Internal medicineNepal should first set its house in order and then reassess Nepal-India relations
The current Nepal-India imbroglio that emanated from the contents of Nepal’s new constitution has added an external dimension to it. India has become involved in Nepal’s matters not because its vital interests are at stake but because it is worried about the possible repercussions of the prolonged protests in the Madhes which might threaten both the countries. Indian leaders have all along been suggesting Nepali political elites to be cognizant of such negative developments and urging them to accommodate the demands of the Madhesis and other marginalised communities, as far as possible, so that all sections of people can own the new constitution in spirit and practice. However, the constitution could not meet some of the demands of the Madhesis/Tharus and other ethnic communities. This provoked the Madhesis and Tharus to launch a protest movement for the rectification of the constitution.
India expected the new constitution to redress the grievances of the various communities and regional groupings until the eleventh hour before the finalisation of the statue. Two days before promulgation, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his special envoy to persuade Nepali leadership to postpone the date for declaring the constitution by a few more days to incorporate the demands of the dissenting groups and prevent the opposition by the Madhesis. Instead, the leaders of the three parties—Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist)—went ahead and declared the statute. Then, India merely ‘noted’ the promulgation of the constitution.
By then, the four-party alliance forming the Madhesi Morcha had already boycotted the Constituent Assembly (CA) accusing the three parties of not addressing their major demands—delineation of constituencies on the basis of population, proportionate representation, amendment of citizenship provisions and the demarcation of provincial boundaries. With regards to demarcation, hill hardliners in Far-West and Far-East want to keep the five districts—Kailali, Kanchanpur, and Jhapa, Morang, and Sunsari—in the provinces as determined by the three major parties. But the Madhesis and Tharus want to keep them in new provinces for their identity and resources.
The domestic context of foreign policy is universally accepted, but for the kind of bilateralism that exists between Nepal and India, foreign policy is an extension of domestic politics. Moreover, for a landlocked country (some call it India-locked), geography is the principal determinant in Nepal-India relations. Historically, the ties between the two countries have been reinforced by treaties and other formal and informal patterns of bilateral relationship. Such multiplicity of natural and structural linkages has made the countries inseparable despite being two sovereign independent nations.
To everyone’s surprise, the Madhesi/Tharu agitation has endured for a long time seeping discontent across villages and communities. The Madhesi agitation in 2007 though shortlived had produced significant results and established the Madhesi identity and power in Nepal’s political structure. In the governments formed post-2007, Madhesi leaders could tilt the power balance in their favour through their unprecedented presence in the Cabinet. The Madhesis also became the first president and vice president of republican Nepal. In addition, there has been a significant transformation in the Nepali psyche which now recognises the new political landscape where all segments of society claim proportional representation in the government.
Today, Nepal is once again disturbed by the prolonged Madhesi agitation. And India has also been dragged into it despite its repeated claims that the agitation is Nepal’s own making and that it can be ended by addressing the demands of the Madhesi parties. India maintains that the ongoing interruption of essential supplies through the Nepal-India border is related to Nepal’s own internal politics as the Madhesi parties are responsible for the obstruction at the border points.
India’s displeasure with Nepali leaders for not fulfilling the Madhesi demands is known to all. Many Nepalis argue for raising the issue of the Indian ‘blockade’ in regional and international forums. As a realist, I do not think of regionalisation or internalisation of Nepal-India relations as a solution as it would do more harm than good to Nepal. Emotive statements and unrealistic propositions will not help to resolve the current impasse either. Mixing up my views with someone else’s, a reporter misquoted me last week and presented that I was for internationalisation of the present Nepal-India border problem.
Theoretically, Indian concerns about Nepal’s internal politics can be taken as a ‘suggestive’ intervention that is sometimes ‘coercive’ in nature. But in today’s international politics, it has wider ramifications. When people fighting for democracy and human rights call for international or regional or national support, then it becomes an ‘invited’ intervention. In the current context, the Madhesi parties openly asked for Indian help and their supporters lobbied at various levels. So, as a last resort, the Madhesi parties obstructed the movement of goods near the border giving an opportunity to the Indian side to be sympathetic towards Madhesi demands.
Political leaders of Nepal have themselves provided such an opportunity to India by not addressing the demands of the Madhesis and Tharus. The Tarai is a region of importance because of its physical contiguity and social commonalities. Such close human relations among people of two countries are incomparable. Even the Tamil community in Sri Lanka cannot be compared with the Madhesi population in Nepal as Sri Lanka is separated by the Palk Strait with India despite its Tamil Nadu connection. Yet, India’s foreign policy is influenced by such connections and the central government of India cannot fully bypass Tamil Nadu’s concerns about Sri Lankan Tamils. Nevertheless, India did not accept the Tamil secessionist movement in Sri Lanka taking its possible fallout on the unity and integrity of India into account.
House in order
India and Nepal cannot continue to be indecisive for a long time. The tremendous goodwill and admiration earned by Prime Minister Narendra Modi should not be wasted by making excuses. The Nepali political elites also need to be more pragmatic and resilient to meet the demands of the Madhesis/Tharus as a first step towards normalising relations with India. Nepalis in general have suffered a great deal. So the sooner the border problem ends, the better would be the health of Nepal-India relations. Since internal order is a precondition for good neighbourly relations, it is imperative for Nepal to devise both short-term and long-term strategies to set its house in order and then to move on to reassessing Nepal-India relations.
Baral is a professor and former ambassador of Nepal to India