India Messes Up In Nepal

Jayant Chowdhury

Oct 03, 2015, 07:26 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 09:02 AM IST

Whatever might have been New Delhi’s intentions, today a vast majority of Nepalis sees its actions as blatant interference.

Exactly 10 months ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the darling of Nepal’s masses with his excellent speech before that country’s lawmakers in their Parliament. He evoked a reaction bordering on hysteric adulation on Kathmandu’s streets. Today, his effigies, and the Indian tricolor, are being burnt on the same streets. “India” has become a dirty word in large parts of the Himalayan country. And New Delhi has only itself to blame for this unfortunate turn of events.

India has been urging Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, which had been framing the country’s Constitution, to accommodate all shades of opinions and aspirations. India’s prime concern was the Madhesis (people of Indian origin who speak Maithili, Bhojpuri, Avadhi, Hindu and Urdu and live in the 20-to-40 km-wide belt of foothills stretching along the east-west length of the country bordering India) who were upset because they saw themselves being left out of the new power structure.

The Madhesis, who make up for 30% of Nepal’s population, were incensed over parts of Madhes, the areas they live in, being included in the newly created hill provinces, fearing that this would reduce them to a minority in those provinces and, thus, result in their under-representation in future Parliaments. What added to their anger was the dropping of a clause from the proposed constitution that would have ensured proportional representation of Madhesis in high offices. The Tharus, an ethnic group also living in the Terai who constitute 6.8% of Nepal’s population, have also been protesting the draft constitution.

India’s foreign secretary S.Jaishankar went to Kathmandu as Modi’s special envoy in late September to urge leaders of all political parties in that country to postpone the adoption of the new constitution and reach a consensus. But India was delivered a stunning snub when, the day after Jaishankar’s visit, the Constituent Assembly promulgated the new Constitution on September 20. Anger, which had been simmering among the Madhesis, Tharus and the Janajatis, erupted and since then, more than 50 people have been killed in police firing.

The Madhesis imposed a blockade, stopping trucks carrying food, medicines, petroleum products and other goods, from crossing over to Nepal through checkpoints along the porous Indo-Nepal border. This blockade has hit Nepal hard, with prices of foodgrains and other commodities shooting through the roof and the country facing a severe shortage of fuel.

Most non-Madhesi Nepalis blame India for the blockade and their resultant miseries. There are few takers in Nepal for India’s protestations that it has nothing to do with the blockade, which is essentially the handiwork of angry Madhesis. Assertions by India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj and Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman that India had not imposed any embargo on the movement of trucks carrying goods into Nepal from India has not cut any ice with Nepalis.

The Indian embassy in Kathmandu has been witnessing protests every day by angry groups, forcing India’s envoy Ranjit Rae, to hold a press meet earlier this week to express concern over growing anti-India sentiment in that country. He pointed out that trucks from India have started entering Nepal through the Bhairawaha and Dharchula customs points. But most of the goods movement to Nepal from India happens through the Sunauli and Raxaul-Birganj posts, and these are still facing blockade by Madhesis.

The widespread feeling among Nepalis is that the blockades by the Madhesis could not have happened without India’s tacit nod. Even a senior politician like K.P. Oli, leader of Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), who is slated to become the next Prime Minister of that country, blamed India for the border blockade.

Nepalis have sound reason to harbour the perception that India has a hand in the blockade. India has been seen by Nepalis as playing partisan by taking up the cause of the Madhesis during the Constitution-framing process. This they view as yet another instance of India’s interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.

Jaishankar’s visit on the eve of the promulgation of the new Constitution strengthened this perception. India is largely to blame for the widely-held belief in Nepal of behaving as a bullying big brother. There are instances galore of such behaviour by India.

Nepalis also hold that even if India has not encouraged the Madhesis to block movement of trucks carrying goods into Nepal, India could have exercised its considerable influence among the Madhesis to make them lift the blockade. They are quite right in this.

It is no secret that New Delhi has a lot of influence over Madhesi leaders. As soon as the blockade was imposed, India’s foreign office and politicians in power ought to have foreseen the consequences—the crippling shortage of food, petroleum products and other goods in that country and the resultant anger against India—and moved quickly to pre-empt the unfortunate events that unfolded subsequently. Their failure on this count has cost India dear in Nepal.  

New Delhi also need not have acted overtly by publicly urging Nepal’s Constitution-makers to accommodate Madhesi concerns. India’s ministers need not have publicly advised Nepal’s political leaders to reach a consensus before promulgating the new Constitution. New Delhi need not have sent Jaishankar on a mission to scuttle, as the Nepalis view it, the Constitution’s promulgation.

If India wanted to voice its concerns, it could have done so quietly, just as the US and UK have done. Non-Madhesi Nepalis hold that by being vocal and public, India has aligned itself with the Madhesis and against the rest of Nepal. This has had unfortunate consequences for India. After all, promulgation of its Constitution, or arriving at a consensus before doing so, is strictly Nepal’s internal matter and India should not have openly and so solicitously offered advice to Nepal’s politicians. Indian politicians would not take kindly to, for instance, the USA offering advice on accommodating concerns of the Kashmiris. To think that Nepal would abide by its wishes smacks of New Delhi’s big brotherly attitude.

True, the Madhesis are of Indian origin and have close ties and affinities with people living on the Indian side of the border. But at the end of the day, they are Nepal’s citizens and India should have refrained from acting as their advocate with Kathmandu. The Madhesis are strong enough and intelligent enough to fight for their own cause without India’s help. What India has done in Nepal is quite akin to Pakistan, in the past, arrogating to itself the role of an advocate of India’s Muslims. India has always bristled at such mischief by Pakistan. So why should Nepalis not feel similarly offended by India advocating the political interests of one group of Nepal’s citizens?

Nepal’s politicians have indicated that they may bring about some amendments to the new Constitution to accommodate the concerns of the Madhesis and Tharus as early as next week. If they do that, the agitation by these communities will die down. All will once again be well between the Madhesis and their fellow-Nepalis living in the hills. But the anger and ill-will towards India will remain.

Ultimately, India would have not only gained nothing by advocating the cause of the Madhesis, but also lost all the goodwill that was generated by Modi’s successive visits to Nepal in August and November last year.

India, by its ham-handed dealing of developments in Nepal, has also ceded ground to China. China had a hands-off policy on Nepal’s Constitution-making process and welcomed the promulgation of the new Constitution. That emboldened Nepal’s political leaders to deliver the humiliating rebuff to India. The blockade has only pushed Nepal towards China’s open embrace and Nepal is now planning to reopen its trade route with Tibet through the Tatopani checkpoint (about 110 km east of Kathmandu) that was cut off after the devastating earthquake in Nepal in April this year.

Another trade route with Tibet is coming up at Rasuwagadhi (150 kms north of Kathmandu) on the fabled trans-Himalayan caravan route. China is building a sprawling Inland Container Deport (ICD) there free of cost for Nepal. India’s influence in Nepal will weaken considerably, once movement of goods along these two points picks up in the months to come. And China, with its deep pockets, is in a much better position to help landlocked Nepal than India. More and more Nepalis are veering around to the view that China is a more reliable friend than India.

The foreign office mandarins in Delhi’s South Block should realize that India can ill afford to throw its weight around anymore with its smaller neighbours. The rules of diplomacy have changed and overt interference in the internal matters of a smaller neighbor is simply counter-productive. These mandarins have frittered away all the goodwill that Modi created, and they should be made to work overtime now to regain lost ground.

Nepal is a valuable friend and India cannot afford to lose Kathmandu’s goodwill. It is high time New Delhi makes amends.

Jayant Chowdhury is an avid observer of and commentator on politics and society in Bengal and eastern, including north-eastern, India.

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