'We have a right to declare independence'
Former Minister of Science and Technology Mahanta Thakur left the interim government to form a new party. He began his career in politics as a student leader in the early 1970s. He contested the general elections from Siraha. After having been a member of the Nepali Congress for more than 37 years, Thakur left the NC at a time when the party needed him most. Thakur does not believe the government can hold the CA polls in mid-April because of the deteriorating law and order situation in the tarai.
Thakur spoke with Puran P Bista and Kamal Raj Sigdel of The Kathmandu Post on the future political course of his party and his demand for greater autonomy with a provision for self-determination.
Q: You have formed a new party right after the SPA agreed to hold the CA elections by mid-April. Is your new party prepared and in a mood to participate in the polls?
Mahanta Thakur: We are not against the government's plan to hold the CA elections by mid-April. But the people in the tarai want to see their issues settled first. Elections are a constitutional process to express your views in a peaceful manner; but having said that, the current situation in the tarai is not conducive to holding elections. Peace and security are prerequisites for holding the polls.
Q: You have also expressed dissatisfaction with the 23-point agreement struck recently by the SPA. Is this a prelude to your boycotting the CA elections possibly to be held in mid-April?
Thakur: We have not protested against the agreement. There is a burning problem in the tarai right now, but the SPA is ignoring it and going ahead with its own agenda with a one-track mind. This has created enough room for suspicion. All the major political parties are well cognizant of the problems in the tarai and what's going on there. There is state-sponsored terrorism. Incidences of extortion and abduction are daily affairs. Violence has increased. In such a situation, I think the general people of the tarai don't want the election to be held. First, there should be peace, the violence must stop, and the issues settled.
Q: You mean you do not believe the CA polls will be held in mid-April as the SPA is preparing to announce.
Thakur: That's what the people of Madhes have been saying. We are planning to visit the tarai and tour all the districts. And we will decide accordingly. We will collect information about the problem in the tarai by sitting down face-to-face with the local people. If the government and others cooperate with us and peace is restored, we can hold the elections.
Q: You have named your party Tarai-Madhes Loktantrik Party. How do you define tarai and Madhes? Who are the Madhesis according your definition?
Thakur: This is just an illusion. Both terms are being used interchangeably. There is no difference in their meanings. And there is no politics hidden behind that.
Q: When you define Madhes and Madhesis, do you include all the people of different origins and castes presently living in the tarai?
Thakur: We have always talked about the tarai and the hills in a holistic manner. We are talking about the 49 percent of the national population living in the tarai. We have raised overall issues. We have not talked about a certain caste, origin or religion.
Q: You mean you are raising a regional issue as opposed to a racial one.
Thakur: Yes. We have raised the issues of a geographical area, not of a certain caste or a certain party.
Q: Is this reflected in the way your party has been formed, for instance, in its membership?
Thakur: They will be incorporated in the organization in due course.
Q: You have been a devoted Nepali Congress leader since you joined politics. But you resigned abruptly and formed a new party. There are a number of parties with different ideologies already operating in the tarai. Can you, as an ex-NC leader, take them into confidence?
Thakur: All the parties are trying their best and want to solve the problems of Madhes and Madhesis. Since we all have a common goal, we have come together. Now we all agree that this problem should be solved peacefully. This is in the interests of the nation and the people.
Q: There are different parties in Madhes; some armed, some unarmed. How would you characterize them?
Thakur: Our party has stated clearly that all the political groups fighting for the Madhesi cause should come together. We are making efforts towards that end. If we advance together, there will be less problems for the people, they will get relief, also less effort will be required. We have publicly appealed to everybody to unite for the cause. As part of our campaign, we held consultations with the tarai parties before we established our party. We will have formal talks with them now that we have formed a party. Then we will go ahead with some coordinated programs. They have agreed informally that we need to act together.
And as for those who are operating underground, we have not yet talked to them face-to-face. But they have expressed their appreciation and welcomed our initiative through different media in the tarai. They have congratulated us. We have taken it positively. We will meet them and request them to join our peaceful movement.
Q: Judging by the fact that Upendra Yadav of the MPRF and several others did not attend your party's inauguration, it appears that your party will also become just another in the procession of parties that have emerged in the tarai. In such a situation, how will you be able to add new dynamism to the Madhesi movement?
Thakur: We will have formal talks with them to finalize matters.
Q: Do you think that the armed groups operating in the tarai will join open politics if the demands that you and other unarmed political groups have been raising are fulfilled?
Thakur: They are in politics even now. They are different only in their approach. Since they are raising political issues, we must say it is politics. It's only the way they are doing it that is different.
Q: Different parties in the tarai have been raising different demands. You have come up with your own. So what are your party's demands?
Thakur: We want complete autonomy. The local people should be involved in running the local administration. This is not happening at present. Everything is run by the center. The Madhesis do not see their reflection in the faces that are sent there to handle the local administration. For this reason, the people in the tarai do not feel ownership of the administration. They are not in a position which allows them to say, "This is our government, and it serves us." What is lacking is participation and autonomy.
Q: Do you think all these demands should be fulfilled before the CA polls? How practical would it be in that case?
Thakur: The people of the tarai think that it would be better if these issues are settled before the CA polls. But I think the CA is also a valid process to get our demands fulfilled. A part of our problem will be solved if the election reflects our sizeable representation. I take the CA polls as an opportunity too.
Q: The recent 23-point agreement states that the CA will contain 601 members and that the tarai will be well represented. Don't you think that this new development ensures what you are demanding in advance?
Thakur: There have been discrepancies in what is said and written. But I said that the CA was also an opportunity. It is not that we can solve all the problems at once. We can also solve some of the problems by using that legitimate process. We think this is a legitimate process and we must accept it. Why should we avoid it? But there is no such situation in the tarai for holding the elections.
Q: What are the conditions that can bring you to the CA?
Thakur: People have been clamoring that we do not believe the government can hold the elections peacefully and that their demands will be fulfilled. So our demands, such as autonomous government and Madhesi participation in the local administration, should be fulfilled. And there is truth in our demands. Every time tarai issues are raised, they get sidelined. Though the government has made some commitments, nothing has been implemented in practice to this date. The posts of CDO, police chief and various administrative officials are still occupied by a single elite community. So the people are not convinced that the government will ensure equality and bring immediate changes in our administrative and judiciary systems.
Q: Would it be possible to reform overnight the entire system that was established by the Rana oligarchy and cultivated by the Panchayat system? How should the government revamp the whole system before the CA polls?
Thakur: The government should demonstrate its commitment by acts that will convince the people that their demands will ultimately be fulfilled. The people should be assured that there will be no more extortion. For example, the police come to innocent people's houses at night and intimidate them for no reason. They are subjecting the people to extortion. They take away people's guns even if they have a license.
Q: Don't you think that the CA is the right mechanism to solve all the problems?
Thakur: The CA is an issue that is raised time and again strategically. We were not the ones who postponed the CA polls. Neither can we do that. Now all the arrows are directed at Madhes. The seven political parties quarrel among themselves and the blame is placed on us.
Q: It is said that the NC has sent you to the tarai with this new party to undermine other parties such as the Maoists that have taken hold there.
Thakur: There is not a grain of truth in that.
Q: But how could you have left the NC? You have been a NC leader your whole life.
Thakur: I have left the NC. We have formed a new party.
Q: Like all the other armed and unarmed groups in the tarai, your party has also demanded the right to self-determination. What is this "right to self-determination" in plain language?
Thakur: Regardless of whether you write it down or not, it is there. But once stated, it becomes a legitimate right of the people. If the government continues to suppress the tarai, then it is the people's right to warn it that they have a right to self-determination. Till now we have been talking about living together. But if you suppress us any longer, we have a right to declare independence and live separately.
Q: Since everybody has agreed on establishing a federal republic, Madhes too will have its own provincial government. So who will be there to continue "suppressing" you in a federal system? Won't it make your demand for "right to self-determination" redundant?
Thakur: Yes, that is possible. There are examples we can draw from other countries. Suppression can continue even after a state has been granted autonomy. There are examples of states that have separated and declared independence, and also of some that have rejoined the federation.
Q: You mean self-determination similar to the Kashmiri demand?
Thakur: That is a different case.
Q: When you are talking about self-determination, does it indicate that we are heading towards disintegration?
Thakur: I don't think that guaranteeing a state all its rights can lead to disintegration. A community with such rights becomes stronger, thus there is no chance of it breaking up. When inequality exists, the chances of disintegration are greater. For instance, several independent countries came together to form the European Union. They are working together; they have a common currency and common market and share many things. Though there are instances of disagreement among them, they are working hard to stay together. The suspicion that the country could break up is only a fear.
Q: There are several castes and groups - for instance, Tharus, Limbus, Kirats, Brahmins, Chhetris and others - among whom some have been demanding their own states while others have been demanding their representation in state affairs. How do you address their concerns?
Thakur: We are raising overall issues. We have not raised a particular community's issue. Just like when the
The colonial forces who were leaving
Q: Have you held talks with other disgruntled groups, such as Janajatis and others who are also legitimate political forces in the tarai?
Thakur: We are in the process of holding discussions with such discontented groups.
Q: Can you include them in your program?
Thakur: No, we are not raising caste specific issues [as the Janajatis have been doing]. We are talking about a geographical region. In this sense, I think all the issues have been brought together.