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Nepal blockade: why India must stay the course despite criticism

Shiv Shankar Mukherjee | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 12:07 IST

The agitation

  • The Madhesi people of Nepal\'s low-lying Terai region are protesting against the Pahadi hegemony
  • The new constitution of Nepal continues to deny them the right of being equal citizens
  • There\'s a border blockade, allegedly imposed or at least with tacit approval of India

The criticism

  • Former Union minister P Chidambaram has criticised India\'s recent policy towards Nepal
  • After a word with key businessmen and the deputy PM, he says there\'s an anti-India feeling in Nepal
  • The goodwill generated by India\'s relief work after the recent earthquake has been squandered

More in the story

  • How the Madhesis are fully justified in their agitation
  • Why India must stand its ground with respect to the Nepal govt

Nepal has a new constitution, after seven years and two constituent assembly elections. But it is now suffering from a blockade imposed or at least acquiesced to by India.

In a robust democracy, with checks and balances, it is understandable that there has been criticism of India's policy towards recent developments in Nepal.

The article by former Union minister and senior Congress leader, P Chidambaram, in The Indian Express of 6 December, encapsulates the criticism.

Chidambaram's takeaways

The criticism is that India is interfering in its neighbour's internal affairs, that it is slyly supporting the agitation of the Madhesis, and that an anti-India feeling is now pervasive in Nepal, which bodes ill for the future.

Must read: India's spectacular policy failure in Nepal

Thus goes the refrain: there has been a gross failure of diplomacy. The goodwill earned by our massive relief effort after the devastating recent earthquake, and the PM's two successful visits to Nepal, has been frittered away.

To be fair, Chidambaram clearly brings out the special and multi-faceted relationship between India and Nepal, demonstrated most of all by the open border, before expounding on the numerous mistakes made by India.

Although presented as the "€˜takeaways"€™ from his conversation with a group of Nepali businessmen, and Kamal Thapa, Nepal'€™s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, Chidambaram leaves no doubt about subscribing to the same views.

It beggars belief that conversations in a two-hour flight, with precisely the same set of people who form part of the problem that Nepal is facing, are the sole source of his understanding.

Nepali leaders' mentality

The leaders who form the present government of Nepal fought the good fight for democracy against the oppressive monarchy. But they have not been able to transcend the Bahun-Chhetri-Pahadi mentality.

They have embraced democracy but seem determined to deny its fruits in full measure to the "€˜lowly"€™ people of the Terai, mainly the Madhesis. They remain the suspect 'other', pseudo-Nepalis at best, and often reviled as 'Indian agents'.

Ex-Union minister P Chidambaram has criticised India's policy towards recent developments in Nepal

The businessmen, as always in Nepal'€™s history, go along with those in power. In the present case, they do so more passionately, because they, too, belong to the same community and profited from the erstwhile status quo. They don't want to share equal opportunities with the Madhesis.

Thapa, meanwhile, is the leader of the only (tiny) royalist party who, as King Gyanendraa's home minister, jailed the very people with whom he now makes common cause, and the only leader who voted against the constitution!

The Madhesi question

The list of criticisms, though, is useful as a ready-reckoner of the obfuscation and outright falsehoods being fed to the Nepali public and the world at large by the present rulers .

It is possible, but not profitable, to refute these point by point. A brief narrative should suffice.

This is not the first Madhesi agitation. The first one was in late 2007, when they saw that even after the andolan (revolution), which swept away the monarchy, they were being denied their rights.

This agitation led to the written agreement of 28 February 2008, signed by the then-Prime Minister, Girija Prasad Koirala, with leading Madhesi leaders. The agreement guaranteed Madhesi rights to autonomy, proportional representation by population, proportionate access to jobs in government, the army and the police, which were denied to them till then. These were incorporated in the interim constitution.

In a brazen act of discrimination and cynical political opportunism, the CPN(UML), the Nepali Congress, and the Maoist party -€“ which form the ruling coalition€“ pushed through a constitution that deleted these provisions. They went against explicit warnings by the Madhesis that they would reject this, and would embark on mass action for addressing their legitimate grievances.

Theirs was not a fight for some minor adjustments or some crumbs of comfort -€“ it was much more fundamental, a place in the sun as equal citizens of Nepal.

This time around, the Madhesis have made it clear that they will not fall into the trap of accepting nice-sounding assurances, which have been reneged upon or stonewalled time after time. They want action on the ground.

Most importantly, they want to reverse the manipulation of the boundaries of districts, which will make Madhesi representation a permanently minuscule one in Parliament.

Also read: Why there are violent protests against Nepal's 6-state plan

The promise of a commission to look into this and come up with recommendations in three months leaves the Madhesis cold - from past experience, they know that this is just a ploy to sabotage the demand, unless accompanied by prior cast-iron agreements on a fair deal. As a senior Madhesi leader put it: "€œWe want cash, not credit."

India's position

India had made its position abundantly clear, right from the first agitation itself. India has a fully legitimate basis for engaging with Nepal's rulers on the nature of the constitution: if it leads to instability and violence in the Terai, this spills across the open border, and causes security and law-and-order concerns for India.

The foreign secretary's visit was not an eleventh-hour realisation of the crisis by India. It was obviously a last-ditch effort to salvage a crisis that has been openly on the doorsteps for months.

India needs to engage with Nepal on the constitution: an unstable Terai raises security concerns

That it failed was down to the Nepali state's self-serving obstinacy, and we can hardly be blamed for trying, on such a seminal issue. Our exhortations for an inclusive constitution, echoed by many Nepalis themselves, was ignored, and the agitation met with brute force, killing around fifty people.

The blockade is caused by the agitation, as any visitor to the border crossings can see and dozens of journalists have reported. No truck driver is going to risk his life, with some trucks already burnt.

In spite of the anti-India feelings fomented by the leaders in Nepal, and the Nepal government's ragged attempts to play the victim to the international community, India should continue to press for a political solution to a political problem, through sincere dialogue.

Pointing out the root cause of the crisis - the flaws in the constitution - is not the same as taking sides. As Margaret Thatcher told George Bush, "€œThis is not the time to go wobbly.€" India should stay the course.

More in Catch:

Nepal must act to resolve the Madhesi crisis. And act fast

What Bogota, Mexico City, Beijing's experiences tell us about Delhi's even-odd policy

India unprepared: what happens in case of a nuclear Bhopal?

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First published: 7 December 2015, 2:52 IST
Shiv Shankar Mukherjee @ShivMjee

The writer was India's High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, South Africa and Namibia, and Ambassador to Nepal and Egypt.