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