By AKHILESH UPADHYAY (KATHMANDU, NOV. 6, 2015) – Just before the annual festival season began across Nepal last month, nearly a decade after a civil war, and six months after a catastrophic earthquake, the country ushered in a new Constitution.
Ideally, its long-awaited arrival would have brought relief, if not celebration to my fellow citizens. Instead, the new charter has thrown the country into violent turmoil and a confrontation with India over its contents. With little recourse or leverage in the region, Nepal has often given in to its powerful neighbor’s demands; this time, it has responded to India’s interference by warming up to its rival, China. That’s a smart move on Nepal’s part, but one it has to make carefully between two powerful neighbors.
The Constitution was passed this September — after several years and broken deadlines, two constituent assemblies, numerous protests, strikes and political histrionics. It was supposed to enshrine equality for women and historically marginalized groups, but many people in this country of 28 million insist that it does none of these things.
Tensions are especially high in Nepal’s southern plains, called the Terai, which run along most of the roughly 680-mile porous border with India. The Madhesi people who live in the Terai share close familial and cultural ties with India and have long felt alienated from Nepal’s government about 80 miles away, uphill in Kathmandu. They make up more than 30 percent of the population, but feel severely underrepresented in the new Constitution, which they believe entrenches the interests of the so-called high-hill caste groups who have long dominated Nepal’s politics. Their protests gathered steam in the weeks before the constitutional deadline and have resulted in more than 40 deaths so far, disrupting the passage of essential supplies, including gasoline, from India.
To signal its unhappiness with the Constitution, India has responded with an “unofficial” blockade of goods on its side of the border, a breathtaking intrusion upon our sovereignty. It blames the protesters for the shutdown. In reality, by denying Nepali people their sustenance, India is exerting pressure on a government it has historically been able to manipulate. India fears that an unstable Terai will have a spillover effect, especially on its border states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. It also knows that in the long term the Madhesi constituency, with its close ties to India, offers Delhi strategic leverage with the powers that be in Kathmandu.
For most Nepalis, however, Delhi’s cruel embargo and exertion of its power is intolerable. The amount of oil that now enters Nepal is so meager (our national oil company recently scoffed that it was perfume, not oil) that life in the country has come to a near-standstill for weeks. People are riding on scarcely available jam-packed buses, often on rooftops. Cars, buses and motorbikes snake through entire neighborhoods waiting, sometimes overnight, for rations from gas stations. Almost all major industries have shut down. Tourism, one of our economic lifelines, has ground to a halt, and thousands of hotels and restaurants are cooking over firewood. This is all in addition to the power failures that we have had to endure for years, even in the nation’s capital.
The people in Kathmandu have responded with anger directed outward, toward India, not at their own politicians. While the agitating Madhesh-based political parties view the Indian blockade as leverage against the government, the shutdown at the border points and the nearby businesses, schools and colleges in the region have pushed the Terai into despair.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, who wooed Nepalis on his two visits last year, during which he promoted his “neighborhood first” diplomacy, is now an object of scorn. Some people have burned effigies of him, and a #BackoffIndia hashtag was recently trending on Twitter. While Nepal’s allies, including China, welcomed the new Constitution, India merely “noted” it.
Deeply humiliated, the Nepali government is now looking to expand its transit routes to China, knowing that trade with our northern neighbor can hardly substitute (in the short term, at least) for what exists with our southern one. Imports from India account for more than 60 percent of the total. Although China’s share is rising, it still accounts for only 13 percent. While China usually sends us garments, textiles, electronics and vehicles, less than two weeks ago, Nepal scored a strategic victory when it signed a deal with it for oil, marking an end to the four-decade monopoly enjoyed by the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation. On Thursday, China and Nepal agreed to open seven additional transit points for trade.
Our mountainous north, Tibet’s political inaccessibility and the distance between our major commercial centers and China’s nearest supply hubs mean that trading with our northern partner will not be easy. Beijing has forcefully backed Nepal’s constitutional undertaking. A stable Nepal, China reckons, will allow the completion of a major trans-Himalayan railway line by 2020, which will give it access to the vast South Asian market, with a population even larger than its own. It also has warm relations with Nepal’s Communist and Maoist parties, two of our ruling left-leaning parties, and wants to keep a keen eye on our significant and active Tibetan exile community.
New Delhi would be wise to acknowledge the lengths to which China could go to strengthen its influence in Nepal. It should know that while its coercive tactics may allow it to influence political circles here, it will not earn it friends anywhere and could push Kathmandu even closer to Beijing. Just this week, Nepal received several truckloads of oil from China, a small amount, but symbolic nonetheless.
By expanding lines with China, Nepal has shown that it has a card to play with India. Nepal’s geopolitical parrying, however, must not distract the government from the needs of its own people, the Madhesis, whose grievances have been expressed over generations. It’s about time they were heard.
Akhilesh Upadhyay is editor in chief of The Kathmandu Post.This article has been originally published in The New York Times on 6 Nov 2015.