Why is the government making life difficult for moderate madhesi leaders? Surely it knows they are the only force which can pull things back together. Like the madhesi extremists, does the state want polarisation? Is the inertia a deliberate ploy to incite conflict? Does it stem from an unwillingness to share power? Or is it merely the sheer incompetence of those in charge?
What else is one to make of the recent statements of the man who is in charge of bringing peace, Ram Chandra Poudel? In Biratnagar, at a time when he needs to sound conciliatory, he is belligerent and speaks about the armed groups in a threatening tone. In a recent interview, he pretends to be exasperated with the tarai parties and says: "If there are demands, we can talk. There are no demands. What is there to talk about?"
Here is what the madhesis are talking about: madhesis did not get into the police again this time. Look at how the media celebrated Prashant Tamang just because he is a pahadi while we are seen as Indians. Matrika Yadav may have overdone the swearing in, but look at how Kathmandu dismissed it as an antic. The government only wants to divide and rule. Why isn't it starting a dialogue with the armed groups? Kathmandu hasn't even implemented promises made to Upendra Yadav. The 43 who died in the Madhes Uprising last year were never honoured.The STF is harassing us. Is the prime minister in charge only north of the Chure?
Maybe these sentiments are difficult for the insular ruling class to understand. But it is all about identity and representation. Madhesis wants to be assured that they will make it to the constituent assembly in numbers that correspond to their population; that the government is not cheating them again; that the nature of the state will now revolve around a political principle that recognises them as equal citizens; that wearing a dhoti and speaking broken Nepali will not deprive them of opportunities.
All other demands are peripheral. This actually gives the government immense space to play. For all their maximalist rhetoric, the madhesi groups also have an ill-defined agenda because they want to keep the room open for possible face-savers. All the state needs to do is embark on symbolic measures and substantive steps to begin the process of healing.
Communicate with the madhes, appoint senior madhesi ministers, start talking with all groups, tinker with the electoral system, send madhesi CDOs to the tarai, implement promises, act with humility and respect for madhesi concerns, express commitment to autonomy. Do it like you mean it and see the change in the mood of the madhes.
But the real blame lies not with Poudel, but his prime minister. He has time to make provocative statements about Maoist assimilation in the army and hatch plans for his daughter's coronation, but he has no time to respond to urgent madhesi demands.
Koirala is known to be concerned about his place in history. At this rate, he will just be remembered as a petty manipulator who presided over the beginning of a bloody and prolonged identity conflict
Where does that leave those madhesis who argue for calm, who are shocked by the raw violence and hate politics of the extremists, and who want an institutionalised mechanism to address aspirations? Weak and vulnerable, that's where. It will be more difficult to take the message of harmony and justice outside closed doors in district headquarters. It will silence Biratnagar's Sanjay Yadav, a marketing manager who knows attacks on pahadis do not make economic sense even for madhesis. It will, as Chandrakishor, a courageous journalist in Birganj, put it, make life increasingly difficult for those who speak with logic.
On Saturday, a movement begins in the madhes. Irrespective of its intensity, it will cripple the capital by blocking supplies. It will shift the centre of debate to the streets. And, as agitations are prone to do, it will unleash another wave of extremism. Even in the face of unrest, the state must not respond with brutal force. The only way out lies in a more sensitive Kathmandu.