A popular movement in Nepal’s southern belt called Madhes, or the Terai, has been going on for more than two months. Forty-five people have been killed in protests.

It was largely a painful domestic affair until the country’s new Constitution was promulgated on September 20, to India’s apparent displeasure. Within days, seeing their demands go unheeded, Madhesi and indigenous Tharu protesters started occupying the border crossings. The result was a blockade that continues and has resulted in creating a humanitarian crisis. In response, Kathmandu accuses New Delhi of siding with the Madhesis to orchestrate the blockade and sees the blockade as a crude Indian attempt to dictate what should be in Nepal’s Constitution. New Delhi, in turn, points to the no-man’s-land occupied by the protesters and asks Kathmandu to sort out domestic issues.

From the protesters point of view, the blockade was a means to put pressure on Kathmandu, but has resulted in diverting attention away from the movement in Terai to New Delhi -- something the nationalist pundits in Nepal are keen to do because that way they can continue to ignore the Madhesis and Tharus in the street. Instead of dialogue, the focus now is on how to get fuel from China, Nepal's second neighbor who welcomed the new constitution.

The protesters, annoyed by the attention being shifted to leaders in Kathmandu and Delhi, warn of total shutdown to “run Kathmandu dry” until their demands are met. While Kathmandu is witnessing a rise in anti-India sentiment, anti-China rhetoric has gone up among the Madhesis who see Chinese help to ease the fuel crisis hindering their pressure tactic.

The crisis in Nepal is getting messier by the week, and the lack of progress in talks means it could last a long time.

The fight for an inclusive state

The roots of the present discontent go deep. Ask an educated Madhesi or Tharu why protest rages in the Terai and they point to a legacy of discrimination, beginning with the foundational conquests that shaped Nepal in the latter half of the 18th century. This time two hundred years ago, Nepal was fighting the East India Company. In 1816, Nepal surrendered, and ceded a third of its newly acquired territory, including Darjeeling and Sikkim to the east, and up to river Sutlej, in present day India. Nepal also promised not to avenge the inhabitants of the Terai who had sided with the British. It is said that Company was reluctant to mount an all out attack and risk displeasing the Chinese empire. This defeat lingers in nationalist hearts. Always keen to point out Nepal was never colonised, some fantasise about regaining it to form a "greater Nepal" – while, ironically, limiting the country by creating exclusionary boundaries of who is truly Nepali.

The Terai, lush with forests, was avoided by the inhabitants of the hills until the latter part of 20th century, once modern medicine could deal with the rampant diseases there. The hill people, the Pahadis, started migrating and settling in the fertile plains in large numbers. Today, together with the mostly original inhabitants, the Tharus and the Madhesis – many of whose lands were dispossessed by settlers backed by Kathmandu – the Terai hosts half of Nepal’s population.

The region is more important than ever in the country’s politics. The Madhesis and Tharus want to redefine the borders of newly created federal states and to guarantee representation of diverse groups in the state’s structures dominated by upper caste men.  But the changes the Madhesis and Tharus want requires a constitutional amendment – something the new coalition of monarchists and communist that came to power after the Constitution came into force is reluctant to effect.

Egged on by the nationalist pundits, rulers in Kathmandu are thus pushing Nepali citizens, particularly Madhesis and the indigenous, into New Delhi’s arms, because they refuse to share power with them in the true spirit of federalism. For Kathmandu’s pundits, who have benefited the most by their proximity to a centralised state, the protests in the plains are India’s doing. Their fellow citizens, out in the streets for months, are stereotyped as Delhi’s puppets. The mass movement has claimed 45 lives. Disrespect for human rights has hit an all time high since the end of the Maoist war 10 years ago. The social fabric is stretched thin, but the pundits are pre-occupied with one thing only: how to shame India for the blockade. There is a great reluctance to admit that whether or not Delhi supports Madhesis or Tharus, they have genuine grievances that need to be reconciled.

Spectre of a separatist struggle

Kathmandu's myopia could result in a new cycle of unrest in the Terai, leading to both internal and external difficulties. In the words of Lokraj Baral, former Nepali envoy to India and a prolific author, unless the issue is addressed, it will pose an “existential threat”. One such threat is already visible and growing. More Madhesi youth than ever are drawn towards the separatist strand in Madhesi politics whose current figurehead is CK Raut, a Cambridge-educated scientist under house arrest since April. Tactics to co-opt, or tire out the movement will increase their alienation.

It took 19 days of mass protests to bring down the King’s rule in Kathmandu. The 70 days of popular movement in the Terai-Madhes led by Madhesis and Tharus are yet to make Kathmandu bend and reform. Nonetheless, this movement marks a milestone in Nepali politics. If they succeed, the protesters will redefine the idea of Nepali nationalism to include Madhesi and Tharu imaginations of a federal country. If they fail, Nepali regime will become even more rigid, and will further isolate itself in the world.

Adhikari is a co-editor of recordnepal.com.