The term Madheshi people (Nepali: मधेशी) is ambiguous. Anthropologists use the term for people of Indian ancestry residing in the Terai of Nepal and comprising various cultural groups such as Hindu caste groups, muslims, merchants and indigenous people of the Terai. In recent times, some politicians and journalists use the term for all Nepali citizens of the Terai.
Indian immigrants settled foremost in present-day eastern Nepal Terai since the late 18th century, when the Shah rulers of Nepal encouraged deforestation and agricultural development of this region. Madheshi people comprise Brahmin and Dalit caste groups as well as ethnic groups such as Maithils, Bhojpuri and Bajjika speaking people. Many of these groups share cultural traditions and marital ties with people living south of the international border in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Tharu people and Pahari people living in the Terai do not consider themselves as Madheshi.
The word madhesh is thought to be derived from the Sanskrit मध्य देश madhya desh meaning middle country, which refers to "the central region, the country lying between the Himalaya and the Vindhya mountains".
History of Indian immigration to the Nepal Terai
Since the late 18th century, the Shah rulers of Nepal encouraged Indian people to settle in the eastern Terai through a series of subsidies granted to new settlers. In the 1770s to 1780s, famine-stricken Bihari farmers migrated to the Nepal Terai following a severe flood of the Koshi River and a subsequent drought. They converted forest to agricultural land. Immigration of people from neighbouring India increased between 1846 and 1950. They settled foremost in the eastern Nepal Terai together with native Terai peoples. In the mid 19th century, Muslim people from the Awadh region were invited to settle in the far-western Nepal Terai, where they received large forested areas for conversion to agriculture.
In 1952, a Nepal Citizenship Act was passed that entitled all those immigrants to obtain Nepali citizenship who had stayed in the country for at least five years. The Citizenship Act of 1963 entitled immigrants to receive Nepali citizenship if they were able to read and write Nepali and engaged in business. In 2006, the Nepal Citizenship Act was amended to the effect that people born before 1990 and residing permanently in the country obtained the right to Nepali citizenship. About 2.3 million people received citizenship certificates. The Constitution of Nepal 2015 contains provisions for a Nepali citizenship by naturalisation, which can be acquired by:
- foreign women who are married to a Nepali man;
- children of a Nepali woman and a foreign man.
Demographics of the Nepal Terai
With 33,998.8 km2 (13,127.0 sq mi), the Nepal Terai constitutes 23.1% of Nepal's land area. As of 2001, about 48.5% of Nepal's population lived in the Terai, which had the highest density in the country with 330.78 people per sqkm. As of June 2011, the Nepal Terai's human population totalled 13,318,705 people comprising more than 120 different ethnic groups and castes.
Since the late 1940s, the term 'Madhes' was used by politicians in the Nepal Terai to differentiate between interests of the people of the Terai and of the hills. In the 1950s, the regional political party Nepal Terai Congress advocated more autonomy for the Terai, recognition of Hindi as a national language and increasing employment opportunities for Madheshi people. During 1961 to 1990, the Panchayat government enforced a policy of assimilating diverse cultural groups into a pan-Nepali identity. Legal directives made it an offence to address inequality and discrimination of ethnic groups. The complexities of ethnopolitical conflicts between immigrants, caste groups and indigenous groups living in the Terai were not addressed. After the Panchayat regime was abolished following the People's Movement in spring 1990, disadvanted groups demanded a more equitable share of political resources such as admittance to civil service.
The Nepal Sadbhawana Party started lobbying for socio-cultural, linguistic and political rights of Madheshi people. The discussions on rights and demands of Madheshi people increased after the end of the Nepalese Civil War, in particular among Madheshi intellectuals and political elites. The political parties Janatantrik Terai Mukti Morcha and Madhesi Jana Adhikar Forum advocated the idea of an autonomous Madhes province stretching all over the Terai and organised violent demonstrations in 2007 to enforce their demands. The United Democratic Madhesi Front formed by Madheshi organizations pressured the government to accept this concept of autonomy under the motto "One Madhes One Pradesh". Several ethnic and religious groups in the Terai opposed and resisted this policy under the leadership of Madheshi parties, foremost Tharu and Muslim people. Armed groups like Terai Army, Madhesi National Liberation Front, Terai Cobras and Madhesh Mukti Tigers pursued this aim using violent means. Some members of these organisations were responsible for acts of terrorism including bombings and murders. The Alliance for Independent Madhesh also demands independence of the Terai. In 2013, more than 24 Madheshi political parties were registered for the Constituent Assembly of Nepal election.
Indian influence in Nepal Terai
After the Nepalese Constituent Assembly election, 2008, Indian politicians kept on trying to secure strategic interests in the Nepal Terai, such as over hydropower energy, development projects, business and trade. It has been alleged that by supporting the 2015 Nepal blockade, India tried to dominate Nepal's internal politics and foment the conflict in the Nepal Terai. The Indian government however denied all allegations of any involvement in the blockade.
The culture of Madeshi people is complex and diverse. The Muslim and indigenous peoples speak their own languages and have distinct cultural traditions that differ from the Hindu caste groups. Latter comprise at least 43 distinct groups.
Many Muslim Madheshis claim origins in India, Afghanistan, Arabia and Persia. They are influenced by the hierarchy of the Hindu caste system, with the difference that it is not based on the principle of pollution and purity, but on occupation.
The National Population and Housing Census of 2011 knows of 123 languages spoken in all of Nepal and lists:
- 3,092,530 Maithili speaking people (11.7% of Nepal's total population), of which 3,004,245 lived in the Terai;
- 1,584,958 Bhojpuri speaking people (5.98%), of which 1,542,333 lived in the Terai;
- 1,529,875 Tharu speaking people (5.77%), including 1,479,129 in the Terai;
- 793,418 Bajjika speaking people (2.99%), including 791,737 in the Terai;
- 691,546 speak Urdu (2.61%), including 671,851 in the Terai.
The following religions are practised in the Terai according to the National Population and Housing Census of 2011:
- Hinduism with 11,308,620 followers
- Islam with 1,105,533 followers
- Buddhism with 472,469 followers
- Kirat with 190,458 followers
- Christianity with 137,723 followers
- Prakriti with 63,747 followers
- Jainism with 2,169 followers
- Bon with 1,379 followers, less than 900 Bahá'ís and less than 500 Sikhs.
The religious practices of the majority of Madheshi people are a mixture of orthodox Hinduism and animism. Muslim Madheshis practise the traditional nikah marriage, which is recognised by law. Many practise endogamy.
In 1989, a study on food consumption pattern was conducted with 108 people in a village in Chitwan district. Results of this study showed that the people consumed seven food items on average. Rice constituted almost half of their daily food intake, supplemented by vegetables, potatoes, milk and dairy products. Less frequently they consumed meat, fish, eggs and fruit. About 13.7% of the total food intake of men was alcohol, whereas females consumed far less alcohol. Fruit commonly grown in the Terai include mango, lychee, papaya, guava, banana and jackfruit.
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