For over almost half a year in Nepal, a protracted standoff has existed between the Nepal government and protesters from the country’s Madhesi ethnic community. Madhesis, who occupy over a third of Nepal’s population, have been opposing many provisions of the country’s recent constitution, which was promulgated on 20 September 2015. The persistence of these protests with still no end in sight is largely because the government of Nepal has attempted to resolve these issues, in essence, by letting the issues resolve themselves.
As the Madhesi protests against the inequalities of the constitution were gathering steam in January, Nepali newspaper headlines were lauding the constitution as “the best in the world.” The basic demands of Madhesis are that regional provinces be redrawn to promote a more equal distribution of political representation, to allow for representation based on population, and to have proportional representation in all levels of government. Though the Madhesis are the loudest voice in this movement, their fight for more equal representation in Nepal would extend to all marginalised groups in the country, including women, Dalits, and other ethnic groups such as the Tharu that face underrepresentation and discrimination.
Though Nepal is a mosaic of diverse cultures and home to 131 ethnic groups, it is members of Nepal’s Brahmin and Chhetri groups from the hill regions that occupy a majority of the seats in all branches of the government bureaucracy. Madhesis are protesting for better inclusion so that governence in the country can be expanded to represent the true ethnic diversity of the nation. This community constitutes over 33 percent of the country’s populace, yet it occupies less than 12 percent of the positions across all sectors of the bureaucracy. The Terai plains that they inhabit produces over 45 percent of Nepal’s GDP, but the government initiates little development in return. A stark example of this institutionalised apathy is education—no major universities exist in any part of the Terai.
According to professor of political science at Tribhuvan University and former ambassador Vijay Kant Karna, “Madhesis have been exploited to the point where they feel like they are a colony of Nepal.”
The protests began as non-violent demonstrations that initially left some media outlets “wondering” why Madhesis were not as violent as expected. These quiet beginnings have not lasted. Since 24 September, the protestors have blocked the Birgunj checkpoint, through which a majority of Nepal’s trade with India takes place. This has put Nepal’s most vulnerable communities at risk. The government and the media of Nepal have largely ignored the Madhesi involvement in the blockade. They hold the Indian government responsible for this agitation. The Indian government has cited “security concerns” in Nepal as the cause for the decreased trade and has released an official statement denying any involvement in the blockade.
The blockade that has resulted from this stand-off has brought trade between the two countries to a standstill since September. This is a blow to a country already struggling to recover from the aftermath of a series of disastrous earthquakes. Though India has used its dominant position to politically bully Nepal in the past, exclusive focus on conspiracy theories of Indian involvement, however likely they may be, ignores the internal reasons for the protests fermenting in the south.
That the protests have impacted, and violently so, vulnerable portions of Nepali society cannot be denied. In order to understand the destructive turn such protests can take some times, one must examine the role that the mainstream Nepali media has played through its reportage of the government’s inaction. One of the ways in which the media warped the public perception of the current crisis is through a selective coverage of events. This has been the case since the beginning of the 2015-2016 protests. Before Nepal’s new constitution was set forth in September, the constitutional assembly presented a feedback collection programme. This programme aimed to gather information from the general public on what they felt should be included in the document. Some media outlets presented the Madhesis who were protesting at that time as an oppositional force to this apparently progressive move before it even began. After collecting public input, outlets such as the leading weekly Nepali Times released reports that showed Madhesis protesting the presence of the constitutional feedback collection devoid of context.
These reports omitted the fact that one of the biggest clashes between protesters and the police that took place on the day of feedback collection in Janakpur, was not because protesters were against public feedback collection. It was because the protestors were excluded from participating in the programme by the police.
“We wanted to come to take part in the feedback collection, but when we arrived at the building to do this the gates were locked,” said Saroj Mishra, a youth activist in Janakpur. According to Mishra and other protesters from the area, the anger at not being able to participate erupted into the clash that spanned two days.
One can, perhaps, attribute this media bias to a lack of on-the-ground coverage. While international organisations such as the Human Rights Watch (HRW) have been willing provide in-depth reportage on the instances of police brutality, articles published by the mainstream Nepali media have largely regurgitated material from official reports. Consequently, these stories only contain the names and numbers of the fatalities in a clash without the details of the circumstances. The HRW report released on 16 October included specific instances of police brutality across the Terai, such as the death of 14-year-old protester Nitu Yadav on 11 September. Yadav was dragged out from a bush he was hiding in and shot in the face by police at point-blank range. Subhash Ghimere, the editor-in-chief of the English daily República, tweeted that the report was “biased” without any explanation for why he felt this was so. In contrast to the HRW’s detailed report, the República’s report on Yadav’s death notably left out his age and the brutal details of how he was killed, stating only that he was “defying curfew.”
According to Prashant Jha, an editor at the English daily Hindustan Times, and the author of Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, there have been very few instances of editors or senior journalists from Kathmandu physically making a trip down to Nepal’s southern Terai plains for coverage on the Madhesi protests. “The big picture in terms of on-the-ground reporting is not given,” explained Jha.
This bias has also been employed through headlines that intentionally spread half-truths to readers. An instance of this was when the United Nation released a statement that condemned the disruption of essential supplies and services in the country caused by the protests as a “serious violation of international human rights law.” The UN also stated that police brutality needs to stop being the state’s response to these demonstrations. All of Nepal’s English daily newspapers reported on this statement without including this caveat from the UN’s report.
One leading English daily, The Kathmandu Post, for example, ran the headline as “UN body calls for smooth flow of goods into Nepal,” similar to the República’s “Obstructing vital supplies, services a serious violation of international HR [Human-Rights] law.” This was a distillation of the original UN statement that opened with “We are alarmed by reports that at least four people have been killed and many injured, from both sides, in violent clashes over the weekend during protests in the Terai area of southern Nepal.”
Throughout the past five months of these protests, articles have been produced to give the impression that the Madhesi protests were losing steam. These include but are not restricted to the República’s “Madhesis Have Lost!”. Such headlines serve to discourage protesters, and posit the Madhesis as an destructive force threatening Nepali society, and not a marginalised section of society striving to be uplifted to the same level as other ethnic groups.
Media bias among editors is a problem familiar to Nepali journalists. A big part of this comes from a lack of diversity in the newsrooms at Kathmandu. “If you look at the structure of newsrooms,” said Jha, “you find that they do not reflect the diversity of Nepal. The editors of the top six newspapers in Kathmandu in both English and Nepali are of the same community; and it is the same community that exercises dominance both in the political sphere and the bureaucratic sphere.” He continuted, “What this means is that they are probably not listening as much to the voices from other communities.”
Praveen Kumar Yadav, a journalist who works with the República, told me over email that there are only two individuals from the Madhesi community working in the publication’s newsroom that consists of over 30 individuals. Ram Kumar Kamat at the English daily The Himalayan Times said that only one among the newsroom’s 64 employees is Madhesi. Dewan Rai, a news co-ordinator from the Kathmandu Post, admitted that there are no Madhesis working at the Post. According to Jha, this “is a mirror of the lack of inclusion in the state structure that creates a great distortion in the media narrative.”
Going by accounts in the media, it would not be surprising to find that a great swath of Nepal society does not understand why the Madhesis are protesting—that perhaps one half of the country feels that Madhesis are separatists out to destroy harmony in Nepal, and the other half are deluded into believing the ultranationalist perspective that somehow the Madhesi protests have nothing to due with the blockade and that India is to blame for all of Nepal’s problems. The cure to many of Nepal’s problems could come through a revamping of journalistic values and a demand for greater accountability from all sides. Until then, it is unlikely that any of the country’s problems will resolve themselves.