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Bridging hills and plains

Thursday, September 14th, 2017
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RJPN has chosen a hill settler, Rajesh Man Singh, as its mayor candidate in Birganj. Photo: Jiyalal Sah

When Madhes-based leaders rose up in 2015 against what they saw as a conspiracy in the new Constitution to further marginalise the plains, highlanders in the Tarai were fearful for their safety. As violence broke out, many sold property and headed north to the mountains.

In Birganj, the epicentre of the 2015 Blockade, cadres of Tarai-centric parties would often issue veiled but often blatant threats against hill settlers. Two years later, as Province 2 prepares for the first local elections in two decades, that fear has dramatically dissipated, with mainstream parties fielding Madhesi candidates and some Tarai-centric parties having candidates of hill ancestry.

Rastriya Janata Party Nepal (RJPN), the recently formed alliance of Madhesi parties, has chosen a Newar businessman as its mayoral candidate in Birganj: Rajesh Man Singh (pictured above campaigning door-to-door). He was active during the Madhes Movement and supports greater autonomy for the plains in the new federal structure.

Says Birganj-based human rights activist Kamal Mohan Pokharel: “The RJPN and other Madhesi parties have sent out a message of harmony and social integration by choosing hill settlers as their candidates, and this has removed to a certain extent the sense of fear among them.” The RJPN has also fielded six hill-origin candidates for Ward chairs in Birganj. Federal Socialist Forum Nepal (FSFN), another Madhes-based party, has three highlanders as Ward chair candidates. Nepal Loktantrik Forum has not put up candidates in all ward committees, but it has one hill candidate in a Madhesi-dominated ward.

After years of polarisation between hills and plains, the parties appear to have realised the benefits of integration. Candidates are busy campaigning for the polls on 18 September, and their message is no longer divisive, but about improving relations between traditionally excluded groups in the Tarai and Kathmandu.

Mainstream parties based in Kathmandu, for their part, have fallen back on Madhesi candidates for local governments. Youth from the hill community are active in election campaigns of Madhesi candidates, and vice versa.

Ironically, instead of ethnic politics and caste vote banks turning communities against each other, next week’s local elections has brought Nepalis in the Tarai together.

Says Birganj resident Babita Poudel, “It’s not that we people from the hills and the Tarai don’t want to unite, it is politicians who are keeping us apart. They created a situation where the highlanders and the plains people started hating each other.”

 Julia Thomas in Birganj

 

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