As we went to press, political parties were busy in hectic last-minute parleys to settle the remaining issues of government form, and more crucially, state restructuring. Meanwhile, there are protests and bandas being organized right around the country demanding certain provinces/ regions in the new federal set up.
Among the most contentious of the state restructuring issues has been the question of Undivided Far-west and the competing claim for Tharuhat state. Thira L Bhusal and Biswas Baral caught up with Nepali Congress lawmaker Ramesh Lekhak, who has been campaigning for Undivided Far-west and CPN-UML lawmaker Mahesh Chaudhary, who has been raising his voice for a Tharuhat state spanning from Nawalparasi to Kanchanpur in the Tarai belt.
Far-west sans Tarai unviable
Can you give us an overview of the ongoing protests for undivided Far-west?
It started when Maoist Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal proposed a 10-state model during the current round of political negotiations. In that model, the Far-west comprising of nine districts in Seti and Karnali zones was divided such that the seven hill districts were kept under one province while the lower districts of Kailali and Kanchanpur were enlisted under another. The people of the Far-west believe that all nine districts in the two Far-west zones should be included in a single province.
There are also many misunderstands regarding the protests. For instance, some critics of undivided Far-west argue: at a time the country is going to be federated, how can old demarcations be kept intact? The protests are for retention of nine districts and two zones under a new province, which will be a part of the federation. When we are asking for a new province, how can we be against federalism?
The Far-west has been shut down for over two weeks. Why have there been no meaningful dialogues?
First, you have to understand why there have been protests in favor of an undivided Far-west. This is a protest against the state´s continued neglect and bias against the region. In other parts of the country, if even a small criminal outfit commits some crime, the state takes it as a political crime and the Peace Ministry rolls out red carpet for talks with those criminal outfits. But when tens of thousands of people have come out in the Far-west to put forth their demand, at a time when the Far-west had been shut down for weeks, the government chose to do nothing. Only after 11 days was a talks team formed. What was the government doing for the first 11 days?
There is a criticism that protests for undivided Far-west have set a dangerous precedent for the rest of the country.
First, you have to understand the issues behind the protests in the Far-west. Maoist Chairman Dahal said he would keep Kailali and Kanchanpur in the new Tharuhat state. Madhesi leaders want to keep the two districts within the single Madhesh province. But Kailali and Kanchanpur have never been part of Madhesh, nor were they ever under Tharus . We decided to draw the federal map on the basis of identity and capacity. Take the issue of identity: The Far-west is the only region in the country where people with same ethnicity, culture and language are in an absolute majority. If you look up the history of Far-west, there is no evidence that the region was ever in Madhesh or Tharuhat. If you consider geography, besides the sole bridge at Karnali, there is no other link between the Far-west and rest of Nepal. Thus this region makes up a geographical area of special kind. It is for all these reasons that the region wants to stay undivided.
Tharu leaders have said that as the area between Nawalparasi and Kanchanpur is the main base of Tharus, no model that separates the area form Tharuhat would be acceptable.
They have every right to make claims. But they have to come up with historical basis why the two districts should come under Tharuhat. For instance, Dang district had a Tharu king. But the kingdom never reached Kailali and Kanchanpur. There is an argument that if Kailali and Kanchanpur are kept within the Far-west, Tharus in the two districts will not benefit from the new setup. This is not true. The Ranas and Dangora Tharus in the two districts will benefit more in the Far-west. When we make Far-west a single province, we have to grant special rights to the janajatis and indigenous nationalities, in areas ranging from employment, scholarships, health, and political representation. In that case, the Dangoras and Rana in Kailali and Kanchanpur will be the biggest indigenous groups in the region, and hence liable to maximum benefits. But if the districts are included in Tharuhat, Rana Tharus will be the smallest indigenous group in the region. This is why 90 percent of Rana Tharus who are concentrated in Kailali and Kanchanpur are in favor of retaining the two Tarai districts in the Far-west.
In terms of the number of CA members, how many are in favor of a single Far-west and how many in favor of the proposed Tharuhat?
Currently, most CA members from the Far-west belong to the Maoist party. Although there is division within the Maoists regarding, the majority are in favor of a Tharuhat state including Kailali and Kanchanpur. Within Nepali Congress, all but one CA member is in favor of retention of the two districts in Far-west. Within CPN-UML, all CA members are in favor of retention of two districts in Far-west. But since the Maoists are dominant in the legislature, the agenda of Tharuhat has been strongly raised. Now, you tell me: Currently, of the total taxes, 70-80 percent is raised in Kailali and Kanchanpur. If the two districts break away, how will the hilly region above sustain itself?
Can there be a meeting point between competing demands of undivided Far-west and Tharuhat?
We can agree on formation of a single province from Bardiya to Nawalparasi. This region has Tharus as its dominant group. So this region can be declared a Tharu province with its capital in Dang, the main habitation of Dangora Tharus while Kailali and Kanchanpur are retained with the Far-west. The other idea is also to retain the two districts within the Far-west, with declaration of special/protected areas for those pockets with thick Tharu populations. The third option is a political negotiation with local Tharu leaders and communities, to settle on what can be done to promote Tharu language and culture in the two districts within Far-West. Likewise, provisions to ensure Tharu representation in regional assembly can be ensured along with other special rights. If they say, no, we still want to divide the Far-west, even more problems will be added to the existing list. The economic hardships of the people in the region will get worse. Such a Far-west will be weak and dysfunctional and it will have little say in national politics.
Some say demands like undivided Far-west is reflection of Mahendra´s brand of nationalism.
Nepali congress is in favor of an undivided Far-west. Those who accuse the party of following on Mahenda´s footsteps are the same folks who were being cultivated by King Mahendra even as Congress was fighting against the autocratic Panchayat regime.
It’s a mirror of feudalism
How do you view the demand for an undivided Far-west?
Nepal’s constitution says only the country is indivisible. The whole aim behind state restructuring is to end discrimination based on language, ethnicity, religion and geography. Of the total population in Kailali, 42 percent are Tharus. In Kanchanpur, they make up for 23 percent of the total population. If you take out these two districts, how can a viable Tharuhat province ever be formed?
Dr. Harka Gurung in 1967 brought a regional development policy, according to which he divided the country into five development regions on the basis of viability and geography. At that time, a country was thought to be successful if it was economically powerful. Now, the very notion of development has changed. Now it is held that if a county has an energetic and competent manpower, which can best harness local resources, such countries are deemed successful. Dr Gurung’s division is no longer relevant in the changed context. Now, the marker is human development. Unless all people are empowered to pursue their own destiny, such a country cannot be called developed.
Can you categorically state your differences with the proposed undivided Far-west?
One, it is against the constitution since the statute only provisions for an indivisible Nepal. The demand for undivided Far-west is against the spirit of the models proposed by both the CA committee on restructuring as well as the State Restructuring Commission´s proposed majority model. It also goes against the spirit of Jana Andolan II, which aimed to institute a political order devoid of discriminations based on ethnicity, language and geography. The indivisible Far-west demand is a reflection of a feudalist mindset. Remember, it was the rich who first descended from the Hills to buy up lands in the Tarai. The others came much later. It is this same group of the rich which now controls the state and its resources. If such was not the case, why would 22 lawmakers from the Hill community oppose undivided Far-west?
But it seems there is strong public for an undivided Far-west.
If the show of strength is any indicator, there has been no small support for Tharu movement either.
You have said that the identity of Tharus would be under threat in an undivided Far-west. How so?
When you refer to Tharus of the Tarai, you have to understand that other inhabitants in the region belonging to smaller janajati and indigenous communities are the descendents of the original Tharu community. In terms of population, the most thickly populated area in the Far-west is Kailali district. If this district is to be included in the Far-west, how can any viable Tharuhat province take shape?
In your opinion, which areas should the proposed Tharuhat state include?
During the Geographic Information System mapping, the Maoists included Dang, Kailali, Kanchanpur, Banke and Bardia in its proposed Tharuhat state. This was during the time of the insurgency. If the Maoists had not raised the agenda of Tharuhat back then, this problem would not have assumed such big proportions. In the Maoist bid to shore up support for Tharuhat during the insurgency, many people have scarified their lives. Now can a member of the same party (Maoists´ Lekhraj Bhatta) say that such a province is not possible? I believe the area between Nawalparasi and Kanchanpur should be declared Tharuhat province.
Besides, all important UN declarations as well as ILO 169 give indigenous populations the right to self-determination. Tharus were the original settlers and farmers in the Tarai belt. Then the Rana rulers started distributing the best lands among their near and dear ones. This turned the native inhabitants into bonded laborers. It is to protect against such discrimination that international conventions ensure the rights of original inhabitants. Since the livelihood of Tharus is dependent on land and water resources, they have to be given the right to self-determination over these resources. Before the state decides on important changes in areas of their inhabitation, it must seek prior approval of the Tharus.
What happens if the two districts are kept within Far-west while the rights of the indigenous people are also guaranteed under ILO 169?
It does not work like that. India, after 65 years of independence, is still grappling with demands for new states. If such a provision is implemented in Nepal, the state of conflict in the Far-west is unlikely to abate.
There is a belief that if the lower Tarai districts are disconnected from Far-west, people in the hilly districts up above will be deprived of vital access to lower Tarai and India.
If such was the case, why would 22 hill-based lawmakers ask for Khaptad state without Kailali and Kanchanpur? So far as the top political leaders are concerned, they will obviously speak in favor of undivided Far-west since they hold lucrative properties their; it also gives them the option to run for election from multiple constituencies. They have not bothered to learn about the aspirations of the people living in Far-west. Their wish is to make Far-west a colonial outpost.
In the current debate between the Tharuhat and Far-west what can be the meeting point?
As a communist, I consider two models of state restructuring: a coming together model and a holding together model. In the former USSR adopted the coming together model whereby 16 different countries were amalgamated into a federation, while giving each country the right to secede if they so desired in the future. China´s is a holding together model, where the states agree to work together. We have been advocating for a holding together model in Nepal. Yes, one state might have disproportional resources, but in that case, the center can provision for some resources to be transferred to the states with fewer resources. Thus is the model which has to be adopted here.
So far as a meeting point is concerned, the map passed by the majority of SRC with two Tarai regions can be the only meeting point. Anyone can demand anything, but a legitimate demand has to have sound basis. Identity was the basis of the SRC majority model as well as CA committee´s model, decided on the basis of Geographic Information System mapping. On what basis are they proposing an undivided Far-west?