East is East

Mixing politics with identity is turning the dispute over naming Kosi Province volatile

EMPTINESS: Dhanmaya Limbu, 70, whose son was killed last month during a protest demanding the name of Kosi Province be changed. Photos: GOPEN RAI

Padam Limbu promised his mother Dhanmaya that he would build the family a new, sturdier house to replace the one-storey cement and bamboo structure they lived in.

Nine days later, her son was dead. Dhanmaya would learn that her son had been declared a ‘martyr’, but she did not know a martyr for what. 

Padam, 43, was affiliated with the Sanghiya Rastriya Loktantrik Sangh which was agitating against Province 1 being named Kosi Province on 1 March. The front wanted the name to reflect the indigenous inhabitants of eastern Nepal, the Kirat Limbuwan people. 

Padam was injured in the head as police clashed against protesters in Biratnagar on 19 March, and died in hospital five days later. He leaves behind his mother Dhanmaya,  70 , two younger sisters, and an 18-year-old son. 

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How Nepal’s federal provinces should be demarcated and what they should be named has been a contentious issue ever since the first post-conflict Constituent Assembly (CA) was deadlocked on the matter, and new elections had to be held in 2013.

The Maoist party was pushing for a 14-province model named after Nepal’s various ethnicities. The NC pushed for a territorial model, while the UML wanted a hybrid system with 15 provinces. A compromise on seven provinces was finally reached, but naming them was so contentious they were numbered from 1 to 7.

It was only after the first federal elections in 2017 that the provinces got names. Three of them were based on rivers, like Gandaki, Karnali, Bagmati, or geographical like Lumbini or Sudurpaschim. Only the Madhes Province got an identity-based name.

Province 1 did not have a name till earlier this year, because of opposing demands. Most of the dominant caste groups wanted to call it Kosi after the river, while indigenous communities wanted their Kirat Limbuwan identity recognised. 

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Hikmat Karki of the opposition UML was chief minister when the assembly voted on the Kosi name. But he was ousted in a confidence vote earlier this month, and replaced with Uddhav Thapa of the NC, although his election has been challenged in the Supreme Court because the assembly speaker in an unconstitutional move also voted to break a tie.  

Thapa has since said Kosi name cannot be changed, but Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal told Maoist supporters here it was a “mistake” for his party to support Kosi. The issue has pitted two members of the coalition government.

“The prime minister has poured oil on the fire by saying that the Kosi name was a mistake, it has polarised the situation,” former chief minister Karki said.

Kumar Lingden of the Sanghiya Rastriya Loktantrik Sangh said: “Kosi was named in a guerrilla style. If the Madhes Province can be named after communities residing there, why can't we?” 

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The main concern even among moderate politicians here is that renaming Kosi as Kirat Province may open up a can of worms and take the country back to the dangerous ethnic polarisation of 2011-12 in eastern Nepal. Violent unrest could also spread as other provinces also demand name changes.

Lingden assures other ethnicities in the province have no problems with a Kirat Limbuwan Province. But not everyone agrees, and the protests have spread beyond Biratnagar with rallies also in Kathmandu.

Ashok Kumar Sardar of Morang’s Katahari Rural Municipality was taking his mother-in-law to hospital last month when police fired teargas at protesters. Sardar was hit by a shell.

“This is the Tarai, and people from the Madhes, like us, also live here,” says Sardar. "We could also demand that this be a part of Madhes Province.”  

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Kunta Rai is firm in her belief that eastern Nepal is the original homeland of its indigenous people, and the province name should reflect that identity. “Only those who do not understand our history oppose our demand,” she said. "Naming the province Kosi will erase our civilisation, history, and identity. That is not ok.” 

Mixing federal coalition politics with ethnic identity has made the situation volatile here. Political scientist Krishna Pokhrel notes that in a democracy the government must also listen to demands of indigenous groups.  

He adds: “But it is now also important for protesting groups to also reassure other communities that their rights will be protected.” 

All this means little for Dhanmaya Limbu, who looks out from her dark room, overwhelmed with grief, uncertainty, and empty slogans. "People try to reassure me saying my son was a hero, that he died fighting the good fight,” says Dhanmaya, her eyes brimming. “Certificates won’t bring my son back.”

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