Big Brother Pol­i­tics

The In­dian at­ti­tude to­wards neigh­bour­ing land-locked Nepal could be much bet­ter.

Southasia - - CONTENTS - By Sam­ina Wahid The writer is a free­lance jour­nal­ist who con­trib­utes reg­u­larly to var­i­ous lead­ing pub­li­ca­tions.

Nepal should get bet­ter treat­ment from In­dia.

In a sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment, the Nepal govern­ment has de­cided to amend the new Con­sti­tu­tion to ad­dress two key de­mands of the ag­i­tat­ing Mad­he­sis re­gard­ing pro­por­tional rep­re­sen­ta­tion and con­stituency de­lim­i­ta­tion, a move that was wel­comed by In­dia. The de­ci­sion, which was taken at an emer­gency cab­i­net meet­ing, also agreed to set up a political mech­a­nism to rec­om­mend so­lu­tions to dis­putes over the pro­posed pro­vin­cial bound­aries within three months of its for­ma­tion.

The move came af­ter wide­spread protests by Mad­hes-based par­ties against the seven-prov­ince model pro­posed in the new con­sti­tu­tion that di­vides their an­ces­tral land as a way to po­lit­i­cally marginal­ize them. Pro­tes­tors blocked Nepal’s bor­der points with In­dia, caus­ing a short­age of es­sen­tial goods and medicines in the land­locked coun­try. In fact, at least 50

peo­ple have been killed in protests by In­dian-ori­gin Mad­he­sis since Au­gust. Mad­he­sis, who re­side in the Terai re­gion, con­sti­tute nearly 52 per cent of Nepal’s pop­u­la­tion.

Ten­sions be­tween Kath­mandu and New Delhi rose af­ter the Mad­he­sis crit­i­cized the new con­sti­tu­tion as an at­tempt to curb their political in­flu­ence. The re­sult­ing dis­rup­tion to trade has caused Nepali man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries to grind to a halt be­cause of a lack of raw ma­te­ri­als. The de facto block­ade caused se­vere eco­nomic and hu­man­i­tar­ian hard­ship in Nepal, an im­pov­er­ished coun­try al­ready strug­gling to re­cover from a se­vere earth­quake last April.

The pro­longed Mad­hesi ag­i­ta­tion against the con­sti­tu­tion is an in­di­ca­tion that ex­ter­nal forces have suc­ceeded in po­lar­iz­ing the Mad­hesi and Pa­hari com­mu­ni­ties in Nepal. In­dia’s re­ported con­cerns and seven rec­om­mended amend­ments to Nepal’s new con­sti­tu­tion along with the trade em­bargo seem to have fur­ther ex­ac­er­bated the Mad­hesi ag­i­ta­tion. Many Nepalis per­ceive this to be an in­ter­fer­ence in the in­ter­nal affairs of Nepal and this has led to mount­ing anti-In­dia sen­ti­ments in the coun­try. No con­sti­tu­tion in the world is fault­less and In­dia’s con­sti­tu­tion has been amended over a hun­dred times. In the Nepalese con­text, the se­cond con­stituent as­sem­bly com­prised many elected politi­cians from the plains, but only a hand­ful of Mad­hesi lead­ers are protest­ing against the con­sti­tu­tion.

Fur­ther­more, the Mad­he­sis al­ready have a ma­jor­ity in the cen­tral plains. Their de­mand that the en­tire Mad­hes be di­vided into a max­i­mum of two provinces when they do not even have a ma­jor­ity in all the dis­tricts in the Tarai is thus un­jus­ti­fi­able. The Mad­hesi Mor­cha claims de­lin­eation of provinces as their bot­tom line for con­sen­sus even as many peo­ple in the hills per­ceive this to be a threat to na­tional unity and sovereignty. In ad­di­tion, the Pa­haris who con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion re­sid­ing in Mad­hes also re­ject this de­mand.

Nev­er­the­less, the cri­sis has high­lighted some im­por­tant points. The Nepali political par­ties can­not ig­nore the as­pi­ra­tions of the Mad­he­sis. They are le­git­i­mate cit­i­zens of Nepal and de­serve equal rights vis-à-vis any other group in the coun­try. As far as Mad­hesi de­mands are con­cerned, it’s wel­come that the pro­posed con­sti­tu­tion amend­ment bill com­mits to en­sure pro­por­tional in­clu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion in state or­gans and de­lin­eation of elec­toral con­stituen­cies on the ba­sis of pop­u­la­tion. Ad­di­tion­ally, it also pro­vides for ad­dress­ing the is­sue of re-de­mar­ca­tion of provinces through an ap­pro­pri­ate ar­range­ment in the con­sti­tu­tion on the ba­sis of political con­sen­sus. Is­sues re­lated to cit­i­zen­ship too will be re­solved through ne­go­ti­a­tions and con­sen­sus.

Mean­while, as the bor­der block­ade is en­ter­ing its fourth month, ex­ac­er­bat­ing the acute short­age of es­sen­tial items, medicines and pe­tro­leum prod­ucts, hospi­tals have had to cut down their ser­vices and the prices of es­sen­tial com­modi­ties have sky­rock­eted, mak­ing it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for the poor to meet their daily ba­sic needs. Black mar­ket­ing of fuel and cook­ing gas has be­come ram­pant and this could have dev­as­tat­ing long-term con­se­quences for the econ­omy. The fuel cri­sis has also made it ex­tremely dif­fi­cult for hu­man­i­tar­ian agen­cies to trans­port the much-needed food and cloth­ing to the quake-dev­as­tated dis­tricts. Sur­pris­ingly, even af­ter so much of suf­fer­ing, peo­ple seem to be sup­port­ing the govern­ment’s stand to op­pose un­rea­son­able Mad­hesi de­mands and bor­der block­ade by In­dia.

In­dia, on its part, seems to be con­vinced that all the Mad­hesi res­i­dents in Nepal are of In­dian ori­gin, but the Mad­hesi peo­ple who have lived in the re­gion for cen­turies re­ject this claim. How­ever, the 1950 treaty of Nepal with In­dia, which al­lows un­lim­ited in­flow of In­dian im­mi­grants to Nepal, does pose a prob­lem. In­dian na­tion­als can eas­ily ac­quire Nepali cit­i­zen­ship due to political and ad­min­is­tra­tive loop­holes in the sys­tem and the open bor­der. This points to a need to reg­u­late the Nepal-In­dia bor­der more rig­or­ously.

How­ever, whether th­ese pro­vi­sions will be ac­cept­able to the Mad­hesi par­ties and ac­tivists re­mains to be seen. In fact, there are in­di­ca­tions that they want a re­vi­sion in the con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment bill to in­clude con­crete terms of ref­er­ence for the political mech­a­nism for set­tling pro­vin­cial de­lin­eation. But the Mad­he­sis can’t press the is­sue be­yond a cer­tain point. They must dis­play some flex­i­bil­ity. Af­ter all, the cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion was passed with a huge ma­jor­ity in Nepal’s con­stituent as­sem­bly. Hence, the im­ple­men­ta­tion of the new con­sti­tu­tion can’t be in­def­i­nitely held hostage to the whims of one par­tic­u­lar group.

Sev­eral In­dian politi­cians, schol­ars and the pub­lic in gen­eral are also not pleased with the bor­der block­ade by In­dia and have crit­i­cized the ac­tion as a diplo­matic fail­ure of the Modi govern­ment that has tar­nished In­dia’s in­ter­na­tional im­age. In­dia’s for­eign pol­icy to­wards its neigh­bors is in­flu­enced by a colo­nial mind­set. In­dia’s ‘big brother’ at­ti­tude to­wards its smaller neigh­bors has caused trou­ble in the re­gion even in the past.

In­dia must now try to re­cover the good­will it has lost in Nepal in the last few months. But re­vers­ing the per­cep­tion that In­dia is con­stantly med­dling in Nepali in­ter­nal affairs won’t be easy. It may take many months, if not years. For a start, change needs to be ef­fected in the In­dian se­cu­rity es­tab­lish­ment’s ap­proach to­wards Nepal. The coun­try can’t be treated as In­dia’s ap­pendage. Of course, the two na­tions share deep his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural ties. But this can’t be used to dic­tate Nepal’s political evo­lu­tion. It is one thing to en­gage in strate­gic diplo­macy and quite an­other to be­have as an over­bear­ing Big Brother.

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