'Almost every Madhesi demand has been fulfilled'
[Interview with Ram Chandra Poudel]
Ram Chandra Poudel, Minister for Peace and Reconstruction in the interim government, is facing a tough time as the flames in the tarai show no signs of abating while the date of the CA poll is fast approaching. And even as the SPA leaders embarked on their nationwide election campaign, some regional parties in the southern plains commenced what seems to be the second phase of their agitation. Former deputy prime minister and senior NC leader Poudel is head of the government talks team. He has just returned from Janakpur after addressing the SPA's joint rally, fully confident that nothing can stop the government from holding the CA poll on April 10. Amid increasing doubts among the general public about the possibility of a free, fair and credible election in the face of rising Madhesi agitation, Poudel spoke with Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post centering on the government's efforts to deal with the problems it is facing now.
Q: How do you assess the situation in Madhes? What is your personal assessment?
Ram Chandra Poudel: There are some forces still agitating in the tarai. My observation is that there is a communication gap, particularly regarding the implementation of the agreement reached between the Madhesi People's Rights Forum (MPRF) and the government. Most of the demands have been fulfilled, and those that are yet to be fulfilled have to be resolved through the CA toward which we are all working. We don't have any conflict with the people of the tarai. I believe we are capable of solving the problems through peaceful negotiation. Indeed, the people of the tarai want to see the CA poll held, and, speaking as a Nepali Congress (NC) leader, they are with the NC. The situation is not that hostile as it appears from
Kathmandu. Our mass meeting organized on Saturday also proves this.
Q: The Madhesi front has declared what seems to be the second phase of its agitation in the tarai despite the government's efforts to resolve the issues raised through a dialogue. Why did the agitating groups not respond to the government's invitation for talks?
Poudel: I had a conversation concerning this with Mahanta Thakur of the newly formed Tarai-Madhes Democratic Party, who is also leading the Madhesi front. We had agreed to meet on January 2 at 4 pm. In the meantime, Mahanta Thakur submitted an 11-point demand to the prime minister. But still we were expecting to hold the talks. I was eager to discuss the 11-point demand and reach an agreement. But Thakur refused to sit down for talks on the scheduled date. He asked the government to first respond to the 11-point demand. That was his prerequisite for a dialogue.
He must understand that a dialogue is necessary for us to discuss and come to a conclusion, whatsoever, on the issues including the 11-point demand. Had he agreed to our invitation for a dialogue, we would have had a chance to negotiate and accept some of the feasible demands while they would have got a chance to express their demands more clearly. Even then, we are making efforts in that direction, and I hope we will soon have a dialogue.
Besides, when Mahanta Thakur presented his party's demands, we also got confused as to how to go ahead with the talks and negotiations. Besides, within the Seven-Party Alliance itself, we became busier in implementing the 23-point agreement. That also delayed the dialogue. Thakur showed no intention of talking to me while he went to meet the prime minister to submit the 11-point demand. He did not approach me after handing over the communication, neither would he come to my contact. That is why it is being delayed. But that is not what we want.
Q: Do you believe that the Madhesi problem can be resolved through a dialogue?
Poudel: Yes, I do. There is no such demand which cannot be addressed through a dialogue. Regarding those demands with which we have problems, we will seek alternative ways through negotiation. Otherwise, most of the issues have been addressed and solved; what is needed is clarification of the confusion.
So far as the 11-point demand presented by Mahanta Thakur's party is concerned, I don't think that will create any big problem. Regarding some critical points, however, we must move ahead only through consultation.
Q: Of late, the agitating Madhesi Front has been demanding reservation of 50 percent of the seats in the central government. What do you understand by this?
Poudel: First, I too want to ask them what they mean by setting aside 50 percent of the seats for Madhesis. Are they really for proportionate elections? Such unclear things can be sorted out only through a dialogue.
I think they are asking for 50 percent representation as a continuation of their demand for proportional representation. When drawing up the list of candidates for proportional representation for 20 percent of the seats, it is said that there is no compulsion to grant proportional representation to any other group except women. No reservation has been made for Adivasis, Janajatis, people from remote areas, Madhesis, Dalits and other marginalized groups. But Mahanta's demand is to increase that 20 percent reservation to 50 percent, which contradicts that understanding. He should know what that means. I am eager to discuss the results of this decision with Thakur himself.
Q: What would be the results?
Poudel: In fact, the consequence of this would mean the end of proportional representation. If this demand were to be fulfilled, the country will never reach the stage of proportional representation. Even the NC has not won more than 40 percent of the seats in all the elections held so far. Same with the UML. Given that even the biggest parties have less than 40 percent of the seats, the demand seems to go against the norms of proportional representation. If Thakur keeps 50 percent of the seats, then there would be no chance for others to be proportionally represented. Not only that, will the women, Janajatis and others who are also seeking proportional representation agree to this?
Q: Why do you think they raised such a demand?
Poudel: The Madhesi leaders representing the MPRF had first asked for 40 percent reservation. But in the course of our dialogue, when I convinced them logically that their demand was unjustifiable, they withdrew it. We reached that agreement only after they gave up their demand for 40 percent reservation.
Q: It is said that the agitation in the tarai has been instigated by some BJP parliamentarians and Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar's government. What do you say?
Poudel: I don't want to say anything about this. I am of the opinion that if there is any confusion between us, we must resolve that through a dialogue.
Q: The agitating Madhesi parties complain that they had to initiate the recent phase of their agitation as the government did not implement the agreements reached earlier.
Poudel: That is not true. What all the Adivasis, Janajatis and Madhesis want is proper representation in the CA. The CA will be well represented by all the marginalized groups. They will have fair representation there as the system of election that we have adopted ensures this. The marginalized and under-represented groups are going to make good use of that for the first time. So, first, the demand for proportional representation has been solved through the election system.
Second, the demand of the Madhesi parties that they be granted a federal and autonomous state has been fulfilled. Third, the demand regarding representation and rights of the indigenous groups has been fulfilled with the passage of the ILO convention. The convention fulfills the natural, economic and cultural rights of Dalits, Adivasis, Janajatis and all the deprived people. Similarly, we have declared holidays on major festivals of different religions. The government has also fulfilled the demand of the Madhesi parties to give proper compensation to the families of those who lost their lives during the Madhes movement. We have also provided proper medical care and treatment to those injured during the movement.
There was another demand that Madhesis be appointed proportionately to the civil service since certain elite castes such as Brahmins and Chhetris alone were occupying government posts. To meet this demand, we have amended the Civil Service Act which provides for 45 percent reservation for marginalized groups like Adivasis, Dalits, Madhesis, etc. Almost half of the appointments in the civil service have been reserved for them. The government is now preparing to recruit 2,000 police personnel, and this will be carried out as per the amended Civil Service Act.
In fact, almost every demand has been fulfilled. Let me know what is left to be done. They must speak clearly. The system of federal autonomy has been inscribed in black and white in the Interim Constitution itself. The demand for proportional representation has been fulfilled as we have adopted a proportional electoral system for the election to the Constituent Assembly. Similarly, the demand for distribution of citizenship certificates, which had been central to their demands until recently, has been fulfilled.
Q: Some complain that the SPA is going beyond its mandate given by the people through the April Movement. For instance, you declared the country a federal republic which was nowhere mentioned during the April Movement. What do you say?
Poudel: I, too, am feeling uncomfortable about that. We took that decision amid mounting pressure from Madhesis and Janajatis through their movement in the tarai. The SPA government, being a democratic one, could not suppress the people's demand. I do agree that we compromised [the democratic system] and declared the country a federal republic to fulfill the demand of the people.
However, we decided to fulfill that demand to make the environment conducive for the CA poll. Though we had said that this should be done through the CA, the agitating Madhesis and Janajatis/Adivasis wanted the government to ensure that right away. They feared that with the major political parties winning a majority of the seats in the CA, the voices of the minority would be ignored or rendered powerless. To put it frankly, we did that under pressure because we could not reject their request.
Since we are going to federalize the state sooner or later, we thought it would be okay to do that before the CA poll, believing that the CA would also endorse this. But I actually feel that we acted prematurely.
Q: What demands are left to be fulfilled then?
Poudel: This is exactly what I, too, am asking the agitating Madhesi leaders. Of the 11 demands, some have already been fulfilled; but they need clarification. For instance, one of the 11-point demands has to do with the Khilraj Commission, which they want annulled. They say that the mandate given to the Khilraj Commission is defamatory. Earlier, when the forum had complained to us about this, I immediately asked the cabinet to make changes in the commission. The commission had used words such as "some incidents in the tarai" in its document; we changed that to "Madhes movement". We also increased the area to include all the places where the Madhesi movement took place. We have reformed the commission and amended its document to make it an honorable commission. It has also already submitted its report. So we want to make these things clear through a dialogue.
Q: What are the demands of the armed groups? Does the government have contact with them?
Poudel: At the time we were holding talks with the forum, the armed groups in the tarai were also raising similar demands. We had asked Upendra Yadav to include the armed groups in the negotiation process so that they could also be incorporated in the agreement. But Yadav said that once the government reached an agreement with the MPRF, they would automatically come for talks because recognizing the MPRF would increase their confidence to come forward for a dialogue. But they did not show up. The MPRF leaders should help to bring them to a dialogue. However, I am also contacting the leaders of the new tarai regional party to urge the armed groups to hold talks. We are making efforts. We have also written to them, but they have not stepped forward.
Q: Do you think that a free, fair and credible CA poll is possible? How?
Poudel: All our efforts are directed at holding a free, fair and credible CA poll. If we fail to do that, there will be questions raised over the credibility of the poll. I don't think Mahanta's party has come to disrupt the CA. I admit that there are some armed forces operating in the tarai that may pose a threat to the CA poll, but we must all work together to bring them to a dialogue.
Q: How confident are you in this regard?
Poudel: I cannot say because they have never come to talk. I cannot say with certainty that they will come. But still, if everybody requests them, they may step forward.
Q: Are the legitimate parties working to bring them to a dialogue? Do they want them to come to a dialogue? What are their views?
Poudel: I don't have any information about that.
[The interview was published in The Kathmandu Post, Jan 28, 2008]