Monday, May 21, 2007

Impressions of the Human Rights Environment in Dhanusha District, Nepal

As part of my work for UNDP and the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) in Nepal, I travel at times to the districts to meet the NHRC staff working in isolated places, as well as take the opportunity to meet w/ the local community leaders and interest groups to better understand the situation of the country. Last week, with my interpreter, colleague & friend, Alok Tumbahangphey, we went down to Janakpur in Dhanusha district, right across from Bihar and the Indian border.

The tarai was, of course, steaming hot -- although our colleagues said that it had already reached 40 degrees a week before and had started cooling down due to the recent rains. If the weather had cooled, the social pressure hadn't, as it seemed, world of the 'Madesh' (as it is called by the people who live in this 'middle land' between the hills of Nepal and the great Gangetic plains of India) was full of tension, uncertainty & anxiety.

Clearly, the old world is dying and a new one yet to be born. The much-touted 'New Nepal' will be built from the forces and aspirations of Nepal's past. The long-repressed Madeshi communities will have a much larger influence in this new world, but before it is achieved, there will be more struggle, disappointment and, sadly, violence. Such is the reality of the Nepal in which we live today...

Below is a brief summary of my impressions of this latest trip outside the large island of Kathmandu...

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Janakpur is the intellectual heartland of the Maithali identity, as well as the Dhanusha district center. During this short visit to the tarai, recent changes were observable. Where past local leaders were primarily from the high caste ‘Pahadi’ (hill origin) elite, after the Madeshi Andolan earlier this year, there is a distinctly more radical, ethnocentric identity among the Madeshi communities challenging Nepal’s historical identity and the traditional governance framework. It appears that even larger changes may be ahead…

Part of the weakness of the current administration is due to the dissolution of the local government structure at the District Development Committee (DDC) and Village Development Committee (VDC) level, as these have not been replaced in five+ years. Therefore, rather than having elected local bodies with more diverse local Madeshi officials, local government, perforce, is staffed by mostly Pahadi government officials.

Consequently, the accelerating JTMM violence and broader MJF demands pose a growing risk to law & order. The settled Pahadis, including families who have called the tarai home for generations, feel vulnerable and threatened. Still, many civil society leaders from Pahadi and Madeshi communities went out of their way to reassure us that every effort is being made to reduce these growing communal tensions and threats in the district.

It appears that the CPN/M influence has diminished in Mithila districts since the start of the tarai Andolan 2006/2007. The senior CPN/M district cadre we met appeared less self-confident in their behavior while acutely more sensitive about their party’s true commitment to Madeshi issues and representation at a national level than the MJF cadre.

Many civil society as well district administration officials expressed their doubts that a reasonably ‘free & fair’ elections could be held -- even later in 2007. There is a palpable unease among community & government leaders that the current human rights environment could suddenly deteriorate in the coming months making it even more difficult to provide the security necessary to conduct CA elections by November 2007.

The CDO openly acknowledged the threatening environment for their civil servants. He confirmed that “the JTMM-JS had issued a threat to all GON staff of Pahadi descent to leave the district by the end of this Nepali.” Sitting with the district security forces, he noted that the GON has to provide more security to these government staff -- but there appeared some doubt that they could achieve this given the widely dispersed location of the GON staff assigned to Dhanusha. Although he downplayed the possibility of serious communal violence, the CDO admitted no one could say what might happen in the future.

Time, as usual, will have its say...

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