Divided By The Book

By Pranay Sharma – Nepal goes ‘secular’. But India fumes at the constitution’s ‘unfair’ federal structure.
India’s Tasks In Nepal
  • Take steps to bring violence and instability in Nepal to an end
  • Engage with new dispensation in Nepal, ensure good ties with them
  • Assure people in Madhes that their legitimate demands will be addressed
  • Convince Kathmandu to bring amendments to make its constitution more inclusive
  • Work with China to ensure rivalry between two doesn’t spark Nepal crisis

As for much of Nepal, September 20 should have been a day of celebration for India as well. As Nepal’s big neighbour, India had played the chief facilitator and guarantor’s role in the peace process from 2006 to ultimately help bring Maoist insurgents and major political players together to write a new constitution. Yet, on Sunday, when it was finally adopted by an overwhelming majority in Nepal’s constituent assembly, after years of waiting, it hardly brought forth any cheer from India. A terse MEA statement, bereft of the customary congratulatory homilies, only ‘noted’ the momentous event.

If India expected the constitution—Nepal’s seventh in 65 years—to help the nat­ion emerge as a modern and federal  republic, it was hugely disappointed. A secular framework was chosen for the constitution, but an essential one pertai­ning to ‘federalism’—if not in letter, then at least in spirit—was missing from it.

Policy planners in India say the constitution could have given Nepal the required glue to bring together disparate sections of its society in nation-building. Instead, its adoption last week has once again brought to surface the deep fissures within Nepali society. At the same time, developments there have also posed serious challenges for India. The two countries share a 1,751 km open border. Violence and instability in Nepal, like that witnessed in past weeks in southern Nepal, could easily spill over into India.

Narendra Modi’s critics point to a del­ayed Indian response to the crisis that has been festering in Nepal. Many players, each claiming close pro­ximity to the Indian PM, may have been one reason for New Delhi and Kathm­andu’s confused reaction to the volatile situation in south Nepal that has claimed 45 lives. Modi did send foreign secretary S. Jaishankar to Kathmandu on Sep­te­mber 18, requesting the Nepali lea­de­r­ship to delay the adoption of the con­­stitution. But that is seen as ‘too little, too late’. Nepali leaders had decided on their constitution.

“It is a serious setback for India,” says India’s former ambassador to Nepal, K.V. Rajan. “The euphoria over Modi that was visible in Nepal till a few months back has now gone.”

The Indian PM has lavished special attention to Nepal, as evident in it being the only South Asian nation that merited two visits from him in his first year in office. Both times, Modi had stressed to the Nepali leadership the need for completing the constitution-writing process and making it a document that would see all sections of the Nepali society as equal stakeholders. His visits were followed by a prompt, and much-politicised Indian rescue effort during the earthquake in Nepal—it had allowed Modi’s stocks to  be depicted as soaring among Nepalis.

Indian observers point out that Nepal could have served as a model in Modi’s neighbourhood policy. Not only is it a Hindu-majority country, Modi could also have conveyed a message that countries which cooperated with India also prospered in the pro­cess. However, the ‘flawed’ Nepali constitution seems to have thrown a spa­­­nner in the proposed works.

For India, the constitution that emerged from Nepal can be termed a dou­­ble blow. It has not only spawned a renewed phase of instability and violence in Nepal, its timing has coincided with the crucial assembly elections in Bihar and has provided a ready tool to Modi’s detractors to castigate his Nepal policy. “We are in for a difficult and messy situation,” predicts Rajan to des­c­­r­­ibe what’s in store for Nepal and India.

The crux of the current problem in Nepal lies in the southern stretch of low-­lying land and foothills that borders Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Even its nomenclature is fraught with pol­itical overtones. While New Delhi ref­ers to it as the Madhes, where many people have ethnic and cultural ties with India, the Brahmin-Chhetri elite of Kat­h­­mandu call it the Terai. For others the two words are often used as synonyms. The region not only has some of the most beautiful and dense forests, it also serves as Nepal’s industrial and agricultural base. Of Nepal’s population of 27 million, nearly 50 per cent reside in the Terai.

Since the majority of the people of Madhes—the Madhesis, the Tharos, the Dalits—are of ‘Indian origin’, this area has traditionally enjoyed a special bond with New Delhi. Indian policy planners describe the Madhesis as ‘strategic assets’, while others define them as India’s ‘safety valve’ in Nepal when nee­ded to deal with anti-Indian forces.

For the same reason, the Kathmandu elite is suspicious of the Madhesis and describe the region as “an Indian colony within Nepal”. Though the Madhesis and Tharos have settled in Nepal for decades, their participation in the political, socio-cultural or economic life has been minimal. When the Maoists  morphed into a parliamentary force, they aligned with the Madhesis to corner a majority of the seats and form the government in 2008. However, that coalition was short-lived, though on principle the Maoists continued to support the Madhesis and Tharos’ demand for greater self-autonomy in the Terai.

When Maoist leader Prachanda joi­ned the Nepali Congress and the CPN-UML par­­ties to support a hurriedly drawn for­mula to create seven new provinces and include that in the new constitution—a move cle­arly aimed at marginalising the Madhesis—it surprised many.

Sources say the redrawn boundaries not only overlook the Madhesis and Tharos’ demands but also ensures Brahmin-Chhetri domination in most provinces. Much of this is also said to be linked to the huge amount of financial aid that has been promised to Nepal by the international community after the devastating earthquake. But since much of this financial assistance was linked to an early completion of the constitution, many important clauses were incorporated and passed with scant debate in the constituent assembly. “No member was given more than five minutes to discuss these issues in the assembly,” observes Kathmandu-based pol­­i­­tical commentator Yubaraj Ghimire.

India has essentially been complaining about the hurried manner in which the constitution was adopted by ignoring the views of the residents of the Madhes region. But many accuse New Delhi of turning a blind eye when decisions were being taken on other key issues by the ‘big three’ political parties, ignoring less voluble voices. South Block officials defend this charge by saying that they were misled by Kat­hmandu into believing that the views of Madhesis would have been acc­­omm­­odated.

Sources say a new arrangement may now see the sharing of power between the ‘big three’. This would make Sushil Koirala the president, Kadga Pra­sad Oli the premier and Sher Bahadur Deuba the president of the Nep­­ali Con­gress. Being part of the deal, Pra­chanda is also ensured of being part of the decision-­making, especially in the distribution of the impending financial ass­­istance.

So what does India do now?

Despite its disappointment, New Delhi can hardly ignore the Kathmandu elite; it can’t alienate Madhesis too. Therefore, it may walk a diplomatic tightrope, whereby it engages with the new dispensation in Nepal and nudges them over a period of time to address the legitimate demands of the Madhesis.

“Nepal has faced and efficiently dealt with tougher challenges in the past. Now that it has reached such an important milestone, it should not stumble,” says former Indian ambassador to Kath­mandu, Jayant Prasad. “I am hopeful that it will be able to resolve the latest challenge amicably,” he added.

Prasad’s remarks indicate what the Indian leadership would now like to do to deal with Kathmandu. It already has about seven proposed amendments that Nepal can bring in to make its constitution more inclusive, especially in relation to the people of Madhes. Indian and Nepali leaders must now strive to find a common ground.

This article has been originally published in Outlook.

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