Is New Delhi bullying Nepal? The perception in Nepal is that India is trying to teach a lesson to Kathmandu by choking it through an unofficial blockade of goods. Nepal Foreign minister Kamal Thapa has said that there is a humanitarian crisis due to the blockade at checkpoints on the open border. Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli claims that the blockade was the result of an “imported agenda carried by certain elements”, hinting at India&’s interference in Nepal&’s internal issues. But South Block denies this claiming that 600 to 800 vehicles pass through the border every day.
Reducing the Madheshis and Tharus to a minority in Terai districts is the main reason for the agitation although this isn’t the first time the Terai has seen massive protests. Nepal witnessed such agitations in 2007 and 2008 resulting in a written agreement on 28 February 2008, which guaranteed an autonomous Madhesh. Unfortunately the new Constitution has not done justice to them.
Since 1950, Nepal has had two interim Constitutions (1951 and 2007) and three formal Constitutions (1959, 1962 and 1990). New Delhi had supported the ongoing peace process and also insisted on maximum consensus before the Constituent Assembly promulgated the new Constitution on 20 September 2015. The Madheshis now object to the new federal boundaries, leading to their undrepresentation in Parliament and demand more equitable representation in jobs and official positions. Supporting their demand India is reported to have sent seven amendments to the new Constitution as correctives.
No doubt that for the past two months Nepal has been suffering from an acute shortage of fuel and other daily supplies due to blockade at the check points. Nepal is overwhelmingly reliant upon imports from India, including much of its food, consumer goods, and 100 per cent of its fuel – aviation fuel, petrol, diesel and cooking gas.
Reports from Nepal suggest that hate-India slogans have resurfaced due to this crisis. Prime Minister Narendra Modi&’s two visits to Nepal last year and India&’s prompt assistance during Nepal&’s massive earthquake this year had created a lot of goodwill but this has now given place to anger. Gone are the slogans of friendship and brotherhood which were heard earlier. Modi has now become the villain and his effigies are being burnt.
Admitting this growing hate campaign, External Affairs Ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said, “We are certainly concerned over growth of anti-India sentiment in Nepal and we hope that the situation which has been caused entirely by problems on the Nepalese side will be resolved at the earliest and our relationship would once again return to its original status.” Prime Minister Modi has also spoken to his Nepalese counterpart clarifying that India has not imposed any official blockade . But Nepal remains unconvinced.
The issue is now getting internatiionlaised. The US, expressing concern over the volatile situation on the border, has called on “all the stakeholders to redouble their efforts to create conditions for a meaningful dialogue to ensure the Constitution accommodates the aspirations of all Nepalese.” Oli is critical of India&’s stand in the UNHRC. China and Pakistan have welcomed the Constitution.
If New Delhi had misclaculated its influece on Nepal so did Kathmandu. The major political parties should have made efforts to give more representation to the Madheshis. They could not ignore the claims of almost 51 per cent of the people which includes Madheshis, janjatis and women while presenting the Constitution. Kathmandu misread that Modi would accept a lesser role for the Madheshis. Also many see the tough Indian stand as being due to elections in neighboring Bihar which has a “roti and beti ka rishta”. Madheshis spill over the Bihar border and are spread over areas like Bettiah, Motihari, Madhubani, Darbhanga and Kishanganj. The ruling elite in Nepal argue that even if India has not supported the blockade, New Delhi could have exercised its considerable influence among the Madheshis to make them lift it. New Delhi&’s displeasure is understandable. After all if the anger in the Terai leads to a separatist movement, India will face a new refugee crisis. New Delhi rightly feels that Nepal should have taken India&’s concerns into account before announcing the Constitution . But ironically, the blockade has united the major groups like the Nepali Congress (NC), Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M).
Secondly, Beijing has stepped in and signed an agreement with Kathmandu to supply fuel to tide over the current crisis. Such measures would reduce Nepal&’s reliance on India for fuel and increase the volume of China-Nepal trade at New Delhi&’s expense. And China, with its deep pockets, is in a much better position to help Nepal than India. As the Chinese footprint increases in Nepal, both New Delhi and Kathmandu should ensure that they do not impinge on India&’s security interests.
Thirdly, Modi&’s ‘neighbours first’ policy is in peril. The unofficial blockade has brought Nepal-India ties to the lowest level, much like the 1989 blockade which was perceived as the consequence of a personality clash between Nepal&’s King Birendra and Rajiv Gandhi.
Before things go out of hand, both Nepal and India should try to resolve the crisis amicably. The immediate thing is to remove the percepiton that India is a big bully. While the long-term objective should be to address the changing political narrative in Nepal, the immediate challenge is to recover lost political ground so that New Delhi can play the role of a credible interlocutor between the two sides. India needs Nepal and Nepal needs India.