The Himalayan country of Nepal is undergoing one of the largest crises it has ever faced. The crisis is the result of a new constitution. Nepal has been trying to successfully write and implement a constitution since the fall of the monarchy in 2008, but had failed to do so until now, having missed multiple deadlines. While it is a relief to many Nepalese that their country finally has a constitution, there is a perception among a large part of the population that the document has been rammed down their throats without their consent. Over recent weeks, protests have erupted in Nepal, especially in its southern regions, killing many and bringing trade and transportation to a halt.
Nepal is now starting to unravel on ethnic lines, especially since the unifying factors of the monarchy and Hinduism are no longer part of the official state ideology or new constitution; there is very little to hold a country as diverse as Nepal together without real federalism. However, the chief problem with Nepal’s new constitution is the fact that it leaves almost forty percent to half of the country’s population unhappy, the people of the Terai or Madhesh. Terai means “plains,” and the Nepalese Terai is a low-lying belt parallel to Nepal’s southern border with the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, home to about half of its population. The people of Madhesh speak languages that are closely related to or are dialects of the Hindi spoken across the border (the lingua franca of the Terai is Hindi) such as Awadhi, Tharu, Maithili, and Bhojpuri.
Nepal’s center of power and the home of its elite is the central, rugged region parallel to and north of Madesh, the pahad or hills. This area is home to Kathmandu, and the Gurkha or Nepali people who form about 45 percent of the country’s population. This region was divided into many small kingdoms until the king of one state, Prithvi Narayan Shah, carved out a domain in the Himalayas that became modern Nepal in 1768. In this process, the terai also became part of Nepal whereas it had previously been part of or tributary to the various kingdoms and empires of the Ganges Valley in northern India, including the Mughal Empire until its disintegration.
Both the people of the hills and the plains are mostly Hindu and part of the overall historic Indic civilization of South Asia, but their divergent political and cultural histories had caused a wide gap to open up between the Nepalis and the Madheshis, with the Nepalis being dominant and the Madheshis often being seen as not true Nepali citizens but as “naturalized citizens,” with many thought of as immigrants from India. Millions of Nepali citizens, especially those from Madhesh, live and work in India.
It is thus no surprise that Madheshis feel marginalized. The new constitution merely reinforces this. Nepal’s new constitution is discriminatory towards Madhesis because of its provisions for office and citizenship exclude naturalized citizens. Furthermore, women who marry non-Nepali men cannot pass on their citizenship automatically. This effectively disqualifies their children from top posts in Nepal even if they acquire citizenship, because they will only be naturalized citizens. To make matters worse, the new constitution concedes federalism, long a demand of the people of Madhesh, but not of the type they wished for. Nepal is now to be divided into seven states with boundaries that cut often across ethnic groups, angering many. Many in Madhesh wanted their entire region to be a separate, autonomous entity.
While the intention was to keep Nepal from becoming too decentralized, the opposite seems to now be occurring, as the inability of Nepal’s hill elites to share power has lead to mass protests in the terai, threatening the country’s future. Nepal is thus in the throes of a crisis where two groups of roughly equal size cannot agree on an equitable distribution of power; rather one dominates the other. This situation is not too dissimilar from that of Pakistan in 1971, where the militarily and politically dominant elites in West Pakistan dominated the slightly more populous East Pakistan (today’s Bangladesh). As in 1971, the elite group, instead of making concessions, is cracking down, violently on half of its nation.
What India does now is important. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown more support and warmth toward Nepal than any previous prime minister as he sought to renew ties that had frayed during the previous Congress government. Yet despite this fact, Nepal ended up hastily implementing a constitution unfavorable to almost half of its population—one that is deeply problematic for India and its security. India could face a major refugee crisis if things get worse. The truth is that Nepal is very important to India because of its location along its sensitive northern border. It cannot be allowed to remain aflame for too long, given its proximity to both China and New Delhi. India can, and has leaned on Nepal to try to find a solution. There are signs that Nepal is trying to do so, as its prime minister, Sushil Koirala, has canceled his trip to the United Nations in order to find a solution to the crisis.
But if a solution is not found, the 1971 scenario may also unfold in Nepal. This would lead to the detachment of the terai from Nepal and its union with India. This would not at all be a bad scenario for India since it would alleviate India’s geographic insecurity by pushing its border north and further away from its heartland. The development would also widen the very narrow Siliguri Corridor that connects India’s northeast with the rest of the country. Because of India’s regional power and good relations with both the United States and Russia, it is unlikely to be reprimanded in all but the most minor manner for such an action, especially if it is legalized in a subsequent referendum or treaty, the precedence for which has already been created in Kosovo and the Crimea. For the West to interfere too much if India were to take such an action would be to drive it straight into the Sino-Russian camp of global geopolitics. Despite India’s admirable embrace of the rule of law in the arbitration of many international disputes, the union of the terai with India is just too vital to India’s security to pass up, if the chance comes where such a thing can occur.
There are many, many benefits to being a part of India in terms of access to larger markets and more opportunities as well as being part of a federation that allows genuine autonomy. It is for this reason that when given the choice, the ethnic Nepali-majority population of Sikkim opted for union with India and not Nepal in 1975. It is likely that most of the people of Madhesh would prefer union with India than to remain in Nepal. The loss of Madhesh could even bring what would then be an even smaller and poorer rump Nepal into India, but this remains to be seen. If not, this rump Nepal would probably drift into the Chinese camp to an extent but not fully as it would still be dependent on India for trade. And if Nepal did drift into the Chinese camp, it would not be much of a problem because with much of its former territory part of India, India would achieve a net security gain.
Nepalese leaders, Madheshi chiefs, and India must all contemplate very carefully their next steps. Nepal should avoid Pakistan’s mistakes in 1971, but if it doesn’t, India should remember the deeds it wrought that year.