This article is based on a conversation between Tula Narayan Shah and Tejendra Pherali about the struggle of Nepal’s Madhesh movement to obtain political and social justice.

Tula Narayan Shah is the Executive Director of Nepal Madhesh Foundation (NEMAF), an NGO working in the area of public education and local governance in the Terai region of Nepal. Tula is a well-known civil society activist and Madhesh analyst in Nepal.

Madhesh movement

Nepal is an ethnically, geographically and socially diverse country. Geographically, Nepal consists of mountainous, hilly and Terai (Madhesh) regions. There are broadly three different communal groups that constitute Nepali society: Khas-Arya, indigenous nationalities and Madheshis. However, the state structures (gun – security forces, pen – bureaucracy and money – state resources) are monopolised by Khas-Arya groups. Indigenous nationalities and Madheshis are historically marginalised. The Madhesh movement is a struggle of ethnic Madheshis, seeking to gain equitable political representation, social inclusion and recognition of Madheshi identity in the constitution of Nepal and in the broader society.

Madhesh movement and the ethnicity-based political agenda

Historically, the Nepali state and its constitution has never reflected Madheshi culture, language or lifestyle, which makes them invisible in their own nation. Regardless of caste, when a person from Madhesh community, comes to Kathmandu, they are generally treated disrespectfully and left feeling humiliated. Madheshi political leaders experience the same type of contempt and exclusion during interactions with hill high-caste political leaders. This ongoing social, political and constitutional marginalisation drives the Madhesh movement as a broad struggle for social justice. Even though the organisational structures of the movement are not solid, and some leaders devious, the collective marginalisation and shared perception of discrimination across the Madheshi community, have built strong support for an uprising. The Madhesh movement first seeks to gain a political/constitutional solution to the conditions of Madheshi marginality and then engage in the broader issues of intra-ethnic socio-economic disparities.

Organising the movement

Across the political spectrum, there is a strong component of informal alliance building among like-minded intellectuals and political leaders who identify with historical injustices, state repression and anti-Madhesh sentiments. These people express the problems of the Madhesh in the public domain, such as the media, small political gatherings and during negotiations with the political establishment. They also engage with civil society organisations such as NGOs, diplomatic missions and international development and political organisations such as the European Union. At the grassroots level, pamphleting, daily news about the movement in the local newspapers and broadcasting regular updates about movement activities via local radio stations keeps the spirit of the movement alive. Local farmers with tractors help bring people to rallies and local businesses extend support by providing free food and overnight accommodation for the protesters. Activists are extremely innovative about the ways they organize mass rallies. Women’s participation has been particularly empowering, and has also served as a moral obligation to pressure men to participate. It has also reduced the scale of state repression during demonstrations. Some rallies exhibit a strong sense of satire and mockery towards the government: lamp rally during the day (highlighting the stat’s blindness to Madheshi suffering), donkey rally (donkeys decorated as the prime minister and other political leaders), chained activists demonstrating on the road, mass corpse demonstration (performance of dead bodies of Madheshi activists on the motorways), buffalo rally (buffalos representing the idiosyncrasy of the political establishment), human chain across the Terai region from East to West, naked demonstration (reflecting that the state can be shameless). These unique methods of protests sustain media attention and pressure the government to act on Madheshi demands.

Future of Madhesh movement

To date, the Madhesh movement has failed to become a national movement. When the sentiments of regional movements build rapport with much larger national movements, they get leverage and are likely to make gains. To secure national recognition in Nepal, it needs to clarify its position about the relationship with India which the Madhesh movement has so far been silent about. It has the potential to appeal to all social justice activists nationally and globally irrespective of their ethnic origin, and expand its base to non-Madheshis groups. It should also build synergies through collaboration with other social justice movements in Nepal such as the indigenous, Dalit, labour and women’s rights movements.