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Lessons from The Madhesi Movement in Nepal
Paramendra Kumar Bhagat
February 15, 2007

On February 7 the Madhesi Movement that was launched on January 19 attained victory in Nepal. The victory has been good enough to get the movement off the streets. The April Revolution last year lasted 19 days and produced 21 martyrs. The Madhesi Movement, the Maghe Kranti, after the Nepali month Magh, this year lasted 21 days and produced 38 martyrs. That goes on to show royal dictatorship is easier to fight than Pahadi prejudice, Bahun prejudice. The April Revolution got rid of an entire regime. Today the Home Minister has to resign as a basic show of respect to the 38 martyred, and the more than 1,000 injured.

Less than 0.1% of the Nepalis in New York City are Madhesi. In America, there is the n-word. In Nepal, there is the m-word. We Madhesi get called madisey, marsya.

I want to briefly touch upon the April Revolution that happened last year in Nepal. I am the only Nepali outside of Nepal who worked full time towards it for about a year before it finally happened. It is my claim that nothing like that has happened in world history. In a country of 27 million people, close to eight million came out into the streets over a period of 19 days to completely shut the country down until the dictator king bowed out. They came out in every single town, every single village, in every hamlet. The movement was total. My favorite story from that revolution is that in this remote village in the middle of nowhere, the women spontaneously came out into the streets banging their pots and pans, chanting "No more cooking! No more cooking!"

If that many people were to come into the streets in China, that would be big. And China is one billion people. And do note that Nepal is one of the 10 poorest countries in the world. It is not like people were coordinating with each other using cellphones or MySpace or Facebook, the prime choice of the Obama crowd, or any of these other online tools. The point being, if Nepal can do it, so can any other country, and every other country without democracy should. I think every Arab country should. Countries all over Africa should. Zimbabwe should. Kick Mugabe out. We can envision a total spread of democracy globally, thanks to Nepal.

And also look at it this way. Nepal has 27 million people, Iraq has 27 million people. Nepal proves it does not cost 500 billon dollars, and 3,000 American and over 150,000 Iraqi lives to launch democracy in a country. There is a better way, there is a progressive way. That is Nepal's message to the world. Heck, that is Nepal's message to America.

New York City is a very special place. There is nothing like it on earth. Nepalis in this city played a key role in Nepal's April Revolution. People in this city from all over the world are sufficient unto themselves to engineer a total spread of democracy, all over the world. That is Nepal's message.

The reason I wanted to briefly touch upon the April Revolution is because I intend to argue what happened recently in Nepal for three weeks has been the second chapter of that same April Revolution. That was for democracy and human rights. This has been for social justice.

There are four marginalized groups in Nepal, Dalit, Madhesi, Janajati, Mahila. The Dalit are the low caste people, the so called untouchables. And I think they should all just go ahead and convert to Buddhism. Screw Hinduism and its caste system. The Janajati are the indigenous people, people with last names like Sherpa, Tamang, Magar, Gurung, Rai, Limbu. Madhesi are the people of the southern plains. Mahila is the Nepali word for women. DaMaJaMa. Dalit, Madhesi, Janajati, Mahila.

We Madhesi are taking the lead right now on behalf of the DaMaJaMa. I am a Madhesi. I have been waiting for this movement all my life. Leaders of the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, the organization that has been leading this movement, have been on my mailing list, the largest Nepali mailing list in the world, for a long time now. Just the other day, I was on the phone with Jay Prakash Gupta, for example, who until recently was second in command.

Howard Dean organized his entire presidential campaign in 2004 around one blog. My primary tool both for the April Revolution and the Madhesi Movement has been my blog. It has not been jouralism, it has been activism. Welcome to globalization and the internet. There is not a town in Nepal that does not have at least a few internet cafes.

What is happening in Nepal has to be compared to the civil rights movement in America in the 1950s and the 1960s, only we have intended to achieve in one month what the civil rights movement in America achieved in a decade. This is history fast forwarded, this is social revolution 21st century style. I call it nonviolent militancy. You have a few clear basic goals and you shut the country down until those basic goals are met. You get people to come out into the streets in huge numbers. You completely paralyze the state. The movement has to be intense and overwhelming and the victory has to be total.

So who are the Madhesi? What do we want? What are our grievances? How do we hope to achieve them? As to who are the Madhesi? I am one. Just so you know what a Madhesi looks like. We are 40% of Nepal's population. But we are less than 5% in the state bureaucracy, we practically do not exist in the army. In 1991 a Prime Minister said that is because we are "cowards." We are vastly underpresented in the parliament. Less than 0.1% of the Nepalis in New York City are Madhesi. 40% of Madhesis in Nepal have been denied citizenship papers. That statelessness is a fundamental human rights violation. Madhesis without citizenship papers can't vote, they can't buy or sell land, they can't attend college, they can't apply for government jobs, they can't even legally die. It is living hell for them. The cards are stacked against the Madhesi in Nepal. We have been at the receiving end of structural violence for hundreds of years. We have a rich history going back thousands of years, but we are, at the bottom of it all, not even considered Nepali. We are thought to be Indian. We don't belong. That is the suggestion.

So what solution is there? In a few months Nepal is slated to have elections to a constituent assembly. A constituent assembly is the best way to write a new constitution for a new democracy. I have always bought into that. That is not a problem. But if 40% of all Madhesis who have been denied citizenship papers can't vote, and if although half of Nepal lives in the Terai, but it was to get only 80 of the 205 constituencies before February 7, do you think all that is a huge conspiracy to make sure the Madhesi continue to be second class citizens or rather second class non citizens in Nepal? I think so.

Now it has been promised half of all constituencies for the elections to the constituent assembly will be in the Terai. And that is positive. But the Home Minister has still not resigned. 40% of the Madhesis still do not have citizenship papers, and hence no voting rights.

10 years ago a Nepali Congress government, the party that holds the prime ministerial seat also today, put out a report claiming 4.2 million Nepalis have been denied citizenship papers. In a country where 40% of the people are less than 14 years old, people who were six years old back then must be 16 now. So I am guessing today the number of Nepalis who have unfairly been denied citizenship papers is closer to six million. This interim government has said it will issue citizenship papers to three million people before the elections to the constituent assembly so as to solve the citizenship problem "once and for all." That is a conspiracy to keep disenfranchised a huge chunk of Madhesis. And that is not going to fly.

I feel like Nepal is about to be born for the first time ever. You start with 40% of the Madhesis being disenfranchised. You bring that down to 20%, or at least you promise to. And you were to give only 80 of the 205 constituencies to the Terai, as was planned until 38 Madhesis sacrificed their lives protesting it, and of those 80, 40 were likely to have been Pahadi, going by the past pattern of the biggest parties in Nepal. So you were looking at a scenario in the constituent assembly where one Madhesi is not a full person but rather one third of a person. That was the status of the African Americans in the US Constitution in 1776. We Madhesis can not allow that. We are not going to allow that. That is what this Madhesi Movement has been about.

So what should happen next? The very first thing is that the Home Minister has to resign. And we have to end up with a constituent assembly that looks like Nepal in terms of its ethnic and gender composition. I think there should be reserved constituencies for the four groups, the Dalit, Madhesi, Janajati, Mahila. So if there is a constituency that is reserved for Dalits, there still will be elections, but all candidates in that particular constituency have to be Dalit. And all eight parties have to put forth a concrete map for federalism now. Something very similar happened in India after India became independent. And India seems to be doing just fine. Federalism is a sound concept. It is not possible to imagine a sound, vibrant democracy in Nepal without federalism. All eight parties have now agreed to federalism in principle. They did that on February 7. But they have still not produced any maps. We Madhesis want our own state.

And finally I would like to suggest that the Pahadis in New York City should be able to relate to the plight of the Madhesi in Nepal. Nepalis in New York City can't vote. That has to change. We Madhesis are less than 0.1% of the Nepali population in the city. No Nepali is active in the progressive circles in this city like I am, not even close. I think we should work to attain voting rights in this city for the Nepalis here. You are going to stand by me and my people in Nepal, my fellow Madhesis, in their just struggle for equality in the Nepal context. You are going to do that because that is the right thing to do, because the Madhesis will not settle for anything less, and also because it is in your self interest because you need my help here in New York City to earn your right to vote in the city elections. I hope all of us - Pahadi, Madhesi, White, Non-White - can get behind this Madhesi Movement in Nepal to help it reach a successful conclusion, and that is total equality for the Madhesi in Nepal.

To come back to the Iraq parallel. The political class in power in Nepal right now is less than 20% of Nepal, kind of like Saddam Hussein's Sunnis. But unlike in Iraq, in Nepal the 80% are going to attain their rightful place at the table not through a civil war, but through nonviolent protests. I urge all of you to extend your support to the Madhesi Movement in Nepal. We do want a Nepal where everyone is equal, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Let's work towards that.

But now it looks like the Madhesi Movement will have to go back to the streets since the Home Minister has not resigned. If that happens, the movement has to achieve total victory. Nepal has to be declared a federal republic now, the Madhesh state has to be declared now. And the movement will ask for its share in the interim parliament and the interim government.

*Paramendra Bhagat is Convenor, Coordination Committee, Nepali Organizations In New York City. He blogs at

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