Four months after protesters in Nepal cut off the landlocked country’s southern border with India, there are signs that the blockade might end soon, allowing key supplies such as medicine and fuel to again reach parts that are reeling from the devastation of the April 2015 earthquake.
The turmoil was precipitated as Nepal’s Constituent Assembly passed a new constitution in September. People in the Madhesi region – the country’s southernmost plains – began agitating against the boundaries of the provinces demarcated in the new constitution, reasoning that their voices would be marginalised if they are clubbed with people from the hills and higher slopes. Another issue raised by the many minorities was that the new constitution reduces the overall proportional representation in parliament to less than 45% from 58% in the interim constitution passed in 2007.
A key supporter of this Madhesi movement is Baburam Bhattarai. Bhattarai resigned from the Maoist party on September 27, after decades of being an integral member, citing concerns that Madhesis had been excluded from it. His exit came a week after the party approved the country’s constitution.
For decades, Bhattarai was the head of the Maoist party’s “People’s Government” that set itself against Nepal’s monarchy. As the 35th prime minister, Bhattarai presided over the country’s first Constituent Assembly. He stepped down from the post after the assembly failed to reach a consensus on the constitution, following which the Supreme Court took the reins of the country.
The veteran politician and former prime minister now plans to start a new political party that is as yet unnamed. His wife and fellow politician Hisila Yami, who was travelling across India and the Middle East to meet with the Nepalese diaspora, spoke to Scroll.in in Mumbai.
Nepal’s border blockade has gone on for four months now. What has been the impact of that and of your own departure from the Maoist party?
The blockade actually began 40 days before the Constitution was settled. The Constitution was made from an administrative point of view. After the earthquake, there was a breakthrough and the UML, LMP, all came together. But that has stopped now. The Madhesis are against the 16 point agreement, mainly on the grounds of delineation. [Madhesis want Nepal to be divided into three provinces on the basis of geography, not six provinces as at present.]
It is just a coincidence that on the day Baburao Bhattarai resigned, they tightened the border. We had nothing to do with it.
Why do you support the Madhesis’ movement?
The key here is federalism. The idea of federalism is institutionalised [according to Nepal’s first Constituent Assembly] by five indicators of identity and four of economic viability. Based on that principle of federalism, we support Madhesis. We would love to have three provinces instead of six, as the Madhesis demand.
The bottom line of the Madhesis now is that the constitution should not be diluted and that delineation should be done now.
Do you think a blockade is the best way to express this protest?
There was a similar movement in Bannali and at a district level in Baglung. They had been divided by the government and when they began to agitate, their demands were met. Madhesis are angry now because their demands are not being met and they are being dominated by Kshatriyas.
Has India’s indirect support to the Madhesi issue harmed their movement in Nepal?
The Madhesi problem is an internal one and India should not interfere in that and should not facilitate the blockade. The ruling class blames the blockade on India, but they should not mix the issue. The Madhesi federalism is one issue and Nepal’s relationship with India is different.
We are now at an impasse stage and all three actors, Nepal, India and Madhesis are losing out.
Who are the people you believe are excluded by the Constitution?
The constituent assembly diluted the Constitution. They have put increased clusters of people such as Dalits, Madhesi and Janjatis [for proportional representation in the parliament] to one group of “poor”. But these people [Madhesis] are smart and that is why they are against it.