Unwarranted misfortune

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Let us start from the government announcement of the local election. CPN-UML, the largest party in waiting as even the current largest party Nepali Congress (NC) would concede, welcomed the announcement. The Madhesi Front slammed the decision immediately and announced protest programs against the local election.

The UML, that has been calling the amendment bill anti-national, allowed the amendment process to move ahead. The main opposition, however, has yet to specifically explain why the amendment bill is anti-national. Different parties and a few ‘rebel’ lawmakers from ruling NC and CPN (Maoist Center) have lodged their respective amendment proposals on the bill. The stage was set to table the amendment bill for voting after clause-wise discussions on the amendment proposals filed.

All the parties and even the Madhesi Front seemed set to accept the result of voting and focus on the local election announced for May 14 despite publicly claiming they will not accept election without passing the amendment bill and increasing the number of local bodies in Province 2 considering the bigger population there.

The protest programs announced by the Madhesi Front, meanwhile, did not seem to be gathering steam. The people across the country, on the other hand, seem to be ecstatic at the prospect of a local election almost after two decades. Yours truly was told by a senior colleague, just after noon on Monday, how a senior Madhesi leader said there is a sort of festive environment after announcement of election even in Madhes. The Madhesi people, like all of us across the country, are fed up with plunder of state resources by the all-party mechanism at the local level. And they want to end that by electing their own representatives. All this pointed that the election will be held with public support despite efforts by those against it.

But all that changed after three people were killed in Rajbiraj after the police opened fire on Madhesi Front cadres who were ‘hurling petrol bombs’ toward the venue where UML Chairman KP Oli had just finished his short address.

Let us now go further back to the situation just before promulgation of the constitution. The Madhesi Front had boycotted the promulgation process and taken to the streets but the movement was not gathering steam. The leaders then went to Kailali, publicly enticed the Tharu activists for violence, which resulted in lynching of unarmed policemen including a senior officer and a little baby of a policeman.

The police, rattled by killing of their fellow colleagues, lost their cool and started to use excessive force in the Madhes. The movement gathered steam with each killing and had almost reached tipping point before India enforced the blockade and forced the Madhesi Front to protest at borders to provide an alibi. The movement lost momentum as killings stopped and its moral high ground after false claims of responsibility about the blockade, and eventually petered out. Embarrassed and seemingly repentant India again forced the Madhesi Front to clear the borders to end the blockade.

Fast forward to the present, there are reports that Home Minister Bimalendra Nidhi, who was accused by UML of telling NC cadres to not allow UML to hold programs in the Madhes, instructed the police to shoot without any provocation despite PM Pushpa Kamal Dahal repeatedly instructing everyone including Nidhi to not shoot at the protesters at any cost. It is too early to confirm what had happened but Nidhi needs to be brought to book if he indeed ordered to kill people with an intention of fomenting trouble.

But we should not forget that it was not just a routine clash between the police and protestors. Almost all the senior leaders of the second largest party (the largest in waiting) including three former PMs were inside the venue when the police opened fire, after blank fires and tear gas shells did not work. A correspondent, who was inside the venue, claims that the first fire was heard shortly after UML Chairman Oli started to speak.

Our security persons are legendarily inept and violent in dealing with protesters. Everyone is equal in an ideal world and killing of commoners to protect some VIPs cannot be justified. But the world we live in is not ideal. The Madhesi Front leaders just give instructions and never go to the frontline to hurl petrol bombs and stones at the security persons, current PM Dahal and his then second man Baburam Bhattarai waged the ‘people’s war’ from India, the then king and PMs declared war against the Maoists but never joined the frontline to face bullets. Loss of innocent lives is unfortunate but all of us would have bayed for the blood of police if something untoward had happened to the senior UML leaders present there.

Let us now come to the developments after the Rajbiraj incident. The Madhesi Front, that has been thriving on loss of human lives, now seems energized by death of three Nepalis there.

UML displayed sense and first stopped its Mechi-Mahakali Campaign for three days and then canceled its programs in Province 2. It definitely is not a loss for UML just as it would not have been one if they had not scheduled any program in Province 2 in the first place. We have to consider the image of UML and the general frustrations of Madhesi people toward the state and big political parties. Every party is entitled to organize programs across the country but we have in the past seen how Madhesi leaders were attacked while organizing one in Itahari.

It will be unfair to criticize UML for organizing a program in Rajbiraj. But it should not be too much to expect more responsibility and maturity from UML than the Madhesi Front whose only means to remain relevant seems to be violence. Let us hope rational leaders in UML will sincerely review the decision to organize the program in Rajbiraj with a cool head.

Way Forward

The Rajbiraj incident should be investigated thoroughly and action taken against the security persons and Home Minister Nidhi if the accusations about shooting people to foment trouble were found to be true.

The parties should again start dialogue instead of playing the blame game, and conclude the constitution amendment bill. It would be best for everyone if some amendments were made in consensus but that doesn’t seem likely to happen. All the parties should accept the result of voting on the amendment bill, whether it were passed or rejected, and go for the local election that the majority of people still want.

The Madhesi Front will have the amendment to show if the bill were passed. It should take the agenda of amendment to the people if the bill were rejected and now will have public sentiment behind after killings in Rajbiraj. It now has tailwind and should look to use that to win votes. It is the votes, and not the dead bodies, that should count in a democracy.