The turmoil in the tarai in the past month has been led, among others, by militant parties that used to be part of the larger Maoist fraternity whose demands included ethnically defined sub-national federal governance.
While the operational contours of ethnically-based federalism have never been accurately laid out by its political or academic protagonists, particularly in Nepal's context of a multitude of caste and ethnic groups living mostly in mixed settlements, it is nonetheless flaunted as a political tool to emotively persuade those who would be persuaded by it. The political parties, which had free rein over the country after 1990, did next to nothing to address the known grievances of various ethnic groups. But now they have suddenly found it opportune to raise the issue of discrimination against the madhes.
Like other ethnic groups the madhesis are far from being a homogenous group and are probably the most stratified in the country. There is unequal land distribution, pronounced landlessness, caste segregation, inter-caste exploitation and uneven distribution of political power based on caste and economic status. In fact, madhesi jamindars have more in common with pahadi jamindars than between, say, the madhesi elite and the Paswans or Musahars. The dalit struggle for rights in the tarai in many ways supercedes the madhesi struggle for automony.
Despite claims to the contrary, representation of madhesi people in the bureaucracy is at an all-time high and is higher than those enjoyed by other ethnic and geographical groups such as the Tharus, Tamangs, Karnali people and not to mention Chepang, Danuwar, Thami, Hayu, and so on.
True, there are many pahadi officials in government in the tarai. But it is not uncommon to find madhesi officials in Kathmandu and across the hills, either.
Pejorative name-calling is not reserved for madhesis, there is similar racist labelling of other ethnic groups including hill-dwellers.
Nepal has evolved as a melting pot of its rich ethnic diversity, and integration has accelerated, particularly in the last decade-and-a-half. If the grievances concerning discrimination against madhesis were in fact this severe, then the issue should have erupted in 1990 when the country had just come out of 30 years of Panchayat autocracy, and not in 2007, after we had enjoyed free-for-all freedom.
The synthetic nature of madhesi demands, as presently couched, is underscored by having on the one hand inclusive peace rallies, and on the other, ethnic riots. The developments have a copycat resemblance to what is called Jana Andolan II, and the anger seems to be directed especially against the Maoists.
While Indian left leader Sitaram Yechuri & Co cobbled together the coalition of the seven parties and Maoists in November 2005, the Jai Krishan Goit, Jwala Singh, and Upendra Yadav outfits felt left out of the process. The fact that the Maoists shot dead a young protestor in Lahan three weeks ago only stoked the anger.
As things stand, Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his comrades are more advantageously positioned to mainstream their erstwhile brothers-at-arms and save Nepal's melting pot from meltdown.