Nepal's Terai: Constructing an Ethnic Conflict

PRIO Paper

Miklian, Jason (2009) Nepal's Terai: Constructing an Ethnic Conflict [South Asia Briefing Paper #1]. PRIO Paper. Oslo: PRIO.

After the government of Nepal signed a peace agreement with the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist in 2006 to end a 10 year civil war, local and international observers were surprised to see new fighting erupt in the Terai region of southern Nepal. The violence, however, was initiated not by either party to the civil war but by groups targeting both the state and the Maoists, polarizing citizens along ethnic issues largely unaddressed during the civil war.

In 2007, three of these groups joined forces to create a coalition called the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF).The UDMF’s stated goal is to transform the Terai into a single autonomous province of Madhes. To accomplish this, the UDMF has redefined the identity of those people living in the Terai and those outside of it, in turn exacerbating ethnic division and violence at the grassroots level.

This narrative has benefited the UDMF by binding otherwise disparate ethnic groups together, constructing a history of the Terai that makes it their exclusive political domain, polarizing society into a ‘Madhesi vs. Pahadi (Kathmandu valley)' dichotomy that scapegoats elite ethnicities for local problems, and dissociating Madhesi political leaders from their Maoist past. The UDMF uses political violence to draw attention to the plight of those from the Madhesi ethnic group, signing two peace agreements over the past year with political leaders in Kathmandu to push reform and articulate their grievances.

However, implementation of the agreements is complex and problematic. Nepal’s government is in a difficult spot: it committed to UDMF directives that, if implemented in their entirety, will likely increase conflict within the Terai while simultaneously fracturing the state and weakening Nepal’s fragile institutions.

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