Sunday, March 15, 2009

They're imposing their identity on us

(Courtesy :

Raj Kumar Lekhi is General Secretary of the Tharu Welfare Council (TWC), which, along with a number of other organisations, has been spearheading the protests that have caused great disruption in large sections of the Tarai for the past week. Aditya Adhikari and Pranab Kharel spoke to him about the political condition of the Tharus and what his organisation seeks to achieve.

Q: What are the reasons for your protest?

Lekhi: The Tharu community, and all the Adibasi-Janajatis of the Tarai -- Rajbanshi, Dhimal, Santhal, Tajpuriya, Danuwar, for example -- feel this andolan is necessary because the first amendment to the Interim Constitution has named the territories that have historically belonged to the Adibasi Janajatis as the Madhesh. The independent identities of dozens of groups that live in the Tarai, which have their own languages, culture, religions and traditions, have become erased. In addition, these groups have been deprived of the political rights that are rightfully theirs as indigenous people.

The state has used that clause in the Interim Constitution time and again to undermine our identity. This happened during the Constituent Assembly (CA) election when all Adibasi Janajatis were subsumed under the Madheshi cateogory in the election laws.

More recently, around two months ago, an ordinance passed by the council of ministers again classified all Adibasi Janajatis of the Tarai as Madheshis. This was the immediate cause of the protest. But it is not only the ordinance we are protesting against. We want a rectification of all past errors too.

Q: How have leaders of political parties responded to your protests?

Lekhi: Five days after the first amendment to the Interim Constitution, the Tharu Welfare Council had organized a programme. There, we had invited 16 Tharu members of parliament from various parties and held an interaction with them. We asked them, “How could you have allowed the political parties to erase your identity? You should understand your duties. Otherwise the coming generations will view you as traitors to your community.”

After that, by means of a peaceful andolan, we published and distributed appeals to the prime minister, the speaker of parliament and other leaders of political parties. But even after that, the government didn't do anything. More recently, we burnt effigies of the prime minister and staged demonstrations. We also appealed to all other Adibasi Janajatis in the Tarai that our identity is at a greater risk than has ever been before. This had not happened even during the Panchayat days, or Rana days, but is now happening during a time when a government that claims to be loktantrik is in power. We said that all Adibasi Janajatis have to stage an andolan together, and that is what is happening now.

Q: What does the government have to do for you to withdraw protests?

Lekhi: The government has to correct the mistakes it made in the past. The government shouldn't make one mistake after another. Didn't the interim government ratify International Labour Organization (ILO) convention 169 a year ago? Didn't they give this convention the status of law? ILO Convention 169 has stipulated and guaranteed the rights of indigenous people. The government has, however, worked against the convention.

Q: The government says that the classification of Tharus as Madheshis will ensure that larger numbers of Tharus will be included under quotas than would have been the case if they were classified as Janajatis.

Lekhi: I respect the leaders of Nepal's political parties. However, we have started feeling ashamed of them. That these big leaders who lead the country should talk in so childish a manner.

This morning I was listening to the thoughts of a Madheshi leader, Anil Jha. He was saying, “All the Adibasi-Janajatis of the Tarai are Madheshis. Their identity is our identity.” Why is he trying to impose his identity on us? A Bahun living in Surkhet might say, Tharus living in Surkhet are Pahadi Tharus. But how can Tharus be Pahadis?

The Tarai and the Madhesh are not the same; they are not synonyms of each other. We call the historic territories of the Tharu people Tharuhat. The Madheshis have their historic territories -- it is called Madhyadesh. The Tarai is a territory where many groups live, including Tharus, Madheshis, Muslims, Dalit, Pahadis. Now, if one community, the Madheshis, claim the entire Tarai from the Mechi to the Mahakali as their own, our identity will become extinct. If that happens, we will lose our political, cultural and linguistic rights.

Q: How have relations between Tharus and Madheshis been historically? Have you had grievances against Madheshis for a long time?

Lekhi: The Madheshi communities' history in the Tarai does not exceed 200 years. They came from Madhyadesh to the Tarai after the rise of Prithvi Narayan Shah to work as advisors, bureaucrats and farmers. The Shah rulers, in the process of distributing birta land to those close to them, forcibly seized land from the Tharus and distributed it to others, including Madheshis. Before Nepal became a nation-state, the Tharus had their independent state. The Tharus and other Adibasi Janajatis of the Tarai were responsible for converting jungle into cultivable land. After this happened, immigrants from both the hills and from Madhyadesh came to live in the Tarai. Our languages and traditions are completely different from Madheshis.

Q: So the Madheshi community has oppressed your community?

Lekhi: It is natural that migrants and people who live around towns and cities are more aware and clever than people who are farmers, live in the villages, and are honest and innocent. So we may be honest and innocent, but this must not be regarded as weakness.

Q: It has appeared that in the current political context, groups that haven't formed political parties haven't been able to hold much leverage over the government. Do you have plans to form a political party?

Lekhi: All the leaders and members of our organization are members of one or another political party. Some are in the Maoists, some in the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, The Madheshi Janadhikar Forum (MJF) or the Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP). Some of them are in leadership positions. The Tharu Welfare Council is an organization for that fights for rights, it is not a political party that will fight elections.

Q: The MJF was a similar organization to yours. But it only gained substantial power after converting into a political party.

Lekhi: I don't want to say much about the MJF. But the leaders of that party were in positions of power during the Panchayat era and also during the post-1990 democratic period. Even in the Rana period, their families were in the ruling class. There is therefore a substantial difference between the MJF and our organization. In 2005 BS, when there were no political parties in Nepal, the Tharu Welfare Council held its first general convention in Bara. The organization itself was formed in 1988 BS to bring reform to the Tharu community and fight for its rights. It has a long history. So it cannot be compared to any NGO or political party.

Q: You are personally affiliated to the CPN-UML. How successful have you been in raising voices for Tharu rights within the party?

Lekhi: The Adibasi Janajatis of Nepal, through their movements, have been an example to South Asia. We have been successful in having the government ratify ILO Convention 169 which guarantees our rights. We have been taking our concerns to each political party and pressuring the government.
One should understand however that our organization is not armed organization. We believe that we should fight for our rights through peaceful means, unlike the various armed groups in the Tarai.

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