By Tejendra Pherali
*This article was first published in the Kathmandupost
Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels made an influential contribution through their idea of dialectical materialism which the Soviets championed until the collapse of their state in 1989. Dialectics opposes the formal and fixed definition and understanding of a social issue and encourages us to understand the truth in totality rather than through a one-sided view. For the elite political class, mass engagement in critical philosophy of dialectics is threatening as this process empowers the grassroots to challenge authority and structural inequalities that perpetuate the political control of the privileged class. The Maoist rebellion in Nepal was not just an armed struggle led by political entrepreneurs who were greedy for state power, it was founded on the country’s social and political realities where political education of the cadres underpinned the philosophy of dialectics.
The onset of the Madhes rebellion that demanded political autonomy based on cultural and linguistic identities of the people living in the Tarai was politically empowered by the repertoire of the Maoist movement. The series of Madhesi protests in 2007, 2008 and 2015 against provisions in the 2015 constitution were deeply inspired by feelings of political marginalisation, cultural repression and exclusionary state policies that questioned the patriotic loyalty of Madhesis towards the Nepali state.
Research and knowledge production around grassroots activism and social movements are largely confined within the elitist community of academia and the policy circle. This process excludes social activists at the grassroots from the opportunity to learn from their own movement. Most importantly, the research knowledge about social movements largely fails to strengthen the struggle of the real actors on the ground. It is, therefore, crucial to ask how research into the Madhes movement contributes to empowering Madhesi activists to influence change to facilitate social transformation.
A few Madhesi leaders joining the government does not mean the fulfilment of Madhesi marginalisation. Even though analyses of the Madhes movement have broadly documented the movement agenda surrounding the historical marginalisation, political exclusion and discrimination of Madhesis by the Nepali state, there is very little understanding of the movement processes, organisation of movement activities, communication strategies and critical reflections of activism as a whole. If the knowledge produced from the movements fails to strengthen the struggle, there is a risk of academia being complicit in perpetuating the status quo rather than promoting social transformation.
The Madhes movement is essentially a social movement that has a long history of collective resistance against injustices. It might have appeared as a political action to restructure the Nepali state, but at the core of its agenda, it reflects all the characteristics of a social movement. The subject of the Madhes movement is a controversial issue in Nepal. Certain segments of society have accused the movement of weakening social cohesion and undermining national integrity. Historically, the Nepali state has celebrated the pride of cultural diversity but utterly failed to create social conditions that equitably benefit Nepal’s diverse communities. As a result, Madhesis, Dalits, women and other ethnic minorities have been largely deprived of their right to be represented in politics, the judiciary, bureaucracy and the security sector.
The character of national identity has been dominated by the cultural representation of those who have historically monopolised political power, knowledge production and historical narratives. Over the last century, especially during the Panchayat period (1960-1990), the discourse of Nepaliness has largely ignored the reality of cultural diversity and the pluralistic identities of populations who have lived in Nepal for centuries. Justifying the Madhes movement as a legitimate struggle among the privileged Pahadi community would face aggressive criticism because the Pahadi community has deeply internalised the hegemonic discourse of Nepaliness. Alternative voices and demand for political representation and cultural recognition within the Nepali state are considered illogical, destructive and anti-national.
However, the debate about the Madhes movement has so far been largely Madhesis versus Pahadis or the Pahadi-dominated state, and few efforts have been made to engage with the Pahadi community to create public awareness about structural violence on Madhesis and ethnic minorities in Nepal. Madhesis constantly raise the issue of discriminatory and derogatory remarks by Pahadis in public spaces, especially in Kathmandu. There is also a perception that pro-Madhesi writers have misused their intellectual spaces to instigate anti-social feelings in what is misconstrued as a harmonious society. The societal harmony was simply a false national perception amid the inability of historically oppressed communities to claim their rights to social justice.
Whilst the oppressed communities have increasingly deciphered the problems of the structural and symbolic violence they face, the privileged communities are yet to come to terms with the concerns of rights and equitable representation of the marginalised communities. This is where I revisit the importance of dialectics. In order for Nepal to move forward as a socially progressive society under the new constitution, we need to engage in the problematics of history and the societal conditions at present. Social movement research should make contributions towards unpacking historical legacies whilst making the knowledge produced useful to the movements. After all, we are the making of the history that has been biased and monopolised to keep the elite political class in power.
Tejendra Pherali is an associate professor of education and international development at University College London.