Madhesi protest in Nepal: Why India needs to step back a little

By Sunil Raman (9 Nov 2015) – The buzz among sections of Nepal’s intelligentsia is that the Modi government encouraged Madhesi protest in the Terai Region to gain electorally in Bihar elections. This might be farfetched but it goes to show the extent of distrust among the Nepali elite about India’s role in what is essentially an internal issue for a country still coming to terms with transition to a democratic setup.

In the last few days, after signing a deal with China that ended India’s monopoly over petrol/diesel/kerosene supply to Nepal the government of Prime Minister Oli signed a deal with Bangladesh to supply ATF or Aviation Turbine Fuel to the landlocked country. On 4 November, the Chinese called on Nepal government and parties to resolve the differences over the new Constitution without “outside interference”, in a veiled reference to India.

Representational image. AP

The spokesman further said that “We hope that the Nepali government and all relevant parties will bear in mind national unity, social stability and fundamental interests of people in Nepal,” asking Nepal government and other political parties to properly address their differences. “Properly resolve differences through consultations in a peaceful manner with no interference from outside, restore stability back to Nepal as soon as possible and stay committed to post disaster reconstruction and long-term development of Nepal,” she said.

In 2006, India committed a major error in judgement when it tried to support an unpopular King Gyanendra, whose legitimacy was under question after the palace massacre of 2000 that led to the death of the then king and his family. I was part of a team from BBC that covered the developments in Kathmandu and its outskirts.

People’s protest against Gyanendra was peaking, thousands of men and women were on the streets demanding an end to monarchy and to tackle that curfew was imposed for around a fortnight. Offices, schools, universities, businesses and even shops selling products for day to day living were shut. But, like revolutions in different parts of the world a time comes when people “don’t give a damn” for their safety and security. Armed policemen and troops don’t deter people who want to change the course of history.

The point I want to make is that scores of people we spoke to and interviewed in that volatile period, many of them young Nepalis, all made one important point – they questioned Indian government’s attempts to support a tottering monarchy when the country was itself a republic. I recall a constant refrain of “why does India want to tell us what to do?” among the vast number of people who marched across Kathmandu and many other big and small towns.

Much has changed politically since 2006. Today 70 per cent of Nepal population is below 35 years of age. They have an active media and people are lot more aware of local and international politics. India impacts their daily life like no other country because of open borders and for providing a lifeline to a country with no access to sea. After years of discussions and disagreements Nepal adopted finally a Constitution that proclaims it a secular democratic country, and not a theocratic Hindu state that it was until some years ago. The youth have become more aware and conscious of politics of the country and its relations with India.

The “nationalist” streak that Indian youth have begun to reflect is lot more evident among Nepali youth when it comes to New Delhi. They believe that as a sovereign country their ties with India need to be reworked to reflect Nepal’s independence. Forced to depend on India for all imports and exports because of geography these young people do not accept that as a reality to live with. They want their political leaders to review and relook at how their ties were formulated with a big neighbour for all these years.
Therefore, China’s quick response to the looming fuel crisis by promising to supply 1,000 metric tonnes of fuel on easy terms was much appreciated.

India’s foreign office mishandled developments when the Constitution was being adopted and the ill-advised move to send foreign secretary S Jaishankar to Kathmandu sent a negative message about New Delhi’s strategy towards a country that had adopted a new Constitution. Announcement of a new Constitution on September 20 was not to India’s liking. Jaishankar wanted Madhesi demands to be addressed first. But Nepal’s response was “We’ll do it our way.”

Fears of India trying to sabotage the promulgation of a Constitution was fanned by Maoist chief Prachanda who kept insisting that delay would take away “our achievements”, namely republicanism, federalism and secularism. An alliance between the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist (UCPN-M) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) has grabbed all key posts in government.

These developments are more than pinpricks in a relationship that has been strained for a few years. The Oli government is politically shaky but the narrative has worked against India’s interests. Many will argue that such feelings are natural among small neighbours of India, especially Nepal with whom India and not China shares civilisational ties. After all, geography cannot be changed. Nepal shares an open border of 1,868 km with five Indian states (Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Sikkim) and 1,415 km with Tibet.

Nepal has no choice but live with India in harmony. Surely Nepal’s political leadership is not blind to these key geographical facts. On its part, India needs to step back somewhat. In its desire to ensure justice to a large Madhesi population it has overplayed its hand. Now that Bihar elections are over, New Delhi needs to recalibrate its relations with Kathmandu.

The writer is a former BBC journalist

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