My reservations about the name ‘Madhesh’ for Province 2

No historical documents describe the Tarai plains as Madhesh. The term Madhesh does not reflect the rich culture of Mithila.

Prem Singh Basnyat

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The Provincial Assembly of Province 2 of Nepal resolved a longstanding issue of what the province should be named on January 17. Out of 99 assembly members, 80 voted in favor of the name ‘Madhesh’ for eight districts out of which Province 2 has been created.

I have the best wishes for the people of Province 2. I hope and pray that this province would be the most developed province of Nepal, its people would be the most prosperous and happiest people of Nepal.  Madhesh province, as it is called now, is a lifeline of Nepal as much as rest of Nepal is a lifeline for that province. I am writing this article because there is euphoria, the feeling that a battle has been won against the state of Nepal, which has been projected as an ‘enemy’, in acquiring that name.  I know this euphoria will subside in time and my opinion, which at the moment might sound pretty unpopular for some, will be something to look back on some years down the line.

But I want to say what I want to say. Provincial assembly and the representatives of that assembly made a mistake by choosing that name to define their province. Here is why.

First, because Madhesh does not define the territory of Nepal that lies in that province today. It has no historicity. Nepal is a country endowed with natural beauty, composed of three ecological zones—the Himalayas, Hills and Tarai. We are a rich country with untapped reserves of resources with Himals, hills and Tarai being interdependent on each other. We have an interesting history of   several princely states unified into a single entity of Nepal.

Only he may know, on what considerations, or perhaps the pressure, the then Prime Minister of Nepal Girija Prasad Koirala agreed to the idea of Madhesh province of the Madhesh-based parties.

But ever since the time of founder of Gorkha state Dravya Shah in 1559 and all through the period of unification of Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah, nothing of such a   place as Madhesh can anywhere be found. There were states such as Bijaypur, now called Dharan in the east, Choudandi, Makawanpur, Palpa, Pyuthan, Salyan, Doti    and other small princely states. There were places like ‘char kose jhadi’ along the strip of land from Mechi to Mahakali, and sparse settlements of people in and across Biratnagar, Janakpur, Saptari and Bara. Nowhere in the history has this writer found ‘Madhesh’ used for the land in the plains by the locals there. Nepal fought the war with the British from 1814 to 1816 in the post-unification period which ended in the Sugauli Treaty with the loss of a large landmass beyond Tista and Mahakali River. The British called Nepal’s plains Tarai not Madhesh. The memorandum approved by the King of Nepal  (Nepaul as pronounced by the British) in 1816 mentions the following: The British government agrees to return all the areas after thorough test and verification of the disputed lands of the Tirahut and Saran by both sides, and such areas if they belonged to either side plus the additional area of land in between Kusha (Koshi) and Gandak (Gandaki) rivers that  initially belonged to Nepal before the dispute. It further says ‘regarding the disputed areas of land in the Terai which serve as   border, and in addition, the Terai area in between the Rapti and  the Gandak rivers, Butwal and Siunra, plus the area adjoining the Gorakhpur.’ It goes on to say that “after the pull out of the British occupancy, the King of Nepal shall  not accuse or trouble any of the inhabitants of the Terai because   they supported the British in the war earlier.” The letter by Nepal’s king dated December 1816 also mentions the territory as Terai. 

For years, a question will be asked why Madhesh, which has no historicity, was chosen while there were better options available. 

As a gesture of good will, when Jung Bahadur Rana sent the troops in his command on request of British India to suppress the Sepoy Mutiny (India calls it movement of independence), and afterwards when Jung Bahadur demanded the return of territory lost from the Sugauli Treaty the British India returned Nepal the area of land which covers the districts of Banke, Bardia, Kailali and Kanchanpur today. Nowhere in the treaty and letter of correspondence is the mention of the word Madhesh. It says Terai.

For example, Nepal-India Exchange of Treaty of 1860 says the British government returns the land of the Terai area between Rapti and Kali rivers along with the land of the Terai area that falls between the Rapti River and Gorakhpur district with status of sovereignty. The Terai areas were under Nepal in 1815.

None of the historical documents which describe the territories of Nepal have described the Tarai plains as Madhesh. Actually, the term Madhesh does not reflect the rich culture and languages of the plains. It actually refers to the land across the Nepal border to India.

Province 2 had many other options that could have reflected the diversity, rich culture and identity of the land and the people: Mithila, Mithila-Bhojpura, Janakpurdham, Janakpur and so on. Mithila is an ancient city with glorious history, Janakpurdham and Janakpur refer to sacred sites in that province. I wonder what purpose the name Madhesh serves except for satisfying the egos and arrogance of some of the leaders who wanted to retain that name.

A name does not make any province rich or poor or prosperous and developed. In that sense, a name is immaterial but people will continue to ask, and for years and years, why that name, which has no historicity and which does not reflect the culture and identity of people living in that territory, was chosen while there were other better options available.

Prem Singh Basnyat is a Brigadier General (Retired) of the Nepal Army. A Ph.D. in military history, he has authored several books on the military and political history of Nepal, besides being a visiting lecturer to universities in Nepal and abroad. He is also the Chairman of the Nepal Museum Association.