India’s Interest on Nepal’s Federalism


By Rohit Karki – The Nepalese political parties struck a historical 16 point agreement post earthquake on June 16, 2015 which developed a clear pathway towards long and arduous work of constitution writing deferring some of the contentious issues mainly the demarcation of federal states boundary to be decided post constitution promulgation. However, India expressed its reservation on this agreement and wanted to know the details of the working modality especially the demarcation of federal states and it was manifest through media coverages; the visits of the top political leaders of Nepal in New Delhi to understand and discuss the details of the deal.

India wanted to know how its security and strategic interest will be served through this deal. With the pressure from the other political parties within Nepal mainly Terai-Madhes, the Nepalese President and from Indian quarters, to resolve the demarcation of states, the four major political parties agreed to federate the country into six provinces and suggested a tentative demarcation of the states, which was again re-demarcated into seven provinces to address the grievances of certain groups. However, immediately following this event, violence erupted in the Terai-Madhes region, as they were dissatisfied with the demarcation of federal Nepal into seven provinces, undermining the interest of larger constituency in Terai-Madhes.

Their major demand is that province No. 2 on the proposed seven province model, which includes seven Terai districts including Siraha, Saptari and Dhanusha, should also be supplemented with three eastern districts (Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari) all of which geographically also fall within the Terai region should also be included in province no. 2. This demand reflects their vested interest of having all the 22 districts of Terai-Madhes  into one province and if not one, then at least two big provinces sharing the other one with the Tharu community, which is a large indigenous community within Terai-Madhes. The emergence of half-dozen or more new armed groups from Terai-Madhes after the signing of Nepal’s peace agreement in 2006 has made the Terai situation more complex. Some of these groups are seeking separatism and secession. Likewise, other leaders of Madhes who represents the mainstream political parties of Terai and have representation in Constituent Assembly (CA) have been demanding ‘One Madhes One Province’ and if their demands are not met, then they have been threatening to launch a secessionist movement.

One of the Indian diplomats based in Nepal, S.D. Mehtha, back in 2012, had stated unequivocally that Indian government is in full support for ‘One Madhes One Province’ to Terai based political parties, as was widely reported in Nepalese media.  This kind of extremist statements, resistance and armed activities have raised a serious spectre of territorial integrity of Nepal. In this backdrop, last week, the CA expedited its proceedings of promulgating new constitution, the government feared that the postponement of voting process now would lead to prolonged violence and intensified secessionist movements thwarting constitution making forever. This has led to the plight of Indian ambassador to Nepal, Ranjeet Rae’s last minute coercive diplomacy to stop the CA proceeding, which has been defeated by the joint front presented by Nepal’s three largest parties who hold majority in the CA, making it a great instance of the failure of India’s coercive diplomacy in Nepal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his special envoy in Nepal, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to address the demands of Terai-Madhes, ultimately serving India’s own interest. Nepalese media, politician and academician termed his visit ‘ill timed’. Nepal has promulgated its federal constitution defying the last minute preventing diplomacy applied by India, however, uncertainty still looms around the issues of operationlization of Nepal’s federal structure as there are recurrent threat from Indian quarters, to the extent of economic blockade if the Nepalese government do not oblige to India’s concerns.

It is explicitly clear India wants to see a federal structure in Nepal which will protect India’s strategic and security interests. India has been keen to ensure ‘One Madhes One Province’, which means that it wants to see all the 22 districts of Nepal adjoining east to west as border states of India to be developed into one province. India later on, has shown flexibility of letting it be divided into two provinces. This will be easier for India to address its strategic and security concerns by having to deal with at most two provinces in its border region. India wants to develop Terai-Madhes as an ‘inner buffer’ as it believes the Himalayas has been penetrated by Chinese through  proposed rail links from Lhasa to Kathmandu and China’s ‘One belt One road’ initiative in the longer run and thus less relevance of Nehru’s ‘Strategic Himalayan Frontier’ policy in contemporary situation.

Hence, India wants to focus more on protecting its core constituency in Nepal i.e. Terai-Madhes by developing a pro-Indian province in Nepal.   India believes it can easily influence the Chief Ministers of would be formed provinces in Terai-Madhes. The cultural-language and matrimonial relationships between Terai’s people and people of Indian states of Bihar, Uttarpradhesh (UP) and West Bengal are similar and this relationship can be further cultivated to influence the domestic politics, governance, security, border management of Terai-Madhesh province and to a larger extent Nepal’s foreign policy.  Nepal’s two largest political parties Nepali Congress and CPN-UML are fully aware about it and are  against providing the ‘One Madhes One Province’ considering Nepal’s geo-political sensitivity and instead, they have proposed to divide the provinces having boundaries of the mixture of hill, mountain and Terai region, which has been almost reflected in the existing seven province model. This will keep the nation intact. However, the operationlization of new federal structure will be full of challenges. The international examples like that of Crimea is dreaded of a possible foreseeable scenario by the political experts in the case of federal Nepal too in future if sound system is not institutionalized properly.

India might intervene to ‘protect’, as was hinted by Indian Home Minister Rajnath Singh who was widely quoted in the Indian newspaper, where he emphasized that the Indian government is concerned about Indians living in Nepal, considering its present political situation referring to ongoing protest in the Terai-Madhes region. He was quoted staying ‘Although the Madhesi problem is an internal issue of Nepal, the Indian government will protect the interests of the one crore (10 millions) Indians living there.’ In a way bluntly acknowledging that people living in Terai-Madhes are Indian rather than Nepali people of Madhesis ethnic origin. The Indian military intervention in Nepal cannot be completely ruled out in the future in the name of protection of the rights of Terai population from a possible allegation of ‘Nepalese state atrocities’ and ‘state repression’. At the current juncture, India will foment enough unrest in Terai-Madhes, which will cripple the Nepalese economy and cut off the capital out of basic food, petroleum oil and other daily essentials as most of them are imported from the Indian Border States and has to come through the Nepalese territories of Terai-Madhes. Political parties based in Terai-Madhes have already staged a month long strikes in the Terai which has crippled the life in Terai to achieve this aim.

These are tactics used by Terai-Madhes based political parties back in 2006-07, which had led to the government to bow down to the demand of restructuring Nepal into federal structure and signed an agreement by the then government with Terai based political parties of adopting ‘autonomous Madhes  Province’ in federal Nepal. Many believe that this is the point of implantation of seeds of disintegration in the Terai region. These days, some Terai-Madhes based political parties, intelligentsia and certain armed groups have been openly talking about separating Terai-Madhes from Nepal and merging in India states of Bihar and UP or forming an independent nation-state. India has been pressurizing Nepal’s government from various levels to address the demands of Terai-Madhes political parties or face the consequences in the future. However, direct or indirect interference in Nepal’s domestic political matter has had a negative impact on Nepal-India relationship and on the Nepalese people’s overall sentiments.  India’s hegemonic policy has not born any positive fruit. Nepalese media, civil society groups and academicians have been very critical of what they call ‘India’s micro-management’ in Nepal. India’s perception of seeing Nepal as a ‘buffer’ since 1950’s under Nehru strategy has not bear any fruit and its interest in creating an ‘inner buffer’ in Terai in federal Nepal would not bear any fruit in longer run.

There is no doubt that the growing ‘anti-Indian sentiment’ of people of Nepal ultimately will harm Indian myopic interests. In fact, ‘anti-Indian sentiment’ is a primary challenge in Nepal-India relations, and addressing and minimizing it would be a key to improving the bilateral ties. In light of this, it would be wise for government of India to stop meddling in internal affairs of Nepal through its intelligence wings especially Research and Analysis wing (RAW) and rather pursue on formulating a comprehensive and long-term policy on federal Nepal at the higher echelon of political level. Instability of Nepal will have spill over effect on India as was stated in great prudence and far sightedness by the former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, ‘India will not be able to realize its own destiny without the partnership of its South Asian neighbours.’ Nepal’s disintegration or independent Terai as a nation state will bring further instability in the region and thus would not suit the India’s geo-political interest. Hence, India should be wise enough to convince Terai-Madhes political parties to be accommodative within the seven province model rather than take the route of violence or secessionist.

The present constitution is not rigid and it can be amended in due course of time as new federal Nepal would require the support of all the Nepalese citizens and unification among our diverse socio-cultural groups. This will help to successfully and sustainably institutionalize federalism. Violence has no place in democratic politics and the federalism is still a new exercise in Nepal, which can bring stability or instability in the context of Nepal. India should stop playing favourite amongst the Nepalese political parties and come out as a responsible actors in resolving the crisis in Terai-Madhes.  India’s ability to play a more engaged role on the global stage is contingent on its capacity for ensuring a modicum of stability in its relationships with sub-continental neighbours and Nepal’s case will test India being a more responsible and global actor in the regional and international affairs.


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