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Bringing Peace to Nepal's Terai Region Won't be Easy
|by Shubha Singh|
The formation of an alliance of the three main Madhesi groups in the Terai region of Nepal - the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) - has provided a focal point for the government's efforts towards a dialogue on the Madhesi issue. The need for a government initiative became more than obvious when a series of bomb explosions marred the election meetings organized by the seven-party alliance in the Terai. Life in the region bordering India remains affected by localized strikes called by different groups as well as killings, abductions-for-ransom and inter-gang violence.
The government has taken some steps to create an atmosphere for a dialogue. The cabinet approved the decision to ensure 45 percent reservation in the police, army and state-run enterprises for all minority groups including Madhesis. It has also decided to recast its seven-member team for a dialogue with the Madhesis, with representatives from the seven parties in the government. Peace and Reconstruction Minister Ram Chandra Poudel will head the team.
The Madhesis, who live in the densely populated Terai region, have long complained of discrimination and exclusion from government jobs. When the peace agreement signed in November 2006 ended the decade long civil war in Nepal, the Madhesis and other minorities felt that their interests had not been addressed.
There has been an alignment of forces among the main groups in the Terai with the coming together of the Terai-Madhesi Democratic Party led by Mahanta Thakur, the Madhesi People's Rights Forum led by Upendra Yadav and Rajendra Mahato's Nepal Sadbhavana Party to form the UDMF. The new Madhesi combine has called for a programme of fresh protests that includes an indefinite strike in the Terai.
An earlier attempt by the government to hold talks with Madhesi leaders only served to exacerbate tempers when the call for a dialogue was accompanied with a list of Madhesi demands that had been met by Kathmandu. Moderate Madhesi leader Mahanta Thakur, who quit the government and the Nepali Congress last year, declined the dialogue offer pointing out that there was no need for talks if the government feels it has already done enough vis-'-vis the Terai.
The government had expected that the measures taken to redress some of the grievances of the Terai people would be enough to allow elections to be held under heavy security. Maoist chief Prachanda was even reported to have said that the army could be deployed to ensure that the polls are held. The government in Kathmandu has failed to understand the anger and alienation in the Terai.
A bomb explosion at an election meeting in early February in Birgunj where 35 people were injured has brought home the unstable situation in the Terai region. A joint meeting scheduled by the seven parties including the Maoists at Janakpur last month to start the election campaign in the region could only be held under tight security as the rebel groups called a general strike. In another Terai town, three blasts took place near a Nepali Congress meeting injuring a young girl.
The Madhesi Janadhikar Manch's agitation to redress their longstanding grievances ended in August 2007 with the government accepting some of the Madhesi demands. The government distributed citizenship papers for those born in the country after 1990, recognized the local language and partially accepted the demand for proportional representation in the Constituent Assembly.
But violence has continued in the Terai. New armed groups and splinter factions have sprung up in the last year, many of which have threatened to disrupt the elections.
Among the six-point demand of the UDMF are constitutional guarantees for autonomy for the Madhesi region and ending discrimination against Madhesis in recruitment in the police, army and government bodies. However, whether the new Front can prove to be a rallying point for the Madhesi people is a moot point due to the host of armed groups operating in the Terai region.
Arriving at an agreement with the Madhesi Front would be just the beginning of the process to bring the Madhesi people to accept the elections. The next stage of dealing with the armed groups, of which almost two dozen abound in the Terai, will be more difficult. Delays on the part of the government in undertaking a political initiative have added to the complexities of the situation in Terai.
(Shubha Singh is a writer on international affairs. She can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org)
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