Still recovering from an earthquake in April, Nepal has struggled with violent protests and an Indian fuel blockade over the past two months. Elements of one large ethnic group oppose a new constitution that is the country’s best hope to heal the rifts of a civil war. Worst of all, New Delhi has intervened in favor of ethnic Balkanization, a blunder that will harm Nepal even as it undermines India’s influence in the Himalayas.
The root of the dispute lies in a 10-year Maoist insurgency that fanned ethnic grievances to recruit supporters. After a 2006 cease-fire and interim constitution, the Maoists pressed for a federal system with state borders drawn along ethnic lines.
More moderate parties wanted states made up of a mix of groups, so that politicians would have to forge consensus across ethnic divides. Stalemate with the Maoists meant that for years an elected Constituent Assembly was unable to produce the promised new constitution.
The election of a second assembly in 2013 brought progress, since the Maoists won only 13% of the seats. Public support further dwindled as their leaders became part of the privileged elite in Kathmandu.
The earthquake proved to be the final impetus for a deal that gave the moderate parties the pan-ethnic federalism they wanted. But some of the Madhesi ethnic group, who live in the lowlands near the Indian border and make up half of Nepal’s population, objected to the outcome since it means splitting their votes among several states. India was quick to take up the Madhesi cause and recalled its ambassador after the constitution came into effect in late September.
Shortly thereafter the usual stream of fuel tankers to Nepal slowed to a trickle, causing prices for cars and cooking fuel to skyrocket. Indian officials deny responsibility, but other goods have been getting through. China has stepped into the breach with offers of emergency fuel shipments as well as longer term supplies.
Madhesis also make up a large voting block in several north Indian states, which is one reason New Delhi takes such an interest. It’s also true that Madhesis were subject to harsh discrimination in the past. But it’s worth noting that 117 Madhesi representatives, almost 20% of the Constituent Assembly, voted for the constitution. The minority of Madhesis now using bullying tactics to fight the constitution have done greater damage to the cause of equality.
The new constitution should make Nepal more stable in the long run by promoting political cooperation between the country’s complex patchwork of races, languages, religions and castes. As for India, its meddling has destroyed the goodwill Prime Minister Narendra Modi created with two visits to Nepal last year and pledges of aid. As a country that has long insisted on the principles of political independence and nonalignment, New Delhi could stand to practice what it preaches.
Courtesy: Wall Street Journal