Season of discontentThe ‘unofficial’ blockade of Nepal is a diplomatic failure of the Indian government
The prolonged Madhesi agitation against the constitution is an indication that external forces have succeeded in polarising the Madhesi and Pahadi 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 Madhes 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; India’s constitution has been amended over hundred times. In the Nepali 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 Province 2 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, Pahadis who constitute a significant portion of the population residing in the Madhes also reject this demand.
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 marketeering 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 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 the 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 since centuries reject this claim. However, the 1950 treaty of Nepal with India, which allows unlimited inflow of Indian immigrant in Nepal, does pose a problem. Indian nationals can easily acquire Nepali citizenship due to political and administrative loopholes in our system and the open border. This points to a need to regulate the Nepal-India border more rigorously.
Time to change
The ruling class in India has always wanted to bring Nepal under its security umbrella under the pretext of a security threat from China. India needs to realise that it is dealing with a new democratic Nepal, not the old monarchy. In this changed context, the mindset of the Indian bureaucrats and ruling authorities also needs to change. Imposing a blockade to fulfil its interest in the country is a big mistake. Moreover, Nepal is paying billions of dollars for imports from India, not getting them for free. But the Indian media has been portraying this trade arrangement between the two countries as India’s charity. As a result, Nepal has been pushed towards China to meet its needs—the recent Memorandum of Understanding to import fuel from China in recent times is a case in point.
Several Indian politicians, scholars and the public in general are also not pleased with the border blockade by India and have criticised this action as a diplomatic failure of the Modi government that has tarnished India’s international image. India’s foreign policy towards its neighbours is influenced by a colonial mindset. India’s ‘big brother’ attitude towards its smaller neighbours has caused troubles in the region even in the past.
Recently, Nepal’s Cabinet approved a bill in Parliament to amend the constitution to fulfil some of the Madhesi demands. India welcomed this constitution amendment process. But neither India nor the Madhesi protesters have shown strong interest in ending the present conflict and border blockade. Many argue this is a long term plan to pressure the Nepali government to fulfil the Madhesi demands completely and to further Indian interests.
Shrestha is a former Government of Nepal employee