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Nepal, India and Madhesis: all need a course correction

SD Muni | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 5:38 IST

The problem

  • The Nepali leadership, Madhesis and India all have a part to play in the Nepal crisis
  • Kathmandu must address the issues raised by Madhesi agitators
  • Nepal needs to understand protests were not fuelled by India

The way ahead

  • India must be more receptive toward Nepal\'s Constitution
  • Madhesis should not piggyback on India

Nepal is in a crisis. The crisis is a triangular one, precipitated by three principal players.

The root of the crisis lies in Kathmandu, where the leaders of dominant ruling parties have frustrated the constitutional aspirations of marginalized Madhesis, janjatis and even women.

Also read: India's spectacular policy failure in Nepal

Madhesis in Nepal's southern belt have been agitating, resulting in nearly 50 deaths since September 20 - the day the Constitution was promulgated. Essential supplies from India for Kathmandu and the hills have also been seriously disrupted.

The third player is India, which allegedly has come out in support of the agitation, facilitating disruption in the flow of supplies, resulting in serious difficulties for the ordinary Nepalese. India wants Kathmandu to move fast to accommodate Madhes's constitutional concerns. If it does not happen now, it could as well be never.

In whose interest?

The situation prevailing in Nepal is not in anybody's interest. Kathmandu and New Delhi cannot afford to alienate each other. Kathmandu also cannot live in peace with an estranged Madhes or vice versa.

The positions taken by all three parties are not sustainable for long. Each one of them, particularly Kathmandu and India, therefore needs to rethink and introspect.

The leadership of the Nepali Congress (NC) and the Communist Party of Nepal - United Marxist Leninist (UML) must move fast to undo the injustice done to the marginalized groups and give them a sense of ownership of the Constitution.

A constitutional amendment Bill has been drafted to accommodate demands for proportional representation in state organs and population-based electoral constituencies.

Draw the boundaries

This is welcome, but not enough. The question of provincial boundaries, including those for the five controversial Terai districts, needs to be addressed. This may be easier said than done unless some of the NC and UML leaders rise above their narrow sectional interests.

Should they be allowed to be driven by their idiosyncrasies and narrow political stakes over building a new and strong Nepal? The NC and UML leaders have to realise that the present Madhes leadership still has stakes in a united and stable Nepal.

The younger generation of Madhesis who constitute the backbone of the present agitation may not have such stakes. Madhes has witnessed a surge of assertive and aggressive identity with a deepening distrust of Kathmandu, particularly since January-February 2007. The consolidation and expansion of this identity will not help stability and progress either in Nepal or in India.

For the ruling parties, the priority should not be to settle the power-sharing arrangements and install a new government. But to resolve the burning constitutional issues.

Vis-a-vis India

Kathmandu also has to reset its tone and temper in relation to India. The ruling elites must realize that the agitation in Madhes was neither caused by India nor its persistence is in India's interest.

Burning effigies and flags, or ridiculing the Indian leadership will not resolve the issues involved. Nepal of course should seek alternatives to its 'undue' dependence on India. But in a globalizing world, such option may be far and feeble.

Both King Mahendra and King Birendra tried to counter-balance India by inviting other powers and unleashing an anti-India nationalism. Every one knows the fate of their endeavours.

India, too, has to reset its response to Nepal's constitution and rethink its long-term Nepal policy. It was a sign of immaturity in crafting a cold reaction to Nepal's Constitution without welcoming it.

Kathmandu has to tone down; the Madhesi agitation was not caused by India

This is Nepal's first popular and democratically adopted Constitution - something India had hoped for in 1951. It has several commendable features.

True, the constitution has not been fair to Madhesis and others, but India has never taken such a strident stand in favour of Madhes in the past. Support for the Madhesis, to the extent of creating distress for ordinary Nepalese, is counterproductive.

In Kathmandu-Madhes polarization, siding completely with the Madhesis may not do good even to them. India's stand has actually facilitated the royalists, Hindu fundamentalists, Left extremists and the traditional anti-India sections of Nepal to fish in troubled water.

Flummoxing Indian failure

India's approach to Nepal is intriguing in the present context. How come the leaders and parties India has been supporting and cultivating for decades could not be persuaded on constitutional issues?

Is'nt it a huge failure of Indian diplomacy? How come some of these leaders have been found to be more amenable to persuasion by other countries than India? Why has Narendra Modi allowed the diverse clusters of the ruling BJP to run their respective Nepal policies in contravention to the stated national priorities?

It is time that India devoted much more time to shape its neighbourhood policy than allowing diverse and conflicting stakeholders to push this policy in different directions. Since the beginning of this century, we are witnessing a new and vibrant Nepal, a young and aspiring Nepal.

India has no option but to redefine its preferences and styles of engagement. It should play its role quietly and less visibly to be more effective. Now that Kathmandu has taken the first step, India should nudge Madhes also towards compromise and adjustment, while helping resolve Nepal's supplies situation.

India knows that the Madhesi leadership is fragmented and weak. It is opportunistic and power hungry. It did not assert itself for the cause of the Madhesi people even when having a share in power after 2008.

Any success that it secures by riding on India's back may not last - Recall the thirteenth constitutional amendment forced by India on Colombo in 1987 to accommodate the Tamils still remains to be implemented satisfactorily.

Madhes in fact badly needs a new and dynamic leadership to carve out its rightful place in Nepal's emerging order. Both Kathmandu and, if possible, India, may need to encourage Madhes's internal rejuvenation.

The views expressed here are personal and do not necessarily reflect those of the organisation.

First published: 9 October 2015, 8:54 IST
SD Muni @Catchnews

The author is professor emeritus at the Jawaharlal Nehru University and a former ambassador to Laos.