Months after two devastating earthquakes that killed 9000 people, Nepal is now confronted with another humanitarian crisis, this time due to a blockade at a crucial crossing on the border with India, which has halted oil and other essential supplies landlocked Nepal obtains from its giant neighbor. The blockade, which Nepal’s government blames on India (New Delhi denies involvement) immediately followed the passage of a new constitution by Nepal on September 19.
The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has expressed its displeasure at Nepal’s constitution, a position made clear in a series of statements issued by Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) in new Delhi. Citing MEA sources, Indian Express even circulated a seven-point demand for amendments to the constitution, within days of its promulgation. With the election of nationalistic leader K P Oli as prime minister in Nepal, the rift between Delhi and Kathmandu has widened, and could potentially lead to a massive humanitarian crisis, as shortages of fuel, medicines, and essential supplies become acute across Nepal, with no sign of a reconciliation in sight.
But why should India be so unhappy at Nepal’s historic moment?
During the decade of the Maoist War (1996-2006), Nepal was mired in crisis. India’s help as a neighbor was crucial in striking a peace deal in 2004, creating the foundation for a comprehensive peace deal between the Nepalese government and the Maoists. Since then, Nepal has been moving through a process of peaceful transition, making impressive strides in a number of areas: ending monarchy, adopting secularism, promoting social inclusion, and achieving development. On the whole, the agenda of political reform has been, and is being, well handled. There is a sense of readiness for the remaining challenges ahead, and a degree of political contention and civil society watchdogging continues to pressure national leaders to keep the reform process going.
If India wants its neighbor to prosper, then why does it treat Nepal as if it still needs to be pushed around, instead of accepting that Nepal is able to move ahead as an independent nation?
India in Nepal
It is widely understood in India and Nepal that the two countries are more than just neighbors; the relationship is “special.” One aspect of this is that the Indian establishment has always viewed Nepal as being within India’s larger security envelope in relation to China. Some observers see Nepal as not landlocked but “India-landlocked.” On three sides, Nepal borders India, while another neighbor, China, is separated by the Himalayas, including Mount Everest itself. Unsurprisingly, then, India has always held sway over Nepal, but what is noteworthy is that India’s influence in Nepali politics has intensified over the past few decades, especially after the advent of multi-party democracy in 1990, when Nepal’s monarchy ceded power to party leaders. Indeed, Nepal’s relationship with India is strongly tinged by the British colonial era, although Nepal never became a formal colony. But relations in the post-1990 era have shown a consistent trend of increasing and mostly unwarranted Indian interference in Nepal’s affairs.
Nepalese leaders have been complicit in this interference. In the decade from 1996, Nepal was in the grip of the Maoist War. India helped resolve the conflict by facilitating a 12-point agreement between the Maoist party and the other national political parties in 2004. Included in the package was a roadmap for subsequent political development in Nepal. But this process also established India, for better or worse, as an extraordinarily powerful political player in Nepal. With many and diverse interests, India’s increasing involvement in Nepal has become increasingly contentious, although there is no national consensus in Nepal on India’s position. What remains clear is that too often the established principles of diplomacy have been ignored by India’s envoys and officials.
The differences between Delhi and Kathmandu grew more noticeable when Kathmandu began to act on its own. After the constituent assembly election in 2008, when India’s direct political engagement in Nepal became unnecessary, the perception emerged among the Nepalese that India was bullying Nepal in order to secure its own interests over hydropower energy, development projects, business, and trade. India continued to tell Nepal what it should and should not do. This led to a cooling of relations between the Indian establishment and Nepali leaders. Tensions then ratcheted up in June, when Nepal’s leaders, challenged by the devastating earthquake, decided to expedite the process of promulgating the new constitution, after five years of delay. This was a collective decision by Nepal’s major parties, although it was not free from contention within Nepal.
This decision to go with the new constitution was a milestone for Nepal, not least because it ended the state of political transition. For years following the peace deal with the Maoist Party in 2006, Nepal only had an interim constitution. The country’s leaders were correct in their judgment that an imperfect constitution was better than no constitution at all, but they were unable to predict India’s response, which in turn was linked to some of the dissatisfactions within Nepal itself.
Nepal’s Constitution, India’s Discontent
After 10 years of post-conflict transition and two constituent assembly elections, Nepal finally adopted a constitution. India’s displeasure with this development has both symbolic and strategic dimensions. For one thing, India felt that it was not given due respect when Nepal finally reached its momentous decision. On the day Nepal celebrated the new constitution, India merely took note of it and expressed concerns over tensions in the border regions. India was specifically indicating the ongoing protests by some Madheshis who felt that their concerns were not addressed in the constitution.
Nepal’s constitution was the product of years of fractious debate. It was not easy for the country’s leaders to reconcile the various positions. With more than 100 ethnic groups claiming rights and some even demanding their own provinces under the new federal structure, satisfying everyone was an immensely difficult task. Yet, the constitution was backed by more than 90 percent of the elected Constituent Assembly.
The stated reason for India’s unhappiness is that Nepal’s constitution denies the rights of the Nepalese Madheshis living on India’s border, many of whom have close familial ties with Indians. A discontented Madhesh is of course an issue for India – after all, unrest in southern Nepal bordering India has the potential to destabilize the Indian side of the border. But India should have addressed these concerns by engaging with the central elected authority of Nepal.
Certainly, it is true that some of the Madheshis’ demands were not reasonably addressed at the time the constitution was adopted. The claims of the Madheshi focus on several issues, including the boundaries of the provinces and the provision of citizenship for family members. While these demands are a matter of debate, there are some genuine grievances. The new constitution does not really promise to end the longstanding political and cultural hegemony over the Madheshi people. It is also true that Nepal’s political leaders have failed to engage Madheshi communities and broaden ownership of the new constitution. Still, these are all internal issues for Nepal, and a process of constitutional amendment has already begun.
What is worrying here is India’s backing of the Madheshi movement, and most notably the widespread perception in Nepal that it is behind the economic blockade. Moreover, under Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India has another reason to be unhappy with Nepal. For the Hindu-nationalist (BJP), Nepal’s majority Hindu population is an important vehicle through which to expand political clout. Modi himself and his party leaders have invoked religious narratives on several occasions to redefine the Nepal-India relationship. Yet regardless of the country’s overwhelming Hindu majority, Nepal’s political parties have adopted secularism, clearly delinking the state from any particular religion.
Nepal’s Internal Failure
The geopolitical crisis around the Nepal Constitution arose not simply because India wanted more of a role in Nepal. In making major decisions about the constitution, especially delineating the provinces of the new Nepal, many news reports and intellectuals argue that a Pahade (namely, related to the hill people who dominate Nepal’s national politics) hegemonic mentality dominated the decision, ignoring some of the genuine concerns of the Tharu and Madheshi peoples. The national political parties are dominated by hill Brahmins, followed by Chhetri and Newars, all of whom are of hills origin. The root of the crisis of representation is that these parties have failed to bring members of agitating groups into the national parties, at a time when inclusive governance was particularly critical in post-monarchy Nepal, as multiple communities suddenly became aware of their rights. This failure of the Kathmandu leaders provided a hotbed for agitation in Madhesh, whose people enjoyed the support of the Modi government.
More importantly, subnational politics in Terai has also failed to represent Madheshi communities effectively at the national level through electoral politics. Madheshi parties are known for their divisions and conflicts not because of ideological differences but because of their leaders’ interest in the repeated games of power in Kathmandu. In the last election, the regional parties bagged many fewer seats that the national parties did. Many of the leaders who were defeated in the last Constituent Assembly election have come together to form alliances to agitate against the national parties that won more than 90 percent of the vote.
The Madheshi agitation for rights is only the tip of the iceberg. The more serious issue of exclusion goes unspoken: the Dalits and landless people forced to work as bonded labor of the landed aristocrats in the Terai are not in the Madheshi movement. For this reason, even if the current Madheshi movement succeeds in negotiating power with the central authority in Nepal, it is very likely that Dalits and marginalized groups including women in the Madhesh will not receive their rights. If Nepalese politics seeks to ensure proportional representation of disadvantaged groups, then the pressing issue is not just Madheshi inclusion, but more importantly the Dalits of both Madesh and hill origins.
After two months of blockade, Nepal has a looming humanitarian crisis. India erred in backing the protesters in Nepal’s Madhesh and denouncing the elected government as the ruling “Kathmandu elite.” Now the problem has been compounded with the blockade, which pits one group of Nepalese against another. Many Nepalese believe that some of the Madheshis’ demands are actually framed in terms of India’s strategic interests. The demand for the creation of two states across Nepal Terai is a case in point. If heeded, two Madheshi provinces will run all of 800 kilometers long, but only 20-30 kilometers wide, forming a long strip on the southern plain of the country to India’s benefit and Nepal’s disadvantage. Particularly given the perception that India and the Madheshis have worked together to impose the blockade, many Nepalese believe that the establishment of two Terai provinces as a threat to Nepal’s integrity.
With Nepal struggling to recover from its devastating earthquake, India runs the risk of being seen as inhumane if it allows the economic blockade to continue. Nepal’s new constitution is an important first step, and Nepali leaders should be able to amend it to address any grievances of local communities, including the Madheshis. India should now step back and give Nepal the space to do that, and stop engaging with discontented groups.
Dr. Hemant Ojha is a Research Fellow with School of Social Sciences at UNSW.