Hills must not be split from the Terai: Shashanka Koirala

A scion of the Koirala family, Shashanka Koirala is the general-secretary of the Nepali Congress and a lawmaker from Nawalparasi district in the Terai. A soft-spoken and suave politician, junior Koirala has shown reservations about an array of issues that his president Sher Bahadur Deuba is pushing through in national politics. Shashanka talked to Ritu Raj Subedi and Ram Prasad Dahal of The Rising Nepal on contemporary political issues. Excerpts:

Your party is talking about holding the elections. But the main opposition, the CPN-UML, is accusing the government of dodging it.

A few things need to be taken into account for holding the polls. The Madhesi parties are telling us (the NC) the constitution amendment bill tabled in the parliament should be approved first, and only then will they participate in the elections. It is a pressure tactic. First, we want the election to the local bodies. After holding the local polls, there will remain 2-3 months to resolve the provincial issue. Second, the local polls should be conducted under the existing structure. There is a lot of controversy on the report of the Local Level Restructuring Commission. It takes time to settle this dispute. Therefore, let’s conduct the local polls on the basis of the interim provisions of the constitution. It has already been 18/19 years since the local polls were not held.

If we hold the polls, this will give two messages to the public – first they will believe that the political parties are committed to holding the election, and second, it will rekindle the people’s faith that the provincial elections will also be held. Hence, the NC should conduct the election because it has a responsibility of implementing the constitution promulgated under its leadership. Once the polls are held, the country will return to normalcy. Then after, the election to the provinces and parliament should be conducted gradually.

However, our party has moved the amendment proposal. We had recently parleyed with the Madhesi Front’s leaders at the residence of party president Deuba. The meeting concluded that it was possible to garner a two-thirds (393/394 votes) to pass the Bill. But here is a complication. Problems may arise in Province No. 5 if the hill is detached from the Terai. The BBC had aired news that around 200,000 people participated in the agitation against the amendment that seeks to split the said province. But, in my view, around 75,000 people joined the mass demonstration. They all want to live in Province No 5. If we dig into its history, we find that the hilly people descended onto the Terai in search of work. Their houses lie high in the hills. So they do not want the Terai to be cut off from the hills. I have urged Sher Bahadurji to reconsider the proposal.

Is it you personal opinion or that of the party?

This is my personal view. The party has already taken the amendment proposal forward.

What was the Deuba’s response to your advice that Province No. 5 should not be split?

He asked, how then do we bring the Madhesi parties on board? They have demanded the division of the said province.

Your president, Deuba, is for a division between the hills and the Terai. But the main opposition UML is against it. Deuba is accusing the UML of driving a wedge between the hill and the Terai. What does he actually mean to say?

Ask this question to Deuba as to what he wanted to say.

You are also the party general secretary. Does your position differ from that of the party?

Sher Bahadurji wants to take the amendment proposal forward. But, in my view, this should be taken up after the local polls. The demarcation issue needs to be thrashed out by the time of the provincial poll. Nonetheless, the problem remains as it is because the Madhesi parties are saying that they won’t take part in the local polls before the amendment. Thus, differences remain writ large here.

The proposal to split Province No. 5 came out of the blue. The demarcation dispute was in the districts of the far-west and far-east. How did this happen?

Sher Bahadurji and UML’s Bhim Rawal hail from the far-west while Krishna Prasad Sitaula and KP Sharma Oli are from the far eastern districts. Therefore, the problem did not surface there.

You are also from Province No. 5?

Ha…ha…Since the problem has arisen, this should be ironed out.

Is the agenda to carve up two provinces along the southern plains a design to split Nepal?

It could be.

Can you elucidate your views?

The Madhesi parties claim that Madhes belongs to them. The Madhesis have dense settlements from Birgunj to Saptari. Nonetheless, a large number of Pahade (people of hill origin) have also settled there. The locals complain that their suggestions were not solicited during the restructuring of the province following the election to the second Constituent Assembly. While interacting with many local Madhesi people, they said, ‘Doctor Sahib, it went wrong. We don’t want this kind of federalism.’

I also talked to the locals in the tea shops incognito. They also said that the way Province No. 2 was created was a mistake. The ordinary people are saying that the hilly districts, such as Udaypur, Sindhuli and Dolakha should be incorporated in it because Madhes carries out business with the hills on a daily basis. They think it was erroneous to keep only Madhes in Province No. 2. I believe that this province can’t be changed at present. This issue had already been sorted out during the time of Sushil Da. But, Province No. 5 must not be divided. But the Madhesi parties have kept their cards close to their chest – let’s first separate Province No. 5 and then go for the far eastern and far western districts.

Have the voices of the NC lawmakers representing Province No. 2 and the Madhesi parties become one and the same?

Yes.

Let me here raise a reference of a book on BP Koirala edited by Ganesh Raj Sharma. In it, BP had clearly said that attempts would be made to cause ethnic division between the Madhesis and Pahades. BP said, “An Indian migrant settles here, obtains citizenship after ten years and become a champion of Madhesis, but not me, who was born and raised here.” Following the Madhes movement, around 50,000 Pahades were displaced from the core Madhes areas. Why did the NC fail to pay heed to the warning that BP made decades ago?

The NC is very aware of this issue. There will be no compromise on the integrity of the nation. Pahades were chased away from the Terai. It does not augur well for the unity of the nation. We have a history of both communities living together for centuries. We have discussed this issue within the party and with the lawmakers and other parties. Unfortunately, the people are not well informed about federalism. We have to educate the people about it. Now peace has returned to the Terai, and we have to go to Madhes to address their concerns. We have to unite the nation, not divide it.

BP had said that the Terai was the heart of nationalism. Did the NC fail to create harmony between the two regions?

I don’t think so. If you ask me about the federal model, in retrospect, I say that it would have been fine if the five development regions bordering north-south had been made a basis for it. But there came the Maoist and Madhesi movements. Many shouted ethnic slogans, threatening to disintegrate the nation. If we want to live as Nepali citizens and maintain the Nepali identity in the world, it will not be good to split the Terai from the hills.

The election constituencies have been created on the basis of population. But if you see in India and US, population is not the basis of constituencies. Some constituencies have 20-30,000 population while some have about half a million. In Nepal, the hill contains a larger portion of the territory. When budget is allocated, the lion share will go to the Terai and endanger the hills being pushed into further backwardness. Shouldn’t we try to balance between the two?

Yes. The hills have many difficult and inaccessible areas with sparse populations. They should also be represented. For example, Dopla is the biggest district, but it has only one lawmaker because of its small population size. The Terai has a larger portion of the population, so the Madhesi leaders are saying that constituencies should be determined on the basis of population. We have to resolve it on the basis of geography and population.

Won’t the Terai gain the strategic traction if population is made the basis of electoral constituencies?

Yes, you said the right thing. This should be balanced. The Terai people also complained that they have been looked down upon and been called Biharis or Indians. Development works are not taking place there. It lacks infrastructure, such as roads and highways. There is a truth behind their grudge to some extent. Yes, the East-West and Postal Highways lie in the Terai. It shares an open border with India. It carries big commercial prospect. We have to promote integrated development.

Following the collapse of the Oli-led government, the Prachanda-led government was formed with the backing of the NC. All of a sudden, Oli nationalism is blowing across the country. Doesn’t it seem like the UML is leading the campaign of nationalism after the NC gave short shrift to it?

It seems so, but is it the truth? Let’s dig into the history of Oli. What nationalist works did he execute when he was the prime minister? Just delivering sweet speeches is not sufficient. How many hydro projects fell through? Who were responsible for that? During the Panchayat system, we were accused of selling the Gandaki River. Oli also faces similar charges. Now there is a trend to be a nationalist after becoming an anti-Indian.

But during the unofficial blockade by India, the NC refused to term it a blockade. Why did the NC chicken out?

No, No. The NC is still treading the nationalist path shown by BP. If there is any nationalist force in the country, it is the NC. I have nothing to comment on chatake khel (jugglery act) of Oliji.

Was it a blockade or not?

It was, of course, a blockade. India did not call it a blockade, but we suffered a lot.

You called Oli a spellcaster, but how do you take his stance that he would not visit India until it lifted the embargo, and the vital agreements he forged with China to reduce Nepal’s dependency on India?

I appreciate Oli for his good works, but the NC can never be an anti-nationalist. During the Panchayat, we were castigated as an anti-national element. The NC never promoted one-sided relations with India or China. We have been maintaining equidistance between the two.

But your president, Deuba, sat with a minister of the Dalai Lama during a seminar in India sometime ago. Hasn’t this brought the NC’s foreign policy into question?

To my knowledge, this happened by keeping Deuba in ignorance. You’d better ask this question to Deuba. Recently, the Speaker cancelled a trip of lawmakers to India, suspecting that the Dalai Lama would also be a part of their meeting. Therefore, the NC is serious about this sensitive matter.

One year has elapsed since the general convention of your party, but why is there inordinate delay in appointing individuals to the post of office-bearers?

Elections are nearing, but the party has not yet formed a Work Execution Committee. I have been pressing Deuba to appoint the office-bearers at the earliest. He has some difficulty. Perhaps he is busy and unable to spare time for this.

As a son of BP, do you think you are carrying his legacy?

Yes, I am doing so whole-heartedly. His nationalism, democracy and socialism are the motto of NC. The day it distances from these principles, its future will also come to an end.

You talk about socialism, but the NC-led government sold off public enterprises to private companies at dirt cheap prices, forcing many people out of their jobs.

Nepal witnessed changes in two different periods. One was the 18-month-long tenure of BP Koirala when many changes, such as distributing land to the landless and preparing the design of the roads occurred. Another period was the term of prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala when privatisation received top priority. Many schools and colleges opened, thousands of kilometres of roads were built and the banking sector flourished. Owing to the openness, many people began to go outside, but the flight of youths in droves is unfortunate. We have to use Nepali human resource at home. From this point of view, we slightly deviated from socialism. But, during this time, GDP growth reached 9 per cent, and the national coffers remained strong. Thus, privatisation has had both pros and cons.

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