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NEPAL: Revolution Within a Revolution

Marty Logan

KATHMANDU, Jan 31 2007 (IPS) - A 12-day uprising by Nepal’s ‘madheshi’ (plains) people has forced the revolutionary government to promise it will change the state structure to more fairly distribute power to excluded groups.

The ‘new Nepal’ will be a federal state instead of the current centralised one and will include more electoral constituencies to reflect recent population growth, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala announced in a televised speech Wednesday.

Madheshis now comprise 36 percent of the population of this South Asian nation bordered by India and China but have held only roughly 15 percent of the seats in recent governments. Women, indigenous people and dalits (so-called ‘untouchables’ under Hindu dogma) are the other ‘excluded’ groups in this society dominated by upper-caste males.

“We are working on the formation of a new structure of the state, where people from all races, castes and quarters will be represented. All of them will have their responsible roles in building the nation,” said Koirala in the speech. He also directed the home minister to hold talks with madheshi protesters.

But such rhetoric is unlikely to satisfy protesting madheshis and other ‘excluded’ Nepalis who have raised their voices in unison with protests on the plains in recent day. For example, groups representing three indigenous nationalities called a three-day general strike in the eastern hills from Wednesday to press their demands for ethnic autonomy and the right to self-determination.

Koirala’s speech was burned by activists of political parties in some parts of the terai, daily newspaper The Himalayan Times reported Thursday. “To say that constituencies will be based on population increase is merely an attempt to mislead the madheshi people,” said Bhagya Nath Gupta of the Madheshi People’s Rights Forum, the group leading the protests, reported the paper.

Wednesday evening activists reportedly stabbed to death a policeman after storming a police post near the city of Biratnagar in southeastern Nepal. One protester was reportedly killed in a police counter-attack.

Biratnagar had been under a curfew since Tuesday afternoon when one demonstrator was killed in clashes with police.

“I assure you there will be no election if the Madhesh issue is not settled…this movement will not be stopped. That’s because all of us living here (in Kathmandu) will leave and go to the Madhesh to support it,” said Vijay Kant Karna, chairman of madheshi rights NGO, JAGHRIT Nepal.

And while the government is promising federal government, Karna told IPS that protesters have a specific model in mind. All powers would be transferred to states except finance, foreign policy and defence. “We want a federal system where all the ethnic people can build their states in their own way,” he added.

The Maoists brought notions of federalism and autonomy into the mainstream when they divided Nepal into nine autonomous regions based largely on the dominant indigenous group in each area. They also promised these groups the right to become independent nations if they could not agree with the central government.

But Maoist leaders have questioned the authenticity of the current madheshi uprising, blaming it on flames kindled by disgruntled royalists and Hindu activists. One of the first acts of the recalled parliament after April’s ‘people’s movement’ was to declare the former “Kingdom of Nepal” a secular state.

Most senior government leaders have also downplayed madheshi grievances and pointed fingers at “regressive elements” working behind the scenes to revive the monarchy. On Tuesday three former ministers from the king’s regime were arrested for instigating violence in the ‘terai’ (plains region). On Wednesday they were handed three-month detention warrants under the Public Security Act. The government said it has a watch list of 80 other royalists.

The madhesh revolt was sparked when Maoist activists reportedly shot dead a madheshi who was among a group trying to enforce a transportation strike to protest the government’s interim constitution Jan. 19. Since then eight people have died, hundreds have been injured and closures have crippled economic lifelines from the plains to the capital Kathmandu in the country’s central hills and remote mountain regions.

The interim constitution was passed by a temporary legislative assembly Jan. 15. It is notable for 73 Maoist members, whose place was secured in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement signed between government and formal rebel leaders last November. After 10 years of guerrilla war, the Maoists suspended their revolt last April to team up with major political parties against the autocratic rule of King Gyanendra, who was pushed from power by a tidal wave of hundreds of thousands of protesters on Nepal’s streets.

The interim government is tasked with preparing the nation for elections in June to a constituent assembly that will draft a permanent constitution. But unrest threatens the possibility for the ‘safe and secure environment’ that is required to hold the polls.

“A redefinition of Nepal is essential,” said Karna. “We are multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-religious but one country.”

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