It is baffling that India’s External Affairs Ministry could not foresee this permanent damage to India’s reputation and goodwill with its mismanagement of the Nepal crisis.
With the onset of the harsh winter, Nepal is staring at a grave humanitarian crisis. And India is the one to blame for it. The blockade of the Raxaul-Birganj border through which petroleum products, LPG, medicines and other essential commodities enter Nepal has been on since 21 September after Nepal adopted a new Constitution. The Madhesis living in south and south-eastern Nepal have imposed the blockade in protest against what they see as their disenfranchisement under the new Constitution. But Nepal says the blockade is aided by India, a charge that New Delhi denies.
Nepal’s charge is not without any basis. Ever since 21 September, India’s border guards have reportedly been instructed to “thoroughly check” each and every truck entering Nepal. The time-consuming physical check of every truck has, naturally, caused a pile-up on the border. India has also, inexplicably, detained Nepali oil tankers and issued an advisory to its own oil tankers that they would enter Nepal only at their own risk. This has effectively dissuaded Indian oil tankers from crossing over into Nepal.
Also, as Nepal rightly argues, India has a lot of clout among the Indian-origin Madhesis and can easily apply pressure on them to lift the blockade that is hurting the Himalayan country’s people. But New Delhi has preferred to only egg on the Madhesis, who want the borders of the provinces proposed under the new Constitution to be redrawn and proportional representation in the new Parliament as well as in government jobs.
The new Constitution redrew the borders of the country’s provinces, dividing Madhesi provinces and clubbing them with hill provinces in a manner that would reduce the Madhesis to minorities in the new provinces. The new Constitution also reduced the representation of Madhesis in Parliament. It paved the way for new citizenship laws under which children born to a non-Nepali father and a Nepali mother would become citizens of Nepal only by naturalisation while children born to a Nepali father and non-Nepali mother will get citizenship by birth. Naturalised citizens are ineligible for top posts in government and also high Constitutional offices.
The Madhesis owe their origins to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but have been residing in the Terai region of south and south-eastern Nepal since time immemorial. Many still maintain ties with their extended families in India and it is estimated that at least 30 percent of Madhesis in Nepal have marital ties with families on this side of the border. Nepal’s new Constitution, say Madhesi leaders, is biased against them. The new Constitution is viewed by the agitating Madhesis as an effort by the Nepali hill elite (people belonging to the hill provinces) to marginalise them.
The hill people have quite often viewed the Madhesis with suspicion and doubted their national loyalties, holding that many Madhesis owe their primary allegiance to India. To be fair to the Madhesis, the new Constitution is unfair to them and they feel the only way the country’s hill politicians can be forced to amend the Constitution is to block the flow of fuel and goods from India to Nepal.
The Madhesis’ demand include proportional representation in jobs, delimitation of electoral constituencies based on population, full citizenship rights for children of Indo-Nepal parentage and redrawing the boundaries of provinces. The ruling Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the United Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) – allies in government – have held many rounds of talks with the Madhesis, the last one last Saturday at Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s residence, where the main Opposition Nepali Congress leaders were also present. Those talks have remained inconclusive.
The government has agreed to all the demands of the Madhesis save for the one on redrawing the boundaries of provinces on the grounds that such a move would trigger similar demands by other ethnic groups as well. Kathmandu has asked for time to examine and consider this demand, but Madhesi leaders are unwilling to allow that. The Madhesi leaders, who are now in New Delhi to meet NDA and Opposition leaders, say that if they drop the demand for redrawing the boundaries of provinces when their movement, which has already claimed 50 lives, is at its peak, Kathmandu will renege on its promise later.
Upendra Yadav, former foreign minister of Nepal and leader of the Madhesi Jan Adhikar Forum, who is part of the four-member Madhesi team that is holding consultations with Indian leaders in New Delhi, says that the Madhesis do not trust the Nepal government and the hill leaders who conspired to deny political and other rights to the Madhesis.
New Delhi had, even before the new Constitution was adopted, been pressuring Kathmandu to address the demands voiced by the Madhesis and incorporate them in the new Constitution. Unfortunately, it had done so in a very blatant and ham-handed manner. This has earned New Delhi a lot of bad points.
Even on the day before the Constitution was adopted by Nepal’s Parliament, Indian foreign secretary S. Jaishankar flew down to Kathmandu in the full glare of media to pressure the Nepali leadership to put off the adoption of the new Constitution and amend it to incorporate Madhesi demands. That was seen as bullying by a big brother and a blatant attempt at interfering in the internal affairs of Nepal. It would be unfair to say that India is the only country to dabble in the internal affairs of another country; many others do so too, but such things are done very subtly and diplomatically and away from media glare.
But why did New Delhi act in such a manner? Many say that India’s over-enthusiasm in upholding Madhesi interests stems from the fact that the Madhesis have close, including marital and business links, with people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Bihar polls, it is said, played a major role in prompting the NDA government to pose as the protector of Madhesis, thinking that advocating the cause of the Madhesis would go down very well with the Bihar electorate. That did not work and the people of Bihar were not moved by New Delhi’s stand on the Madhesi cause.
The blockade of the border has caused severe shortages of fuel, LPG, foodgrain, medicines and other commodities in Nepal. Unicef has sounded an alert, and so have other aid agencies. Hospitals and schools have been hit hard due to a shortage of fuel that is also used for heating. People have been using firewood to cook. The hardest hit are the poor and the 200,000 families who had lost their homes in the earthquake earlier this year are still living in temporary shelters. More than 70 percent of those living in such shelters are women and children and the onset of the harsh winters could cost many lives, say aid workers.
Unicef has warned that 3 million children under the age of five in Nepal are at risk of disease or death during the current winter season due to severe shortage of fuel, food, medicines and vaccines. “The government’s regional medical stores have already run out of BCG vaccines against tuberculosis. Stocks of other vaccines and antibiotics are critically low. The risks of hypothermia and malnutrition, and the shortfall in life-saving medicines and vaccines, could be a potentially deadly combination for children this winter,” Unicef said in a statement recently. India is being blamed for the acute sufferings that the Nepalis are going through and ties between the two countries are at their lowest in recent history.
India’s actions, or inaction in getting the Madhesis to lift their blockade, has severely dented India’s image internationally. Newspaper accounts of the sufferings of the people of Nepal across the world lay the blame at India’s doorstep. India’s standing in South Asia, including Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan, has gone down due to what is widely perceived as its ‘unofficial blockade’ of Nepal. Editorials in newspapers in these countries have painted India as a big bully which cares little for the sufferings or sentiments of the people of its smaller neighbours. Pakistani newspapers and politicians are having a field day in painting New Delhi as a villain and as a country that cannot be trusted.
India has also pushed Nepal towards China. China has already gifted 1.3 million litres of fuel through the Kerung-Rasuwagadhi border point (this was reconstructed jointly by the two countries after being severely damaged by the 25 April earthquake). Nepal is finalising trade agreements with China to bring in more fuel. The two countries are also on the verge of finalising an agreement for import of LPG into Nepal through the Tatopani border point, about 110 km east of Kathmandu. Another joint customs checkpost is being set up at Panchkhal of Kavrepalanchowk district, 75 km east of Kathmandu, to bring in LPG.
China will send LPG bullets (each bullet of cooking gas can fill 1,250 cylinders and it would take just 120 LPG bullets from China to meet Nepal’s monthly consumption of 1.5 million cylinders. China is likely to offer LPG at subsidised rates in order to gain a firmer foothold in Nepal. China, with its much deeper pockets, can displace India as the primary influence in Nepal. China has already called on the Nepal government and the Madhesis to resolve their differences “through consultations in a peaceful manner with no interference from outside”, a veiled reference to India.
India’s actions, which have already destablilised Nepal’s fragile economy and affected its post-earthquake reconstruction efforts, may result in Nepal conceding to the demands of the Madhesis, who form about 35 percent of that country’s population. But Nepal will long remember this insult and blow and the majority 65 percent of Nepal’s population may find it difficult to forgive India for their sufferings.
China is fast developing its western region, especially Tibet, and Kathmandu will find it more profitable to develop closer economic, social and political ties with Beijing and drastically cut its dependence on India. China, despite the pressure it exerts over Kathmandu to evict the roughly 20,000 Tibetan refugees in Nepal (Nepal is turning increasingly hostile towards these refugees), is seen as non-interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
History may well record this as India’s worst foreign policy disaster. New Delhi’s attempt to have Nepal’s new Constitution amended to accommodate the demands of the Madhesis has lowered India’s international image, earned it the distrust of its neighbours and the permanent ill-will of a majority of the Nepalis who have always looked upon India as a friendly and helpful neighbour. And New Delhi has made way for China to increase its footprint in India’s own backyard. India’s actions may well cause disquiet in the ranks of its brave Gorkha soldiers, many of who have close ties across the border.
It is baffling that the mandarins at New Delhi’s South Block (which houses the External Affairs Ministry) and its top politicians could not foresee this permanent damage to India’s reputation and goodwill and the diplomatic setbacks India has suffered in its bid to bat for the Madhesis.
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