Nepal is a small South Asian Himalayan country of about 28 million people. With the restoration of democracy (known as spring awakening) in 1990 and the dramatic protests in 2006 that caused King Gyanendra to relinquish power, Nepal has come out of its cocoon and has drawn the attention of the world.

Today’s coalition government, made up until recently of eight major political parties, has been promoting a Nov. 22 election for a constituent assembly. On Sept. 18 the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) withdrew from the government, and now the Nov. 22 election date is a bit uncertain.

Once the elections are held for the assembly are held, however, the aim of the newly constituted body would be to ensure the foundation of justice, morality and a healthy social life for all Nepalese, that is, to reduce or eliminate all types of economic, social, racial, ethnic and other disparities.

One issue that merits close attention during this period is how Nepal copes with its ethnic issues. Of particular importance in this regard is the issue of the “Madhesis,” the multi-ethnic, indigenous population in the southern plains bordering India.

Nepal is only about 54,000 square miles in area, but it encompasses more than 60 ethnic groups amid myriad other socio-cultural diversities. Previously known as a splendid mosaic of all these communities, Nepal, after the 1990s, has been beset by the complexities of the ethnic paradigm.

Until recently, the ruling power of the state, be it political, bureaucratic or social, has remained in the grip of handful of the so-called upper castes, and all others, including ethnic minorities, have been marginalized. This has enraged people like the Madhesis.

Now in “Madhes,” the land of Madhesis, a score of armed groups have sprung up to fight for the rights of Madhesis by liberating them from the age-old domination of “Pahadis,” the indigenous inhabitants of the uplands of Nepal, the central and northern parts, who have always enjoyed special privileges.

Madhesis are treated unfairly by the state and society. This is the population that tills in the earth and toils in the factories, yet starves to death. They have long been living as second-class citizens. They want equitable power-sharing in socio-political arena, not to remain victims of internal colonization under a feudal-like system.

In the context of Nepal’s long-standing, pro-Pahadis political policy, the problem of Madhes presents itself as a crisis of national identity. Madhesis are not Indians, but they are still not recognized as full-fledged Nepalese by the government. This has produced utter frustration among them, compelling them sometimes to adopt violent measures to bring their situation to light.

The violence and casualties these days, especially in Madhes, trumpets the possibility of a civil war. Some people opine that this is a broth boiled by the suspended king and his men; others suspect Indian extremist forces are behind it. In either case the goal, these people say, is to instigate riots to hinder the election for the constituent assembly. But hardly any evidence is produced to support these theories.

By and large, the responsibility for addressing the Madhesi problem rests with the country’s political leadership. Many who advocate a federal system of government have included in their platforms a call to uplift the Madhesis by ensuring their identity, representation and place in the national mainstream.

In the forefront of these forces is the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist), which will be fielding candidates for the constituent assembly. Other parties like the socialist Nepali Congress Party appear to be too preoccupied with their internal issues.

One can only hope that the day is not far off when all of Nepal’s workers can enjoy peace, prosperity and a better life.