Nepal promulgates a democratic constitution, India imposes an unofficial blockade. HEMANT OJHA and RAMESH SUNAM look behind the rising tensions between two close neighbours.
After six decades of political struggle, Nepal promulgated a new democratic constitution in September that also marked the end of a decade-long Maoist war.
Neighbouring India, however, did not welcome Nepal’s remarkable achievement, simply noting the promulgation—but more surprisingly, imposing an unofficial economic blockade on an already poor country struggling to recover from devastating earthquakes several months ago.
Landlocked Nepal relies on India for essential supplies such as petroleum products, food and medicines. The blockade has not only crippled Nepal’s economy, but made the lives of its more than 27 million people miserable.
Although the Modi government denies there is a blockade, many Indian scholars and politicians have criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi for the inappropriate handling of Nepal relations. The international community is also seriously concerned about the escalating humanitarian crisis and sees India’s action as a violation of Nepal’s rights to transit facilities as a landlocked country.
Instead of imposing a blockade, Modi had several reasons to congratulate Nepal on its achievement. The Constitution was promulgated democratically and passed with the support of 90 per cent of the Constituent Assembly (only 67 per cent of the members of India’s parliament voted for their country’s current constitution).
The new constitution has also institutionalised a democratic federal republic after hundreds of years of a centralised state structure—an achievement well recognised in India too. Professor Kamal Mitra Chenoy, from Jawaharlal Nehru University, for example, sees Nepal’s constitution as more democratic than India’s in providing rights to women and marginalised peoples.
New phase of stability
Although not yet perfect—Nepal’s political parties are negotiating with some discontented groups to discuss any amendments that might be needed to incorporate their voices better—the new constitution means Nepal has entered a new phase of stability after a decade of political transition, triggered mainly by the Maoists’ armed struggle. This is an important political development in South Asia—including India, which is facing its own Maoist rebellion. Modi himself has publicly praised the entry of the Maoists into Nepal’s peaceful and democratic politics.
Another reason for Modi to welcome the promulgation of the constitution is the long and deep social, cultural and trade relationship between India and Nepal. As part of his touted neighbourhood-first policy, Modi visited Nepal twice after he became prime minister in 2014, and was warmly received. He could have used this positive reception to further develop well-calibrated and friendly relations with Nepal, whose strategic location between China and India could be of special benefit to India as China continues to increase its global power.
India and Nepal also need to work together to confront the growing threat from climate change. With many rivers flowing from Nepal into the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, the potential for catastrophic flooding and other climate-related disasters is growing.
Nevertheless, India has raised valid concerns about instability and security risks in the Terai—also known as Madhesh—the plains region of southern Nepal bordering India. India has denied any blockade, and instead blamed Nepal for failing to provide security to oil suppliers entering Nepal, citing ongoing protests by Madhesi peoples, who are campaigning for—among other things—two Madhesh states in the southern region and electoral representation proportionate to their population. Although Madhesi protests have obstructed a few border crossing points, many others, such as those in in the far east and far west of Nepal, remain undisturbed—but India has stopped vehicle movement at these entry points too.
Some claim that Modi resorted to the blockade to win votes in the recent state elections in Bihar, where there are ethnic tensions between some groups and Madhesis. Nationalist activists in Nepal have argued that the blockade is to force Nepal to heed Madhesi demands, thus creating a loyal regime across the border in order to secure future favourable river-sharing deals with Nepal—a view subscribed to by many Nepali given past river and power agreements between the two countries. India has denied such allegations, insisting that it is always in favour of friendly relations with its neighbour and wants to see an inclusive and united Nepal.
Roots inside Nepal
India’s response has strong roots within Nepal. Despite overwhelming support for the new constitution, some Nepali groups—mainly Madhesis and Tharus, another ethnic group indigenous to the Terai—have raised critical concerns about the new constitution. The Nepalese state has long marginalised and discriminated against Madhesis and other ethnic minorities, and the recent resurgence of violence and protests in which over 50 people have died—some as a result of excessive force by the government—is, in part, a response to longstanding grievances.
Although the new constitution institutionalises the rights of marginalised peoples, these principles still need to be translated into everyday lives. The Constitution does, however, provide a strong basis for achieving this and also offers scope for revision to accommodate key minority group concerns. The current discontent in Madhesh should therefore be seen more as an example of citizens’ voice to amend the Constitution rather than as a fundamental challenge to its legitimacy.
Nationalist parties, which command nearly 90 per cent of parliamentary votes, argue that it is now up to India to acknowledge Nepal’s political processes rather than stir up sectarian and communal tensions that could lead to further instability in the region.
Many independent observers in India and outside hold that, despite having a close and historically rooted friendship with Nepal, India should not use its neighbour’s internal grievances to legitimise interference in a sovereign country.
The Indo–Nepal relationship is too complex and sensitive to be left to periodically elected political leaders, and bureaucrats.
However, past failures of Nepal’s two major political parties and of Madhesh leaders to address the legitimate concerns of Madhesis have created the conditions for India to intervene. Every major political party in Nepal – including Madhesh leaders – has invited India’s establishment, in one way or the other, into its power struggles, so that India has been—and remains—a key player in Nepalese politics.
Many Nepalese see some Madhesi demands as being framed to meet India’s strategic interests, and find it difficult to envision how these can be accommodated within the broader interests of a unified Nepal. Moreover, the Madhesi people are diverse in terms of class, caste, ethnicity, language and culture, making it difficult to accommodate all demands. There is also fear among long-time Madhesh inhabitants that wealthy migrants from India could dominate them in their own homeland.
The failure of the Modi government’s neighbourhood-first policy could cost India dearly, and if India wants to succeed in its quest to increase its global power, it needs to develop good relations with its smaller neighbours.
India’s relationship with Nepal matters. It will be important, as mentioned, in jointly addressing the challenges of climate change, and in harnessing the region’s hydropower potential. Nor can either side overlook age-old social and economic exchanges. The ongoing tensions demonstrate that the Indo–Nepal relationship is too complex and sensitive to be left to periodically elected political leaders, and bureaucrats.
Public intellectuals—of whom there are plenty in both countries—have, perhaps, the greatest responsibility to alert political leaders on both sides to the dangers of damaging the relationship. They can also contribute to a reimagining of a relationship that cultivates and sustains the principles of fairness, mutual respect and cooperative engagement.
India’s blockade may have yielded at least one benefit to Nepal. Its political leaders and young people now realise how dependent the country is on India, and have a clear sense of the urgency to develop a more balanced relationship with its giant neighbours, India and China. Nepal’s political and administrative capacity, however, is still too weak to handle the country’s internal differences in order to create an inclusive and prosperous society—let alone harness the geopolitical opportunities as well.
It remains to be seen whether, and to what extent, Nepal and India can positively transform their strained relationship. For Nepal, though, it is critical that the government promotes greater import diversification and self-sufficiency—at least for energy and food—before it can hold more empowered dialogues with India.
Nepal’s new constitution means the country has entered a new phase of stability after a decade of political transition. (Image credit: Paula Hanasz).