A prominent secessionist leader from Nepal earlier this month agreed to give up his demands for an independent Madhes state, averting the chances of conflict in the country’s south.
Chandra Kant Raut signed an 11-point agreement with the government led by the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) pledging to honour the “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” of the country.
Raut-led the Alliance for Independent Madhes has been running a campaign for an independent state for the historically marginalised people from the southern region, also known as Terai, bordering India.
In return, the government headed by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli has committed to dropping all charges against Raut, who was released from jail a day before the signing of the deal, whose details have not been made public.
Raut, who has been in and out of jail a dozen times for anti-state activities, denounced violence and agreed to join mainstream politics in a major boost to the Oli government that has faced people’s discontent from the southern region.
The Madhesi people, who have been underrepresented in Nepali state structures, have accused the northern hilly people of discrimination.
Part of the southern region was given to Nepal by the British colonial rulers in the 19th century.
“There is no ground for separatist movement in Nepal. The government offered him to surrender at once, he needs to support the sovereignity and integrity of the country,” Deputy Prime Minister and Health Minister Upendra Yadav told Al Jazeera.
“We are watching carefully to note whether or not he will follow the agreement.”
Raut had campaigned against the state, accusing it of racial discrimination against Madhesi people. With a deep attachment to Madhesi issues, he returned to Nepal in 2011 from the US where he worked as a scientist.
Analysts say the agreement might help Raut to establish his own political party, and if he does, he might strengthen Madhesi movement.
In 2007, people in the Terai region launched an agitation demanding proportional representation system and federalism. The agitation ended after their demands, including recognition of Madheshi culture and language, were accepted.
“… championing for the rights of Madhes would be one of the main political agendas among others,” Bhaskar Gautam, a political scientist associated with North South Collectives, a centre for social and policy research, told Al Jazeera.
One of the main agendas for Madhesi parties has been the amendment of the constitution passed in 2015 as part of Nepal’s democratic transition following the end of the decade-long civil war in 2006.
Nepal adopted its first democratic constitution in 2015, which saw the unitary state divided into seven provinces.
The Madeshi groups and an indigenous group, Tharu, rejected the constitution, saying the provincial divisions should be based on the ethnic populations spread east to west. The promises made to the Madhesi groups in the 2007 were watered down, sparking fresh protests.
“Constitution amendment in Madhes is a genuine call. Recently, Madhes-based political parties have instrumentalised this call mainly to gain power, thus making the call weaker and without significant organised voices to back it up,” Gautam said.
But Vijay Kant Karna, a political science professor at Tribhuvan University in the capital, Kathmandu, says “the agreement between Raut and the government has nothing to do with the issue of Madhes or Madhesis”.
“The agreement was done in prison under threat. He also had personal pressure regarding his family and future. He signed it to escape imprisonment of 10 to 20 years,” Karna, a former ambassador of Nepal to Demark, told Al Jazeera.
“The agreement is silent on discontent and constitutional issues,” Karna, who is in possession of the agreement, said.
“Madhesi parties refused to accept the constitution and protested against [it]. The people of Madhes have raised these issues since many years through several phases of movement. It doesn’t even talk about the demand of autonomous Madhes and Tharuhat.”
Some opposition parties have condemned the deal calling it “anti-national”.
“The agreement reached by the government with CK Raut is seen to support a cessationist,” Sher Bahadur Deuba, President of the main opposition Nepali Congress, said at a press conference last week in the tourist city of Pokhara.
“Such agreement poses a risk to the nation’s unity.”
Raut, who holds a PhD degree from Cambridge University, has announced the formation of his own political party – the Janamat Party (Referendum Party) – which will “continue its struggle to safeguard the rights of the people in line with the constitution of Nepal”.
Will he be able to help Madhesi people earn their diginity and equality back that other mainstream parties have failed to achieve so far?
“He would try to establish a party in Madhes to vouch the rights of Madhes. However, this agreement between him and the government is not going to benefit Madhes.
“There is a strong suspicion that he has surrendered to the government,” Karna said.