Reasonable, Yet Radical: The Complexity of the Madhesi Movement in Nepal

Although Nepal successfully held local elections for the first time since 1997 last month, heavy protests from Madhesi political groups largely dampened the accomplishment. Madhes is a cultural and geographic region in southern Nepal that takes up less than 20 percent of the country’s area, but contains over half of its population. After the government propagated the new constitution in 2015, Madhesi politicians argued that it inadequately supported their needs. At that time, Madhesi citizens led a months-long blockade of the Nepal-India border, stifling trade and causing a fuel shortage in the small Himalayan country. Since then, they have pushed for a constitutional amendment that increases political representation and makes clear distinctions on provincial borders, Madhesi cultural heritage, and citizenship.

In April, six Madhesi political parties joined together to create the Rastriya Janata Party – Nepal (RJP-N). While local elections in the Madhesi provinces were initially scheduled for June 14, they have been postponed in three provinces until June 28 and until September in another.

While the RJP-N has legitimate political concerns, its hardline approach could have disastrous implications for a Nepalese democracy still rebuilding from a decade-long civil war that killed over 13,000 people. On June 7, Sher Bahadur Deuba was named prime minister for the fourth time in two decades, after receiving 388 out of 593 votes in Parliament. However, he must hold nationwide parliamentary elections by January in order to avoid a constitutional crisis. While PM Deuba expressed resolving the Madhesi conflict as a top priority, in such a short timespan it appears quite difficult for him to pass a constitutional amendment with the requisite two-thirds majority.

However, it appears as if the RJP-N is unwilling to compromise, with leader Anil Jha stating that Madhesi people will not take part in elections until their political grievances are addressed, and that if necessary they will disrupt the upcoming vote. This stance shows little appreciation for the complexity of the current Nepalese situation, and is a cheap attempt at exerting leverage against a vulnerable government. Furthermore, forcing a constitutional amendment right now makes little political sense; even with success PM Deuba’s government will still face the specter of parliamentary elections, and failure would undoubtedly bring greater instability to the Nepalese political system. Again, while Madhesi demands for increased political representation are valid, the RJP-N should practice patience and wait until political crisis is averted to pursue constitutional reform. 

Conflict between Madhesi political activists and the Nepalese government has further complicated the situation. In March, three Madhesi supporters were killed after their attempts to disrupt an event held by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) turned violent, and the police were forced to intervene. This Sunday, a bomb detonated near an electoral office in Kapilvastu, injuring five people. While the RJP-N has not claimed responsibility for the attack, Kapilvastu is located in one of the provinces where the group said it would disrupt elections next week. Resorting to violence will delegitimize the RJP-N’s claims to the rest of Nepal, and has the potential to foment widespread conflict in the country.

The weeks and months ahead will be precarious for the Nepalese political system. If the RJP-N follows through with its threat to boycott the upcoming local elections, tensions might break out between pro-Madhesi and anti-Madhesi political factions. These pressures could potentially escalate into political violence, and further complicate PM Deuba’s position as he attempts to hold elections within the year. Thus, the most prudent strategy for the RJP-N would be to wait until PM Deuba receives an electoral mandate before calling for constitutional amendments. However, given their urgent desire for change, it seems likely that such advice will be ignored, leaving the possibility that Nepal will relapse into the political conflict it has sought to escape.