Is Nepal’s law supportive of ethnic Madhesi’s fight for dignity?

We are known by our identity but when that very identity puts us through the unfavorability in life, are we supposed to conceal our heritage? The Madhesh community in Nepal has long faced significant hardships due to discrimination based on their background. Madheshis, who originate from the southern plains of Nepal known as the Terai region, have often been marginalised and subjected to derogatory terms and discriminatory behaviours. Despite their contributions to the cultural, economic, and social fabric of Nepal, they have been overlooked and their struggles have often gone unnoticed by the wider society.

Are there laws prohibiting ethnic or regional discrimination that have been effective?  What mechanisms are put in place to ensure the enforcement of anti-discrimination laws? Have legal frameworks turned a blind eye towards addressing the historical plight of the Madheshi community? Can’t the laws against hate speech, derogatory language, and stereotyping work in favour of Madheshis?


Nepal’s Experience in Ethnicity-Based Discrimination

Racial discrimination refers to unfair treatment based on skin colour, race, or ethnic origin, manifested through actions like social exclusion or resource denial. Discrimination can be implicit or explicit, influenced by factors like ancestry, appearance, language, and enforced through policies or cultural norms. Discrimination against Madheshis is a type of racial or ethnicity-based discrimination that takes various forms, including prejudiced attitudes, systemic inequalities, and limited access to opportunities. 

Nepal encompasses diverse geographical regions - the Himalayan range in the north, the middle Hilly region, and the flat Terai belt in the south, which is home to over 125 ethnic groups. These groups include Indo-Aryan, Tibeto-Burman, and various indigenous-language-speaking communities, representing 123 distinct mother tongues and a rich tapestry of cultures. Managing such intricate diversity becomes particularly challenging in the context of an unstable government and a weak bureaucratic system. Furthermore, Nepal is undergoing a process of restructuring that began after the Maoist insurgents signed a Comprehensive Peace Accord (CPA) with the government in 2006. Against this backdrop, the Madhesi community, with Indian ancestry residing in the Terai, faces formidable obstacles and hardships.

The Maoist rebellion in Nepal from 1996 to 2006 inspired Madhesi political groups to initiate mass protests against the Interim Constitution in 2007. However, the subsequent long-awaited constitution failed to meet the expectations of the Madhesis, causing disappointment after the initial hope brought by the Maoist uprising. The rebellion, supported by historically marginalised groups including the Madhesis, led to the overthrow of the monarchy and emboldened the Madhesis to demand their fair share of power and job opportunities.

Following the declaration of the new constitution, protests erupted as the Madhesis felt their key demands were unaddressed. These demands included better political and economic representation, an end to the discriminatory citizenship law, and the establishment of a separate Madhes state within the new federal structure. The conflict between the plains and Kathmandu was highlighted by the Madhesi blockade, which lasted two weeks and was assumed to have received unofficial support from India.

The Madhesi leaders hold the Nepalese government responsible for treating them as outsiders, leading to a lack of citizenship or voting rights for over 40 percent of the Madhesis. Additionally, only 15 percent of the Nepalese parliamentarians represent the Madhesi community, further exacerbating their concerns about inadequate representation.

The Terai belt in Nepal has seen migration from India since the late 18th century, with many settlers becoming known as Madhesi people. Some argue that the region should be considered a separate entity from Nepal, while others refer to it as Madhesh. The Madhesi people, with cultural ties to northern India, Bihar, and West Bengal, constitute roughly 20% of Nepal's population. The Terai is a fertile region and an agricultural hub, but the Madhesi community has faced neglect from the government in areas such as education, healthcare, and economic development, leading to significant poverty levels. They have been subjected to insensitive language and stereotypes that belittle their identity, perpetuating a cycle of discrimination that hinders their overall progress. 


The Plights

Based on the written submission to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) by the Asian Legal Resource Centre and the Terai Human Rights Defenders Alliance, Madheshi individuals face the following unjustified repercussions.

    • Statelessness issue: Children of citizens by birth are being denied citizenship certificates, citing lack of new federal law and limitations of the Citizenship Act, 2007. This disproportionately affects Madhesi community members and reflects structural discrimination.
    • Lack of fair trial: Alleged extrajudicial executions and excessive use of force during protests in the Terai region have not been adequately addressed by the government. The report from the High-Level Enquiry Commission remains undisclosed, and justice for victims and action against perpetrators have not been pursued.
    • Maltreatment in affirmative action: Constitutional provisions for affirmative action have been diluted, while reservation benefits for the ruling community, "indigent Khas Arya," have undermined positive discrimination for marginalised groups.
    • Persistence of caste-based discrimination: Dalit and Madhesi detainees continue to face ill-treatment in police custody, with higher likelihood of torture or ill-treatment compared to privileged communities.
    • Threats to marginalised community activists: Human rights activists from the Madhesi community and other vulnerable groups are targeted by governmental and non-governmental entities, facing threats, false defamation cases, and charges under cyber-crime laws.
  • Personal Attacks: With distinct ways of living, linguistic diversity, and unique cultural practices, they often face the misconception of being considered migrants rather than authentic Nepalese. The dominant caste ruling elite from the hilly regions and self-proclaimed nationalists belonging to centralist elites label the marginalised Madhesis with derogatory terms such as 'dhoti', 'madise/marise',  'bhaiya/bhaya', ‘vele’, 'kale’, and numerous others, inflicting deep emotional pain and hindering their progress in various aspects of life.


Legal Institution and Remedies

The following grants rights and quotas for Madhesis provided in Constitution of Nepal 2015 have been affected. However, the constitution does not define who a Madhesi is, unlike it does the Khas Aryas.

  • Art. 16, 17, 18 and 24: Rights mentioned in the constitution include the right to live with dignity, freedom, equality, and protection against untouchability and discrimination.
  • Art. 29: The constitution prohibits exploitation based on religion, custom, tradition, or any other grounds.
  • Art. 32: Every Nepalese community has the right to education in their mother tongue and the preservation of language, culture, and heritage.
  • Art. 42: Socially backward Madhesis have the right to participate in state bodies based on the principle of inclusivity.
  • Art. 51(j): Policies are in place for equal distribution of opportunities and benefits to the Madhesi community.
  • Art. 84: Representation of Madhesis is ensured in the House of Representatives through a closed list system.
  • Art. 262 and 306: The Madhesi Commission, consisting of a chairperson and up to four members, is established as a constitutional body.

Justice ensuring portal for the Madhesis has been instituted in Nepal through the Madhesi Commission that is regulated by the Madhesi Commission Act, 2074 (2017) which prescribes the following functions of the commission.

  • Conducting a comprehensive study on the overall situation of the Madhesi community.
  • Formulating national policies and programs to promote and protect the rights and interests of the Madhesi community and empower them.
  • Conducting studies and research to assess the effective implementation of provisions and arrangements for the promotion and protection of Madhesi community rights.
  • Collecting complaints against individuals or organisations that violate the rights of the Madhesi community.

Despite the laws and regulations, the possibility of training people out of their unkind ways does not seem evident. A defamation lawsuit was filed against a rights activist, two journalists, Kantipur Publications, The Kathmandu Post, and its editor in 2007. The lawsuit was based on an interview with human rights activist Dr. Mathura Shrestha published in The Kathmandu Post, where he quoted a Madhesi girl from Hatiya bazaar expressing concerns about forced marriages and sexual violence. The writ petition argues that Shrestha's comments not only insulted the people of Gaur but also defamed the entire Madhesi community, hindering the marriages of Madhesi daughters. This case is but the tip of the iceberg.



In order to enforce respectful treatment of Madhesi people in Nepal, it is crucial to adopt a multi-faceted approach involving raising awareness, challenging societal norms, advocating for inclusive policies, and fostering dialogue among different communities. By acknowledging and addressing the discrimination faced by Madheshis, Nepal can strive towards creating an inclusive and equitable society that values the contributions and dignity of every individual, regardless of their background. It is important to ignite empathy, promote dialogue, and encourage self-reflection among viewers to examine their biases. By amplifying the voices of marginalised Madheshis, the aim is to foster unity, understanding, and justice, ultimately bringing about lasting change. It is essential to move away from a divisive approach that labels dissenting voices as anti-national, and instead focus on addressing the rights agenda and promoting equal citizenship for all Nepalese.