Nepal is double hit:  first by earthquake, now by Narendra Modi

(Nepal Foreign Affairs, September 28) – Struggling to rise from the destruction April earthquake, Nepal is suffocated by yet another disaster, though man made this time. India has imposed an undeclared economic embargo on Nepal. The same country which said it would support rebuilding Nepal after earthquake has now imposed the blockade citing its disagreement over the new constitution Nepal promulgated on 20th September. The earthquake killed over 10,000 people, destroyed over 500, 000 households and injured several thousand people. This man-made disaster is slowly building up an unforeseen humanitarian crisis, as blockade of supplies has pushed scarcity of medicines, essential goods and petroleum supplies.

Large number of population in the earthquake hit districts is living under makeshift houses, staring at the imminent crisis out the Indian embargo. Food supplies may not be affected much as China has opened the supply lines from the north after the demolished roads were cleared recently. But Nepal fully depends on India for petroleum supplies. Last year, Nepal and India signed an oil pipeline agreement under which India has a monopoly of petroleum supplies to Nepal. Even to look for an alternative, Nepal must first declare a unilateral breach of the agreement. The problem is, China has not committed petroleum supply; there is no nearest refinery in Tibetan side of the border. India knows this problem of Nepal, and to force Nepal’s weak political leadership to give in, further weakened in the in the last two decades, first by the Maoist insurgency, and then since 2006 by political instability for the political settlement, uses disproportional strong-arm tactics.

Officially, India has always said it would support Nepal’s democracy and political stability. It is right in saying that the situation of instability in Nepal, with which India shares 1700 kilometers of open border, will have spill-over effect. But its approach in dealing with Kathmandu has often been counterproductive. For example, during the absolute monarch days, it supported the establishment, as well as the pro-democracy politicians. Most startling fact, difficult to comprehend unless billed an ulterior motive, is that Nepal’s insurgent Maoists were provided shelter and arms by India during the insurgency (1996-2006), while the world kept looking for Maoist connections with China.

Let’s come back to the current economic blockade. Any rational democrat will be perplexed to hear the reason India gives.  India says Nepal’s constitution does not give sufficient leverage to Nepal’s Madhesi population- the most recent generations of the migrants from India living in Nepal’s southern plains. This segment of population enjoys close cultural ties with the people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Bihar is having state assembly elections in October. Many believe, Modi wants to score in the elections by claiming credit for protecting interests of the Indian origin people in the neighborhood.

But a largely Hindu Nepalas whole, not only the Madhesi people, shares cultural ties with India. Hindi and Nepali languageshave the same script and grammar, though spoken and written differently.  India also has a huge Nepali speaking population in the state of Sikkim, North Bengal, Darjeeling, Assam and some parts of the state of Uttarakhand.

The underlying cause of the blockade is also said to be Nepal’s refusal to return back as a Hindu state constitutionally, for which Modi government was secretly lobbying hard in Kathmandu. The new constitution, withstanding all efforts of the Hindu forces, chose to keep Nepal a secular state.

Most recently, India has asked Nepal to amend its new constitution to give sufficient political space to the Madhesi population, even if it would cost Nepal’s sovereignty and flout established democratic practices around the world. In the seven point amendment proposal it has forwarded to Nepal, there are two such provisions which cannot be accepted by any country, anywhere in the world. Among the suggestions it forwarded to Nepal were: don’t bar naturalized citizens to take top state posts, and gerrymander the provinces so as to create Madhesi pocket boroughs.

In carving out these amendments, India has often resorted to incorrect and falsified facts. Its current and former ambassadors to Kathmandu have always claimed by writing and speaking that the Madhesi population is 51% and should be allowed to govern the state.

This number is misleading in the first place. Nepal’s Madhes region has the country’s 51% population, true. But the actual Madehsi population in the country, according to the 2011 census, is less than 20%. Even in this number are MadhesiDalits and Rajbanshi/Dhimal groups of the east who don’t want to be identified as Madehsis.

The claim that the Madhesi population is marginalized is also false because recent researches have shown that the high caste Madehsis, who dominate the Madeshi narrative, enjoy better access to civil service jobs and have economic advantage over the Hill Bahun/Chetrri groups, who make up 32% of the countries’ population and who are constantly demonized.(See here for one of the research reports:

Another key demand of the currently agitating parities and India speaking on their behalf is regarding the demarcation of federal provinces. They have said that the five districts –Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari in the east and Kailali, Kanchanpur in the West have to be merged with the Madhes province, and they shouldn’t touch the hill districts. This level of intervention is disliked in Nepal as ground reality is different from what India seems to be thinking.

Jhapa, Morang and Sunasari altogether elected 20 representatives in the Constituent Assembly. Out of them, 18 have wanted to stay with the hill province. The Madhesi population in these districts is 8% only a part of which wants to stay with the Madhes province. However, two top leaders of the Madesh centric parties- Upendra Yadav and BijayaGachchhadar- who won elections from their constituencies in Morang and Sunasari- make this a demand to secure their political future. These districts have also been demanded by the Limbuwan groups in the east, whose movement has been very weak after the elections in 2013. India either ignores this, or the South Block has been misreported by the Indian ambassadors to Nepal, who have often sought to advance Madhesi cause.

Similarly, the Tharus in the west, together with the Madhesi parties, have demanded Kailali and Kanchanpur districts. This districts elected 11 representatives in the Constituent Assembly out of which 8 wanted to stay with the hill province, 3 wanted a Madehs-only province.

Next falsification that is being distributed in the media through official Indian foreign ministry channels is that Nepal’s new constitution is rejected by a huge majority of people. The case is just opposite on the ground.

The Constituent Assembly had 601 members. Its strength at the time constitution vote was 598 members, out of whom 537 voted for the constitution. It is close to the 90% majority, the best in the history Constituent Assemblies in the world. Number of Madhesi representatives who voted for it was over 100. Janajati representatives were largest in number to vote for the constitution.  Then cameBahun, chhetri, Dalit and other groups. Current so-called protest is focused in province 2, comprising of 8 districts, out of the 75 districts of Nepal. They have been able to halt public transport, government offices and public service. The Maoists had also done the same, but couldn’t win the state as a whole. Many Nepalese, including several Madehsis, fear Madhes movement is part of India’s deep strategy to smash and grab Nepal, like it did to Sikkim not too long ago. Nepal’s fear appears to be real as Indian action is only proving it every day.

However, it is also true that the agitating Madhesi parties, having been excluded from the constitution making process since July, when a 16-point agreement was signed between the major parties, were faced to an existential threat. The credit of the constitution going only to the major parties made them feel that they would gain nothing out of it. They decided to go all out against the process. They had their supporters in civil society, donor institutions and most importantly India. Unless the seven point demands came from India, it was difficult to know in Kathmandu what the actual demands of the Madhesi parties were.

India has however rejected the blockade and has put the blame to Nepal itself for failing to provide security to the transporters. But it’s evident that the trucks are piling up at the border entry points as Indian officials are not clearing the customs. India’s border security force is citing ‘orders from Delhi’ to stop the cross-border transport. More conspicuous is that they are allowing produce and vegetables as they cannot be stored for long but are deliberately blocking the petroleum and cooking gas supplies.

On the other hand, few hundred ‘protesters’ of Nepal’s  MadheisMorcha block the entry points, which in fact is an international no man’s land. As soon as Nepali police intervenes, they run towards the Indian side of the border, where locals and police protect them, and also help pelt stones sometimes at the Nepali police. A close observation reveals that Nepal’s weakness is being exploited by the Indian side to its advantage. This is not a fair game at all. Many opposition intellectuals in India also seem to see through this game.  Nepalese are further depressed that the world is singing Modi tunes, ignoring what Mr. Modi has done to them. Nepal’s MadhesiMorcha is simply being used to advance Modi’s expansionist, Hindu fundamentalist philosophy in Nepal.

The disaster of Nepal earthquake has been further exacerbated by Indian economic embargo. Sorry Mr. Modi, the world just can’t buy your equality argument. Sorry.

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