Almost two decades since waves of protests spread across southern Nepal demanding respect and rights for the Madhesi ethnic group, the desire for dignity continues to disrupt Nepali politics.
In 2007, the Madhesi, who are an ethnic group from the border region with India, began mobilising, demanding citizenship rights, equality and inclusion within the Nepali state. They sought an end to their discrimination, in which the state treated them as foreign citizens due to their cultural ties with north India. Until 1958, Madhesi Nepalis could not even enter Kathmandu without a visa.
In 2015, in response to sustained political action by the Madhesi, the Nepali Constitution finally accorded greater rights to the Madhesi and other minority groups and introduced a new federal structure, including a province in the Madhesi dominant region. However, in Nepal, anti-India nationalism is still strong and the Madhesi, with their familial, cultural and economic links to India, are caught in the anti-India discourse.
The latest example of anti-India populism happened this June, when the Mayor of Kathmandu Balen Shah announced that Indian films would be banned from cinemas in the capital until a line claiming that Janaki [Goddess Sita] is a daughter of India is removed from the new Indian film Adipurush.
In Nepal, Janaki’s birthplace is believed to be Janakpur, the capital of Madhes Province and Shah claimed that in denying this, the film will cause “irreparable damage to Nepal’s nationality, cultural unity and national sovereignty ”. A few days later a High Court order ruled that since Nepal’s censor board had approved the film, the Mayor did not have the power to ban cinemas from screening it. Nevertheless, Shah remained defiant, describing the court as a “ slave to India ”.
While political fighting over which identity group has cultural superiority is hardly new or specific to Nepal, what is interesting is that Shah is an ethnic Madhesi, the group which has borne the brunt of the anti-India rhetoric.
Does Shah’s attempt to ban Indian films from the capital’s cinemas mean that it is finally possible to be both Madhesi and Nepali? Or, has Shah embraced a cosmopolitan elite identity, distanced from Madhesi issues and so his anti-India stunt serves only to keep the nationalist fire burning?
Shah’s election to mayor of Kathmandu in 2022 was embraced by some as a sign that the Madhesi are now truly recognised as Nepali citizens, even worthy of governing the capital city. However, the mayor’s defence of Janakpur as the birthplace of Janaki is not the same as defending the Madhesi who live there or recognising their culture as Nepali. Madhesi activists point to the great injustice in how the Nepali state has sought to control the economically important Madhesi region and lay claim to its cultural and religious significance while denying those who live there recognition as full Nepali citizens.
What Shah’s act of defiance shows is the power of status and the desire for dignity to deeply shape political relations and everyday lives. The anti-India nationalism is rooted in Nepali resentment towards the Indian government’s interference in Nepali politics. A desire for pride in the Nepali identity results in fervent claims that Janaki belongs to Nepal and definitely not to India. The Madhesi, however, with their visible cultural similarities to India, are victims of the Nepali need to demonstrate power and distinctiveness vis-à-vis India.
The need – to be recognised, to resist cultural domination as well as political and economic subordination – runs strong. Just as Nepali nationalism seeks pride in the face of Indian paternalism, the Madhesi seek status in the face of an exclusive Nepali identity. The similarity between Nepalis’ desire for respectful political treatment from India and the Madhesi’s desire for respectful treatment by the Nepali state is clear.
For Nepal to truly become a strong state, it must build an inclusive identity that supports all Nepalis – and in so doing, will demonstrate its power to lead, especially in relation to its Indian neighbour. Without cultural inclusion and recognition, the desire for dignity will continue to divide and undermine the Nepali state.
Note: This article gives the views of the author/academic featured and does not represent the views of the Global Development Institute as a whole.