Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The conservative assault

The conservative assault

Ringside View

Prashant Jha

The relentless assault at the Maoist-Morcha alliance is astonishing in its breadth and intensity. Given PM Baburam Bhattarai’s popularity, even his most dire opponents hesitate to criticise him for fear of losing their own credibility. Thus, the antagonism has been directed primarily at the four-point agreement, and Madhesi parties.

Sample a few instances.

The People’s Review, a self declared ‘nationalist’ paper, published a short item titled ‘A “Dhoti” in Army HQ?’ With an unmistakable condescending tone, it mentioned that ‘a person clad in either a dhoti or a kurta saluwar, not a daura saluwar’ will become defence minister. Only half in jest, it quotes someone as saying that the NA ‘deserves it’ for abandoning the king. At one’s kindest, the item can be ignored as the residual remains of older exclusivist nationalism.

Move to a more ‘liberal’ magazine, Himal Khabarpatrika (HKP), whose latest cover story is propaganda masquerading as reportage. We are told Madhesis do not want Madhes but instead want a province that is connected with the hills and the Himal. And so, Madhesi parties are betraying their people by pushing for a Madhes state. (Incidentally, there is an agreement on ‘autonomous state’ in the four-point agreement, but not on an ‘autonomous Madhes state’ as has been falsely, but widely, reported.)

Now, that can be someone’s view and it merits a reasoned debate, but to portray it as the overwhelming sentiment in Tarai is taking liberties with truth. The majority in the eastern plains—the dateline of the report—want boundaries on an east-west, and not a north-south, basis. Even NC, the most cautious of parties, has created provinces on an east-west basis in its proposed federal map. This should give people an idea of the popular opinion.

Madhesis suspect that connecting their region with the hills will once again mean domination of pahadis, and see it as a conspiracy to weaken and divide the Tarai. They also feel it will deprive them of being able to build closer links with people who share their way of life and culture. There is, however, flexibility about the number of provinces.

This does not mean that the hills and Tarai will not be able to take advantage of each other’s strengths, as the report tries to project. The rest of the country will use the border with India for trade and travel; people from Tarai will continue to seek opportunities in Kathmandu; industries will use raw material and labour from across the country; there will be flow of agricultural and other commodities; students and patients will use educational

and health facilitates in other provinces; revenue and expenditure will be

shared. With better transport, inter-provincial links based on comparative advantages will become stronger and the process of ‘national integration,’ while giving identities and regions their own space, will deepen.

An editorial in the same issue of Himal Khabarpatrika, and an op-ed piece by lawyer Tika Ram Bhattarai in Kantipur on Tuesday, takes the deceit further, by stoking paranoia about possible disintegration because of the four-point deal. When HKP’s favorite ‘democratic leader’ G P Koirala signed the eight-point agreement which provided for an ‘autonomous Madhes province,’ there was no such reaction of outrage. But when the Maoists and Madhesis sign an agreement on ‘autonomous states,’ it becomes a threat to national integrity.

The ‘autonomy’ business is anyway exaggerated by all sides: There is agreement in the CA on the division of powers between the centre and the states, where the centre remains far more powerful. Neither does the four-point agreement accept ‘ethnic provinces’. Even if the reference to self determination is included in the final constitution, there is an evolving political consensus that it will not include the right to secede. In any case, how many times do Madhesis have to prove that they do not want to split, and their demand for inclusion is in fact a desire to be a part of the state apparatus?

Tika Ram Bhattarai’s argument is riddled with similar contradictions.

He has a problem with making Nepal Army more inclusive; he does not like the fact that the dress of all communities in Nepal, and not just the one his community can relate to, have been declared national dress. But he does not want disintegration. The message is simple—he wants ‘national unity’ exactly on terms set by the older regimes where Madhes was a part of Nepal, but Madhesis were not equal Nepalis allowed to retain their identity.

With rhetorical flourish, he asks, ‘Will we be able to hand over the whole of Nepal that our ancestors gave us to future generations?” Yes, you will be able to do so but only if you accept federalism, inclusion, and reconcile yourself to the fact that people from other communities will become decisive political players. If you want the Tarai, but not those who live there, you can forget it.

Another line of attack has hovered around how this Maoist-Morcha alliance is ‘unnatural’. A deal between NC and Maoists in 2005, after a decade of butchering each other’s cadres, is ‘natural’; an understanding between the ‘UML and Maoists’ after calling each other social fascists and ultra left adventurists is ‘natural’; agreement between NC and UML whose constant squabbles destroyed democracy in the 90s is ‘natural’; an alliance of NC and Madhesi leaders, most of whom deserted NC for its indifference to Madhesi issues, is ‘natural’; but an understanding between the Madhesi Morcha and the Maoists—two forces who, at least, share a similar agenda of state restructuring—is ‘unnatural’?

Others question the ‘opportunism’ of Madhesi parties. In a note to a mailing list, besides doubting the ‘nationalist’ credentials of Madhesi parties and their stance on issues like citizenship, former CIAA director Surya Nath Upadhyay says, “Discipline and decency has never crept in their mind.” And discipline and decency are the hallmark of Upadhyay’s former left parties? Agreed, Madhesi parties are ‘power hungry’. But then what about GPK, whose lust for power led to the downfall of each government that did not include him? What about Madhav Nepal, who begged the king to make him PM? And what about Prachanda, who spent the last two years striving to return to power? What else is politics but struggle for state power? The double standard deployed by the capital’s intelligentsia for people they like and disapprove of is stunning.

At its root, the anger in sections of Kathmandu stems from the fear of deepening democratisation and inability to refigure their conception of

nationalism. Given the logic of demography, power will continue to shift towards the plains, and among those who were marginalised earlier. ‘Saviours of democracy’ should understand this simple fact of democratic politics. The trouble is Nepal’s ‘democrats’ fear the Nepali people, and popular aspirations, the most. As a Madhesi friend said, “This reaction only shows the success of regional politics. For the first time, the others are jealous, irritated and scared. Let them once feel what we have gone through all our lives.”


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