Anger in Nepal's south threatens landmark polls

A Nepalese election worker sealing a ballot box after polling stations closed in Kathmandu on May 14. The local level polls are the first since 1997 and a key step in the country's rocky transition to democracy.
A Nepalese election worker sealing a ballot box after polling stations closed in Kathmandu on May 14. The local level polls are the first since 1997 and a key step in the country's rocky transition to democracy.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

JANAKPUR, NEPAL (AFP) - Ganesh Yadav was shot by police during deadly protests that roiled southern Nepal in 2015, but he is ready to return to the streets - a mark of the intense anger still felt as the area prepares to go to the polls.

Nepal last month began holding its first local elections in 20 years, a key stage in the country's post-war transformation from feudal monarchy to federal democracy.

On Wednesday (June 28), voting is due to take place in the southern plains, home to the country's Madhesi ethnic minority, who demonstrated in huge numbers two years ago to protest against new federal borders they say will leave them politically marginalised.

The Rastriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), the main party representing the Madhesi community, has already said it will boycott Wednesday's polls, raising doubts about their legitimacy and fears of a resurgence in the violence.

"This is a fight for equality and dignity," 31-year-old Yadav, a farmer, told AFP as he cradled his one-year-old son at his home on the outskirts of Janakpur in southern Nepal.

"I was shot, but I am still joining protests."

More than 50 people died in the months-long protests, most of them shot when police fired into crowds of demonstrators - a response condemned by rights campaigners.

Analysts say the government's failure to address the grievances of the community, which makes up around 20 per cent of Nepal's population, could be holding back the country's progress.

Parties representing the Madhesi have already forced several postponements of the local elections, which are supposed to pave the way for provincial polls and then national elections by January, when the mandate of the current Parliament expires.

The government recently postponed the polls in the voting area that includes Janakpur - seen as a potential flashpoint - until September following local protests.

"The unaddressed agendas of the Madhesi (community) are in a way holding the country hostage, keeping it from smoothly completing its democratic processes," said lawyer and Madhesi activist Dipendra Jha.

The Madhesis, who live in Nepal's populous southern lowlands known as the Terai and share close linguistic and cultural ties with India, have long complained that the existing federal borders deprive them of fair political representation.

Many were denied citizenship, rendering them stateless, until a 2006 law that allowed non-Nepali speakers born and raised in the country to become naturalised citizens.

Yadav said he grew up watching his neighbours mistreated by powerful landowners from the hills of central Nepal and faced racism when he went to study in the capital.

"There has always been an attitude of discrimination towards people from the plains," he said.

The row that blew up in 2015, shortly after a deadly earthquake in the country, stemmed from a new national Constitution that set federal boundaries.

The Madhesis say these will leave them underrepresented in Parliament and have demanded an amendment that would allow the boundaries to be redrawn.

The government has drawn up an amendment, but it is unclear whether it has the numbers it needs to pass the Bill in the face of opposition from rival parties.

Senior RJP-N leader Rajendra Mahato said his party would hold out even after rival parties said they would take part in the elections.

"The government and major political parties have an opportunity to amend the Constitution before the September polls, which could make a conducive environment for the election," he said.

Mass protests in the Tarai first broke out in 2007, forcing leaders to promise greater regional autonomy and representation in state bodies.

That was supposed to be included in the Constitution, but Madhesis say its provisions fall short of the promises they were made.

In the dusty streets of Janakpur, many hope the government responds before more radical secessionist voices gain support.

"If the main parties become sincere, then the constitutional amendment would not take so long," said Saroj Mishra, a shopkeeper and community leader.

"But our demands have been sidelined again and again."