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.