By Birat Anupam —
Nepal’s diplomacy and sovereignty have been directly proportional to the events unfolding in southern plains in recent times. The issues of identity, inclusion and mainstreaming deprived and marginalized groups have been intentionally linked to the agendas and agitations of Nepal’s southern side as if rest of the nation enjoys absolute state protection and strong statehood. Recently promulgated constitution has been an artificial reason for this sponsored agitation of Terai-centric parties and foreign-financed activism of I/NGOs.
Indian establishment is visibly exerting its influence in Nepal’s domestic affairs from this regional instability. Latest Indian trade embargo to Nepal supporting Terai-centric political agitation is its solid evidence for this ugly diplomatic exercise. Plus, India has been raising Terai agitation even at global forums to make an impression for outside world that Nepal’s recently promulgated constitution from sovereign and democratically elected Constituent Assembly includes everything aspired from entire Nepal except southern plains which is untrue.
No section of Nepal’s civil society, ethnic groups, faith-followers and politicians are happy on Nepal’s constitution. 80 percentage plus citizenry are unhappy for not declaring Nepal a Hindu Republic, previously a Hindu Kingdom before popular movement ousted autocratic king Gyanendra Shah, the last monarch in Nepal’s modern history. Similarly, millions of Nepalese are unhappy for federal frameworks and they are for nation-wide referendum for pressing issues like republicanism, federalism and secularism.
Likewise, Nepal’s political peripheries and ethnic nationalities are divided over name, number and boundaries of federal unites as stated in Nepal’s constitution of 2015. Despite this huge dissatisfaction over constitutional provisions, Constituent Assembly (CA) members voted to pass and promulgate this historic charter for Nepal as there were no chances of unity among political parties in CA house with no clear majority by any single political entity. So was the reason that more than 90 % CA members inked their approval for this constitution. Because of all the hassles and hurdles in constitution making process, many experts term constitution as a ‘document of compromise’.
There are some overt and covert factors at play in this volatile region of this ethnically and geographically diverse nation of South Asia. From domestic political opportunists to foreign powers, all are afoot to cash in anything and everything the Terai agitation brings to their comforts and credits. In this scene of political turmoil, social friction and economic frustration in Terai, we mustn’t deny some genuine triggers for this troubled time in Terai. It is true that Terai was not treated in good manner. Indigenous Terai folks were treated like outsiders and Indians in some parts of Nepal. Terai was not developed to its expectation. However, is entire Nepal of European standard and the Terai is intentionally left in its developmental tracks?
Why folks from hills and mountains force themselves to evict their homelands in search of better facilities in Terai every day? It is because Nepal has been unable to meet its developmental overhauls. Nepal’s state treasury is running short to meet growing infrastructural progress and people’s aspiration for modernization and employment. And, can we blame everything for state and government? No. Unfortunately, ordinary folks and unemployed youths of Terai are brainwashed in the way that everything inopportune arises their way is just because of Kathmandu administration, hilly folks and Nepal’s ‘biased’ constitution. Leaders in Janakpurdham, the vibrant town in Terai, point at piling urban garbage and blame Kathmandu for this sorry state while Kathmandu itself is suffering from same situation and these politicians themselves could have make positive changes. A political recruit in Birjung busies himself in scolding Kathmandu for muddy road tracts while Kathmandu itself sees potholes within Singhadurbar.
Every problem that can be solved locally like garbage disposal by clean-up campaign, every evil that can be evicted by an individual like dowry system and every individual troubles like illiteracy and joblessness are all linked to Kathmandu and people from hills are pictured as their enemies. Same sentiment is being played out by political players in Terai in this time of turbulence. Interestingly, those who were parliamentarians, ministers and senior bureaucrats are at the front and center of this anti-hill and anti Kathmandu sentiment all for their political plays. In early days of Terai agitation, hundreds of hill-origin families were raped, looted and evicted from their locations of Terai. Still, many hill-origin folks are unable to stay peaceful in inner Teri and southernmost parts of central Terai where there are strongholds of Terai-centric parties.
Why Terai is powerful weapon to weaken Nepal?
Terai accommodates only 17 percentage geographical areas of Nepal. But an hour-long transport disruption at Rautahat badly affects daily doings of Kathmandu. Few protestors making sit-ins in Birjung troubles people of entire nation. Why 17 % land has an impact for rest 83 % parts of Nepal? It is all owing to Nepal’s south-centric trade connectivity. Nepal’s lifeline of East-West highway is in Terai. Nepal’s major trading points and border crossings are in southern plains. Geographical proximities and cultural connection are some factors making this happen. Nepal has 1868 km shared border with India and this is why Nepal has heavy trade dependency on India both in terms of trade and transit. However, we mustn’t forget that Nepal shares 1415 km long northern border with world’s second largest economy China’s autonomous region of Tibet. Except Tatopani trading points of Sindhupalchok, no other commercially viable trading hubs are operated in northern borders. Rasuwa’s Kerung is in the phase of infrastructural overhauls.
Some India-sympathizing Nepali politicians are for India-locked trade and transit situation in Nepal. They point geographical difficulties with Chinese borders for running commercial trading points between Nepal and China. These opinion-makers forget the fact that Nepal fought multiple wars with Tibet between1855-1856 and it was possible then to push trans-Himalayan military arms and immunizations. Nepal has ancient history of Tibetan trade and transit. If Nepal could fight battles in ancient times, why can’t it have commercially trading points in this time when China is for running cross Himalayan railways? Likewise, why folks of Humla are to consume items imported from Indian transit route while China is in stone-throwing distance? Why people of Olanchungolaa of Taplejung and Kerala of Manang are compelled to consume daily essentials only imported from India?
It is not a matter of pro China and anti India. To increase and upgrade trading hubs with Nepal’s ancient and immediate northern neighbor China is in Nepal’s interest. We have badly felt so in times of two subsequent Indian blockades of 1989 and 2015 that paralyzed entire nation, mostly hilly and Himalayan regions. Terai doesn’t have to bear the crippling impacts of Indian embargo as the porous border points make it easy for cross-country cargo movements. Therefore, early and speedy opening up of more trading points with China is need of the nation. Nepal enjoys 9 strategically located trading points with China that makes easy and efficient cargo movements between nations. For example, in Mechi zone, Olanchungola is a trading hub and Kimanthanka is another trading hub for Koshi zone of eastern Nepal. In the similar manner, Kerala of Mustang, Larke of Gorkha, Lamabagar of Dolakha, Yari of Humla and Mugu Bajar of Mugu are potential commercially viable northen trding hubs other than functional Tatopani and Kerung of Sindhupalchowk and Rasuwa respectively.
Unfortunately, these all trade points are not utilized and domestic political opportunists and foreign powers find an excuse to weaken Kathmandu by trade disruptions in Terai. Had there been 4-lane north-south expressway from all 9 commercially viable Nepal-China trade crossings, cities in southern plains would be shopping paradises for adjacent Indian customers as it would be shortest trading route between China’s autonomous region of Tibet and India’s states of Bihar ad Uttar Pradesh via overland Nepali transit. Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini, situated in central Terai, would bring in millions of Buddist Chinese spurring developmental strides in Terai creating thousands jobs and opportunities.
Knowing this transit advantage that Nepal can reap from all northern border crossings and realizing potentially weakened political tools of transport disruption and trade embargo, India is doing all it can do to destroy or delay these rosy plans. Historical evidences proves this logic in crystal clear manners-India, in 1960, restricted Nepal’s rights to all Indian ports as stated in India-Nepal treaty of 1950 to only Haldia port of Calcutta.
India badly opposed Nepal’s pioneering highway between Nepal and China that was conceptualized by the then king Mahendra. India’s growing expenses of Nepal’s micromanagement in politics, bureaucracy, civil society and media are directed towards this end. In summary, India and Terai-centric parries are for disconnecting hills and mountains from Terai for their political leverage to gripe Kathmandu. Also, they are for disconnecting Nepal with northern neighbor China in terms of trade and transit so that Nepal will again be an India-locked nation even after signing of TTA with China by former PM KP Oli, who was ousted for his plans to open up more trading points with China, Okaying proposed China-Nepal railway projects, among others.
Author is freelance journalist based in Itahari, Sunsari.