CK Lal, a retired government engineer, has a calm personality, but when it comes to issues related to Madhesh, his op-ed pieces touch the nerves of many. Lal, who was born in Mahottari, lives in Kathmandu and writes for reputed newspapers on ‘Kathmandu’s discrimination against Madhesh.’
Onlinekhabar’s Chiranjibi Paudel recently talked to Lal for around two hours in which he presented his arguments with utmost politeness. Translated excerpts from the interview:
How would you identify yourself?
I am a common man, I am interested in reading and writing. In a society like ours, education creates identity. That is why there are some people who identify me as an engineer.
Could you tell us about your family?
I was born to a simple farmer family. We lived in Suga Bhawanipatti in Mahottari. The area is now under Jaleshwor Municipality. We were involved in agriculture which did not yield much. But we did not have problems making our ends meet. I have six brothers and a sister.
How were your school days like?
The school I went to, Laxmi Chand Murarka High School, was considered one of the best schools in the area. These days, schools from the profit-making sector outperform it. During the 70s, only around a hundred students would secure first division in their SLC. I was one of them. Those students who secured first division were expected to choose between medicine and engineering. I chose engineering.
When did you come to Kathmandu?
I first came to Kathmandu after my SLC to get information on colleges here. But I went to Bangalore to study Diploma in Civil Engineering. I completed my bachelors from Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh. I returned to Kathmandu after that, to work at the Department of Roads. I was soon granted permanent status.
When I started working, I believed that the office would send me abroad to complete my masters. But when I started out, I was told that senior officials would get priority when it came to sending employees abroad for studies. But after I became a senior employee, I was told that senior employees must work and juniors should be sent abroad.
So when Pulchowk Engineering College started its master’s programme, I got enrolled in the first batch. I have been living in Kathmandu since then.
Why did you choose early retirement?
Employees who started working after me were promoted and they made it to positions above mine. That was the reason work became difficult. I went on a long leave after the 2006/2007 People’s Movement and chose voluntary retirement after the leave was over.
When did you start writing?
I used to write during my college days. But I was limited to English. It was difficult to write about political issues in the pre-democracy days. That is why I used to write about ‘Visit Pokhara’, ‘You see a good view of the mountains from Nagarkot’.
When did you start writing columns?
After 1990, a newspaper named Janamanch was launched. The publisher, Kishore Silwal, urged me to write in Nepali. That was when I started writing in Nepali. But that was not profitable. It took me extra time and effort to write in Nepali and the pay was half of what I’d receive for an article in English. That is the reason, I stopped writing the column after some time. But in the last 30 years, I have been writing weekly columns for various newspapers.
Did you write the columns just for intellectual pleasure or for money?
It was mostly for money. The government salary was limited. It was difficult to sustain. The money I’d receive from writing provided some support. That was the reason I’d write when I had time. I have not only written on political-social issues, but also on restaurants and books. My body had energy and I wanted to write. I wrote on issues I had no idea about by developing an understanding.
You also write for Indian papers.
I have written for newspapers such as Times of India, Hindustan Times and Frontline. I also wrote for the Kolkata-based The Telegraph. I was a columnist for the Delhi-based Jana Satta newspaper. But these days I do not write for Indian papers.
There was a problem sending the pay to Nepal. They’d deduct 30 per cent as tax and on top of that they’d need approval from the Reserve Bank to send money to Nepal. I’d have to open an account in India, for which I’d need an Aadhar card. That was why I stopped writing.
There was a time when you were labelled as a ‘pro-Congress’ writer. But in the recent past, you have been seen as a ‘pro-Madhesh’ writer. When did this change happen?
Many of our readers are intellectually lazy. It is easy for them to assign labels to writes to make sense of what they write. But I do not deny that I identify with the Congress. It was only natural. During the Panchayat days, anyone with political consciousness would be a supporter of the Congress. I was one of them.
When it comes to being ‘pro-Madheshi’, I say it is an error in perspective. I wrote in favour of the weak communities.
But, there was a time when you used to write on national politics. These days you are limited to regional issues.
It is the duty of a writer to stand for those who who are weak. There was a time when Madhesh expected a lot from the Congress. The Nepali Congress, indeed, did a lot for Madhesh. It was the GP Koirala government formed after the 2006 movement, that ensured proportional representation based on population. Madheshis these days have quotas to become government officers. This was made possible not by a revolutionary party; it was made possible by the Koirala government. When the Nepali Congress made decisions in favour of Mahdesh, Kathmandu labelled the party as a ‘Madheshi party’ and an ‘ant-national’ party.
Madhesh expected more from the Congress. But after the dissolution of the first Constituent Assembly and the demise of Koirala, the Nepali Congress turned into another UML or Maoist party. After I was disenchanted with the Congress, I dedicated myself to the agenda of Madhesh.
You receive a lot of criticism for what you write. Doesn’t that make you feel you might have written something wrong?
The criticism comes from the internet. I do not spend time on the internet. Some of my friends tell me about the criticism. But I do not pay attention to them. Our society itself is castist. It is the Bahuns who are educated and have the courage to berate me.
Excuse me, you are also a Bahun. But, Bahuns are by nature mean. Why should I take their criticism to heart?
But there are those who call you castist.
No, I am not castist. I side with the weak.
What is your definition of Madhesh. Is it representative of a caste or a community that lives in a certain geographical area?
Madhesh cannot be defined in terms of geography. Hill people who live in Madhesh cannot call themselves Madheshis.
‘Madheshi’ is not a caste.
Castes were created by Hinduism. Madhesh in its true essence is an ethnicity. People of the same ethnicity understand each others’ language, culture, and feelings.
I would like to share with you an anecdote.
In the past, one had to get a recommendation from a government officer to get a cell phone. A Madheshi from Kapilvastu came to my office at the Department of Roads after looking at my name plate. I told him I was not from Kapilvastu and recommended him to go to a Pahadi engineer from his area. But he told me the engineer I recommend was an ‘other’ person, and I was one of his own. That was why he came to me.
Not just him, many Madheshis from Jhapa to Dhangadhi came to me to get their documents attested. Not a single person from the Pahadi community came to me. This is what I mean by ethnicity.
You have been saying that the Madheshis have been discriminated against. Could you explain?
You can’t see the discrimination because you are a member of the ruling class. The constitution grants equal rights to everyone, but we can see that untouchability is still being practiced in Nepal. The Madheshis have been faced with discrimination for a long time in history.
The constitution has granted more reservation to Madheshis than to the Khas-Arya group. Where is the discrimination?
The language you are using is that of the ruling class. Your religion is that of the ruling class. Your Dashain is the Dashain of the ruling class. But in Madhesh, neither the language nor the lifestyle resembles that of the ruling class. That is why you don’t see the discrimination.
You are a member of the Madheshi community. You have established yourself as a respectable member of society. If Madheshis were discriminated against, would it be possible for you to reach this height?
I secured a job because of my personal qualifications. I face discrimination in different forms. For example, if the two of us go to a CDO office, the officials will ask you to sit and make me stand.
I would like to share an anecdote with you.
During the 1990s, Khangendra Sangraula and I were to go to Bangladesh. Only a few days remained before our departure; I did not have a passport. When Khagendra dai asked me about my passport, I told him that the CDO office had not issued it yet. The next day, we went to the CDO office, the clerk at the office greeted Khagendra dai with a namaste. He did not greet me. When Khagendr dai introduced me to him, he issued a passport immediately.
There’s one more incident I want to share. During the tenure of the second Constituent Assembly, Baburam Bhattarai invited me to provide suggestions for the draft constitution. I had told him it was difficult to enter Singha Durbar premises. He had asked the security personnel to jot down my name and to usher me in when I arrived. I reached there on time, the official at the gate asked for my ID card. When I showed him the card, he did not allow me in, saying that the photo on the card did not match with my face. In the end, Dr Bhattarai’s personal assistant had to come fetch me. Imagine the humiliation I had to face.
But how can you blame the state for incidents like these? You were not denied access because you are a Madheshi.
You cannot imagine going through incidents like this. You have never been subjected to these types of incidents.
The first president of Nepal was a Madhesi. Members of the community have become ministers many times. Can’t developments like these be taken positively?
Some people from Madhesh have reached high office in Nepal. but there hasn’t been a change in who holds permanent state powers in the country. When you mix milk with water, milk remains milk, it does not become water.
When President Dr Yadav urged the leaders to wait for a few days before promulgating the constitution, Prime Minister KP Oli, Congress leaders Krishna Prasad Sitaula and even Sushil Koirala chided him. Don’t you think they did it because he was a Madheshi?
Nepali is just a cultural group. The culture dominates Nepali politics. It does not include Madheshis. That is the reason why federalism, proportional representation and inclusiveness were needed. This is a struggle that will go on for years. Khadga Prasad Oli says there are Madheshis in Nepal, but there is no Madhesh in Nepal. How disrespectful is that?
Ok. Let’s change the topic. What is your view on the agreement between CK Raut and the government?
I don’t give it much importance. For people who do not know CK Raut, the deal would have appeared to be important. We must not forget that he was once a UML-backed student union sympathiser. I know Raut’s past and that is why the deal did not surprise me.
There are a group of people who believe that the government bowed down before Raut.
I say that the agreement was signed to benefit both the parties. I don’t think any party bowed down before the other. The government won, CK Raut also won.
During one of your interviews, you said that there was no reason for Madhesh to remain with Nepal. Is it ok for a government pensioner to make such remarks?
If you read the whole interview, you’d see that I have explained it in detail. What is the basis of national unity? First, people should feel that everyone is equal. Second, justice should be ensured. Third, there should be a feeling among people that there has been progress. Fourth, people should feel that they do not lag behind others. If you are to think like a Madheshi living in Nepal, you do not see these things happening.
If an oppressed community is scattered across the country, it remains silent. But Madheshis are not scattered. Kathmandu might be home to around 1 million Madhehsis–the rest of them are in Mahdesh. They face discrimination, they are upset.
Have you accepted Nepal’s new constitution?
You must be the only person in Nepal who hasn’t accepted the constitution. The Madheshi parties who were against the constitution have accepted it and even contested elections under it.
I don’t think so. They have bowed down in front of power. When an army of 100,000 and a police force of 150,000 forces someone to do something, there’s no option.
Province 2 was created by incorporating eight districts. A Madheshi-led government is in power there.
Federalism in Nepal has not been implemented according to the will of the Madheshis. The province is akin to a small hut granted by a landlord to his tenant.
There are those who say that India stands to wield its influence on Province 2. Do you see that?
In my opinion, Province 2 was created with the sole motive of allowing India to take over it. The people there only talk of rights, if India takes over, a big headache will be gone. The Madheshi people should not rely on India.
India’s interests are related to the Padhadi community. Thousands of Pahadis work in the Indian Army. The President and even the Prime Minister has Pahadi cooks.