New Delhi finds itself looked down upon as a villain in Nepal even as the agitation against the constitution, promulgated on 20 September 2015 engulfs the Terai region that borders India. Its fault is that it merely took ‘notice’ of the draft statute and wished to see some ‘flexibility’ but the political elite in Nepal, mostly from the hill region, has reacted strongly.
As against India’s “lukewarm” response, China and Pakistan, the two most hostile neighbours of India, have warmly welcomed the new constitution which has come nearly eight years after the end of the monarchy following a long and bloody civil war, and after missing several deadlines.
“Stop interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs,” the Indian critics in Kathmandu have said. The mainstream Nepalese media as well as the social media have gone after the South Block hammer and tongs. No one is willing to concede that India may have some genuine concerns over the new constitution that has served to polarize the people.
Dissatisfaction With the New Constitution
Arrayed against the elite, especially from the hills, are the people from the Terai, called the Madhesis, and the Janjaatis (tribes), and Dalits – all of whom say that the new constitution was unfair to them, downgrading their representation in the decision making process. What it means is that nearly 40 per cent of population is dissatisfied with the new constitution. Of the 22 districts in the plains, 20 are said to be on the boil. One of the contentious issues is denial of citizenship rights to children of a Nepali woman who married a foreigner.
It is natural for India to be disappointed to see Nepal opt for a constitution that rejected inclusiveness. New Delhi had played an important role in ending the more than a decade of Maoist insurgency and then putting the country on track for a monarchy-free democracy. Moreover India has traditionally been a key partner in Nepal’s development notwithstanding the penchant of the Palace first and then of the Maoist leadership to play the China card.
Resentment Against India
The reasons behind Nepal’s resentment against India are not difficult to fathom. Many in that country have always seen India as the meddlesome Big Brother who likes to take the tiny Himalayan country for granted. The tribe of the anti-India Nepalese has risen a great deal ever since the Chinese paid full attention to Kathmandu, and see its potential to create trouble for India.
What is of immediate concern is the fact that much of the trouble in Nepal is taking place close to the Indian province of Bihar which is about to face its own battle of the ballot, a situation fraught with law and order problems. India shares more than 1700 km of open border with Nepal which is notoriously used by smugglers, traffickers and Pakistan-trained terrorists to enter India in large numbers.
Many Things Blamed on India
Indian transporters are said to be reluctant to enter Nepal owing to the strife there, especially in the areas close to the borders. Any hardship that it may cause to the Nepalese will be, of course, blamed on India.
Sections of Nepalese leaders are not impressed by whatever India does to help their country, one of the poorest in the world, to develop into a modern nation. Recently when Nepal was hit by a severe earthquake that took a heavy toll of human lives, India was the first country to rush with help and succour. That failed to please a vocal section of Nepalese elite; and they went to the town alleging that it was done to get favourable notice.
Barring the troublesome duo of Pakistan and China, India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is enjoying good relations with most foreign governments. As of now Nepal is certainly not among the countries where Indian diplomacy has worked well. Modi sent foreign secretary S. Jaishankar as his special envoy to Kathmandu in the hope that he would be able to persuade the Nepalese leaders to take everybody on board before the constitution was adopted by the Interim Parliament.
Jaishankar met Nepali leaders when the new statute had almost crossed the last lap. Yes, he could have visited Kathmandu a little earlier but it is possible that the Indian leadership did not feel the necessity. When Modi was in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit in November 2014, he made the Indian stance clear.
“Outstanding differences (amongst the Nepali parties) should be resolved through dialogue, and widespread consultation so that it could create the basis of a united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Nepal,” he told the Nepalese media.
New Delhi voiced the same view after the constitution was promulgated as well. “Contentious issues should be resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and in an institutionalized manner that would enable broad-based ownership and acceptance. This would lay the foundation of harmony, progress and development in Nepal,” the Indian Foreign Office said extending “our best wishes to the people of Nepal.”
Turn of events show that voices of reason have to come to prevail in Kathmandu. As of September 25, the Nepal Government has agreed to hold “decisive” talks with parties agitating over the new Constitution. It also has agreed to “withdraw” the army from the violence-hit Terai region bordering India, which is one of the major pre-conditions for talks set by the protesting groups notably Madhesi Peoples Rights Forum-Democratic led by Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar and Tharuwan Struggle Committee.
Three major political parties – Nepali Congress, CPN-UML and UCPN (Maoist) are parties to the initiative of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala to break the new logjam. Forest Minister Mahesh Acharya will be the government’s interlocutor with leaders of protesting groups.
War time British Prime Minister Winston Churchill used to say that there is a solution to any problem; Nepal’s own experience shows that dialogue helps to cool tempers and to arrive at some consensus. In this sense, the Nepal government can be said to have hit the right buttons.
India: Next Step
What India should do? It should encourage the new dialogue. And continue what it is doing now namely holding Nepali sovereignty as paramount, and underscoring the unique relationship the two countries share.
Nepalese ambassador to India, Deep Upadhayay has told Times of India, “India has not prescribed any changes in the Nepali constitution.” This policy must continue.
And as Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, India’s former ambassador to Nepal (2004-2008) said in a recent newspaper opinion piece, India should ignore “the fulminations of armchair analysts, and parachute pundits.”
Instead New Delhi should “continue engaging with leaders on both sides.” Because political stability is sine qua non for Nepal’s march towards development.
Nepal is a “youthful” country with more than 25 per cent of the population below 25-years of age. For them Nepali nationalism is not anti-Indianism nor is India a favourite punching bag since six to eighty lakh Nepalis live and work in India; yes, they don’t want to be short changed and this concern of theirs can be addressed not in street corner protests but across the table in the spirit of understanding.
On its part, India must remain conscious of its unique relationship with Nepal. It is not a villain but a true friend who always stands by its Himalayan neighbour with its open borders.