be a good way to start civilising Nepali methods of protest (next should be a one year prison term for those who burn toxic tires, and who release carcinogens in the air, pollute densely populated areas, and contribute to global warming.)

But wait -- don't just put these highway blockers into prison yet. Because of all the groups who have blocked our highways, the Tharus are one group who need to be heard more than anybody. Dispossessed by both Pahadis and Madheshis, it is no surprise that the Tharus are not taking kindly to being lumped in with the uber term of Madheshi. An indigenous group (or groups) of people with their own languages, ethnic identity, history, cultures, and a sense of being an integrated political unit shouldn't have to suffer the indignity of being lumped into a group which may have seized their lands, put them at the bottom end of a foreign caste hierarchy, tied them in debt bondage, and delegitimized their political identity by seeing them as simple pawns of a larger political game.

The Muluki Ain of 1854 put the Tharus at the lowest rungs of Hindu untouchability. And the groups who identify as Madheshi, along with the Pahadi, were able to take advantage of this by appropriating lands that the Tharus had traditionally cultivated because the Tharus didn't have a concept of private property or land ownership. The next step was to tie them in debt bondage through loans and then using labor as repayment through a chain that spanned generations. King Mahendra's highway and malaria eradication brought a further wave of Pahadi migrants to the Tarai, dispossessing the Tharus further.

Till 2000, many Tharus from Western Nepal were indentured labourers or Kamaiyas to both Madheshi and Pahadi families. The government declared them free on 17 July 2000 -- unfortunately the rehabilitation of former Kamaiya was done in a dismal pace and the land and citizenship cards promised to them never materialized in many cases, forcing families to return to former employers.

One corollary of the way the Nepali state has always marginalised Tharus manifested in a recent historical moment. During a research project conducted via the UN, I was part of a team that documented a systematic disappearances campaign from one Tharu village. The army officer in charge was well-known in that area and he would pick up and disappear Tharu farmers and locals with no apparent cause whatsoever. The Tharu people picked up had no affiliation with political parties and were not politically involved, leading observers to conclude that rather than following orders to politically repress opponents, the army officer may simply have been exercising his impunity.

In another case we documented, a Tharu widow had been accused of gaubadh -- killing a cow, which is a punishable offense in Nepali law. The neighbour's bull had died and he accused her of witchcraft and cow-murder. Interestingly, the woman had just converted to Christianity, which may have been a reason for the neighbourly dispute. The neighbour filed a case against her with the intent to seize her land, but he was thwarted when both the courts and the Maoists gave a verdict in her favor. Despite winning the case, however, it was clear that she faced an extreme amount of ostracization based on both her ethnicity, religion as well as widowed status. It would require not just a win at the appellate court but an entire overhaul of the Nepali Constitution to make her feel part of the community.

The Tharus make up 6 to 7 percent of the Nepali population -- a not insignificant number. With 26 major subgroups (with Dangaura Tharu, Rana Tharu, Chitwan Tharu, and Katharia being the four largest) and different dialects, the Tharus may not be as integrated as they seem, and putting aside 6 percent for Tharus in all governmental and administrative positions may be difficult to implement. What is possible to implement is their demand that they be considered a separate ethnic group, a position that is not difficult to understand.

What is clear is that the Tharu andolan is a legitimate andolan of indigenous people (not just a plot of the UML to destabilize the Madheshi movement and make inroads in the Tarai), one of many which we will see as grievances and demands of minority groups rise to the surface. How the Nepali government deals with the Tharus will be a test case of how the Nepali state will deal with its indigenous groups. It will also be a test of how we go about a federated Nepal.

Police harassment against Tharus has been on the rise since their agitation. Going house to house to beat up Tharus, unfortunately, is no different from the army officer who went around disappearing people with impunity.

What the Tharu andolan has also brought to the attention of Nepalis is that these ordinances being passed are by-passing democratic discussion and process. The government passed an ordinance on inclusivity, which should have been a progressive act, but it did it without telling the Tharus they were now Madheshis. Now that's a definite no-no. Having a 600 member CA Assembly makes no sense if all important decisions, from disappearances to inclusivity, is being decided through a small clique of decision-makers. After all, the whole point of democracy is to make governance open to the public.
Posted on: 2009-03-13 20:08:18 (Server Time)

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