After the induction of Maoist lawmakers into a 330-member interim parliament on Jan. 15, many Nepalis thought they were near the end of a decade-long insurgency that had claimed 14,000 lives. But violent demonstrations in Nepal's lowlands have threatened to derail the country's fragile peace process that only one month ago looked full of promise.
The Madheshis, a group of indigenous ethnic groups who live in Nepal's lowlands, have spent the past three weeks agitating for greater autonomy and more representation in the new parliament.
The protests gathered momentum after police arrested 28 Madheshi activists in Kathmandu on Jan. 16 for burning copies of the interim constitution, and later turned violent after a Maoist cadre killed a Madheshi protester in clashes in eastern Nepal on Jan. 19 for blocking the highway.
The protests have left 19 people dead so far, including one policeman, according to Informal Sector Service Center, a human rights NGO in Kathmandu. With curfews in place for weeks in violence-torn industrial cities and towns bordering India, Kathmandu is running short of essentials, including fuel and cooking gas.
Central to the protests is an identity crisis between the larger Nepalese majority and and the Madheshis, who make up 26 percent of the country's population.
"This is not a simple law-and-order problem," says Ameet Dhakal, news editor of The Kathmandu Post, the leading English daily here.
"The protests are fueled by long-accumulated resentment, frustration, and desperation among the Madheshis, and real or perceived bias against them," he adds.
A Nepali, as defined in the era of the monarchy's direct rule before 1990, is a person who speaks the Nepali language fluently, is fair in complexion, and follows the customs and culture of the "hill people."
"The Madheshis do not fit into this frame of Nepaliness," Mr. Dhakal says. "Owing to their proximity to India and cross-border exchanges including marriage, Madheshis are considered less Nepali than the Pahades [people from the hills] who have dominated the country socially, culturally, economically, and politically for a long, long time."
A typical Madheshi, he says, is dark in complexion, identifies with a different culture, and either cannot speak Nepali fluently or speaks it in a "different" accent.
Despite the geographic vastness of the Madheshi region, the group continues to play a subordinate role in the state's political and economic machinery. Almost all of the chief administrators in Nepal's 75 districts are from the hills. Nepal's hill-dwellers have been known view Madheshis as "less Nepali," identifying them instead with neighboring India.
In fact, until the government passed a liberal citizenship bill late last year, Madheshis often had a difficult time securing citizenship certificates, which Nepalis need to vote, get a driver's licenses, own property, and carry passports. The lack of opportunity has disenfranchised a vast segment of the Madheshi population.
Several groups, including the Madheshi Peoples' Rights Forum and two splinter groups of Maoists, claim to lead the protests. The Forum was the first to articulate the Madheshis' political demands, which include a federal structure with some degree of self-determination for Madheshis, a proportional election system for the special assembly elections to draft a new constitution, and fair representation of Madheshis in state organs.
The protests have reactivated the political allegiances that divided Nepal before the peace deal reached late last year. As the protests continued, Maoist Chairman Prachanda, who uses only one name, was quick to capitalize on the confusion.
Prachanda has expressed solidarity with the Madheshis' demands, and issued a warning to eliminate "reactionary forces and retrogressive elements" infiltrating the protests.
Faced with mounting pressure from his war-weary nation, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala has constituted a cabinet-level team to begin dialogue with the Madheshis.
But as far as negotiations are concerned, the most formidable difficulty is the protesters' lack of an identifiable leader.
"The question at the moment is: Who to hold talks with? We don't know whether there is anyone who, after holding talks and agreeing upon something, can convince protesters that their demands have been met," says Ram Chandra Poudel, general secretary of the Nepali Congress, the largest party in the interim parliament.