Seemingly small and, thereby, homogenous, Nepal is a nation-state fraught with problems common to almost all of South Asia: ethnic diversity that leads to tensions between the various groups, painful identity politics with the aim of securing group rights, debates about who originated in an area that has come to be defined by migration over centuries, border conflicts, corruption, and environmental policies that create conflicts between humans and other species (dilemmas in which wildlife all too often takes precedence over human rights). And yet, it is the images of the snow-capped Himalayas, the abode of the Lord Shiva, and Sherpas and Gorkhas as quintessentially Nepali that come to mind when one thinks of Nepal.
Those who associate Nepal with the Himalayas may well emerge better informed about its physical as well as political geography after reading Maximillian Mørch’s Plains of Discontent: A Political History of Nepal’s Tarai (1743-2019), a detailed history of the Tarai, the region of the plains in Nepal (sharing the plains geography and a border with India) whose indigenous population is neither ethnically nor linguistically “Nepali”. Mørch contextualizes the story of the “internal colonialism” (that is, a combination of marginalisation and economic exploitation) the region faces at the hands of the various regimes because those in power hail from the hills and do not empathize with the needs of this geography pushed away as periphery.
As Mørch explains it, the Tarai plains are a geography that throws the mighty Himalayas into stark relief. These are, or used to be, regions of the dense forests that made for a natural border between what today are Nepal and India since the days of the British Empire. The region was a natural border also because it was haunted by “the forest disease”, now known as malaria, that dissuaded anyone except the indigenous Tharu community from settling here. For as long as it was isolated (prior to the mid-20th century when extensive DDT use eradicated malaria in the region), it had an identity of its own: this was the birthplace of Sita (of the Ramayana) and Siddhartha Gautama (who later became the Buddha). It was a region that, given its proximity to the Indian plains, was prosperous due to trade and cultural ties. Now, it is reduced to land that is not only exploited for its natural resources but also impacted adversely by the central administration’s policies and Indian border blockades (at the times when tensions between India and Nepal worsen).
The book opens with the infamous Tikapur massacre of 2015, one bloodbath in a series of violent attacks and counter-attacks in which the minority communities of the Tarai region protested against the new constitution of Nepal, which, if implemented, would continue to marginalize the ethnic communities here: since the pahadias or the people from the hills have historically been powerful, the people of the Tarai have not not enjoyed rights and autonomy in their own land. Mørch goes back in history to capture the tragedy the ethnic minorities in the region face. Different periods or regimes exploited the region in different ways and a discussion of all of it may not make much sense other than in the book length treatment that Mørch so ably provides. But two examples might convey how convoluted the situation is in the region. For instance, the region carried the brunt of damage from being caught between the aggressive and expansionist East India Company on the one hand, and the Shah dynasty from the late 18th century onwards. At the hands of the rulers’ policies to forge a coherent Nepali identity modeled on the ways of life of the hills, the Tarai peoples felt a loss of their own culture while also being punished for fighting on the side of the Company in the Anglo-Nepal War of 1816.
The Rana dynasty that came to power after the Shahs made the matters worse by introducing taxation that pinched the Tarai people hard. They also encouraged migration to the region by offering land to the migrants from the hills. The policy changed the status of the indigenous communities such as the Tharus and the Madhesis from being the sons of the soil to a community that began to shrink in numbers. The exploitation of the forests for hunting sport as well as for supplying timber towards the expansion of the railways in India impoverished the region further.
The tragedy has continued until the present day amid all the chaos caused by change of structure of power from monarchy to coup to democracy with the region living more or less in an emergency-like situation. Deprived of equal representation in affairs of state, the Tarai plains have always been aflame because of local unrest, oppressive state policies, Maoist insurgency, and the disturbance caused by the NGOs as they enjoy absurd degrees of freedom in the region to police human and animal trafficking. Mørch gives an example of how the NGOs work as actors at par with the local police when it comes to working against human trafficking to India:
However, the open border provides avenues for discrimination against Madhesis, discrimination which belies the supposedly open status of the border. For many Madhesis and Tharus, even the open border isn’t truly open. It has been reported that despite the stated rights of free unhindered travel between two countries, Madhesis are often restricted by the police, who have been known to take bribes to allow them to continue, to NGOs halting the travel of women to prevent human trafficking. There have been repeated instances of females travelling with men not being allowed to pass through the border until marriage certificates are provided.
The people of the Tarai also face accusations of smuggling flung at them by the international agencies working in the domain of wildlife conservation, Yet the elite cartels involved in animal trafficking and/or poaching of animals such as tigers and other “exotic” animals go unpunished while the internally displaced local communities that fall prey to these cartels are shot at sight by the local police. International agencies involvement can thus worsen the situation in the region by inadvertently aiding the repression of the regional communities.
While maps would have helped guide readers in the shifting geographical boundaries in different periods aside, the book is nevertheless not just an in-depth introduction to the Tarai region but also a remarkable history of Nepal itself:
When we look back at hundreds of years of the history of the Tarai, what do we see? It is not just the confluence of politics of identity, ethnicity and oppression. It is so much more than that, it is the study of land reform, feudalism, linguistic politics, borders and their implications, resource theft; all nuanced issues. It is knowing how political elites can invite migrants to settle and exploit their labour one minute and the next cast them out as unwelcome outsiders, as soon as it becomes politically expedient. It is an understanding of Maoism, casteism, internal migration and colonialism and the idea of the other. It is understanding the lack of knowledge majority groups have about the minorities, and the dynamics and oppressions within minority groups themselves, as the majority within the minority dominates, and the implications of that. It is understood that the history of the Tarai’s relationship with Kathmandu casts long shadows that continue to affect policy and politics today. Perhaps more than that, it is understanding that the situation in the Tarai is so much complex that it defies easy explanations and binary answers. The nuance is too deep for that. If we truly understand the growth, the infighting, the successes and failures of the Madhesi and Tharu movements, we go a long way towards understanding modern-day Nepal and its plains of discontent.
“It is easy”, Mørch points out, “to justify the conquest of land if you believe it to be, or declare it as, uninhabited with no rightful owner, heritage, or living history.” In writing Plains of Discontent, he has addressed this lack of narrative so that the region can come to be engaged with it in its own terms, mindful of centuries of injustice its people have faced.
Author Maximillian Mørch reviews for the Asian Review of Books.
Soni Wadhwa lives in Mumbai.