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Nepal constitution: Madheshi protests end but the anger remains

CK Lal | Updated on: 14 February 2017, 5:38 IST

The protests

  • With the death of former PM Sushil Koirala, political crisis has taken a backseat in Nepal
  • The Madheshi protests on the India-Nepal border have ended for now

The stand

  • India, too, seems to have backed out of its support to the agitation
  • It is supposedly trying to assuage the Nepalese leadership

More in the story

  • Why did the blockade end?
  • Divisions within the Madheshis
  • Did India change its stand?

The passing away of Sushil Koirala (1939-1916), former Prime Minister and the Chair of Nepali Congress, has pushed the political agenda of the country into the background for now.

In September last year, Koirala had shepherded the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal, 2015 as the-then head-of-government and leader of parliament. This was despite strong objections by almost all Madhesh-based parties.

Also read - Will Madhesis become the new Tamils and Bihar the new Tamil Nadu?

Madhesbadis contend that the new constitution of Nepal regresses from provisions of the interim statute and the dominant majority has reneged from its promise of ensuring justice for Madhes and Madhesis through guarantees of population-based representation, proportionate inclusion, and restructuring of the state.

The agitation

The adoption of controversial constitution caused a stir in the Tarai-Madhes plains of southern Nepal, which still continues. In almost 6 months of relentless rallies and demonstrations against the discriminatory statute, security agencies have shot dead almost 5 dozen Madhesi protestors. The spotlight, however, remained on the sit-ins at the Raxaul-Birgunj border that had obstructed the flow of goods into Kathmandu for almost 135 days.

In an inexplicable turn of events, protestors were driven away from the Friendship Bridge along the Indo-Nepal border last Friday and the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) was forced to announce the end of blockade soon afterwards.

Meanwhile, the regime has other priorities. In their condolence messages, leaders of the ruling coalition have expressed the view that the implementation of new statute would be the greatest tribute to the late PM Koirala. The determination is perhaps intended to reassure the dominant majority that nothing is going to change in the country. However, the threat is unmistakable for Madhesis of the plains and Janjatis of hills and mountains, who are still hoping for appropriate constitutional amendments to address their concerns.

India's position

In an expression of its renewed engagement with the regime in Kathmandu, the government of India sent a very high-level political delegation under the leadership of Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj to pay final homage to Koirala.

On the sidelines of their condolence visit, the high-level Indian delegation called upon President Vidya Bhandari and Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli before flying back to New Delhi the same day.

The regime wants to push through the controversial statute, calling it a tribute to late PM Koirala

It appears that the establishment in New Delhi has lost all interest in ongoing protests in Tarai-Madhes and wants to get on with other dimensions of the multifaceted Indo-Nepal relationship.

PM Oli is slated to visit India soon. Preparations are being made in both capitals to mend fences. Nobody wants to note why the 'blockade' had become necessary in the first place even as its ending eases the flow of petroleum supplies into Kathmandu.

How the blockade ended

Despite propaganda in the Nepalese media about 'economic embargo' and 'blockade', obstructions at the Raxaul-Birgunj had begin to lose its efficacy within a few days due to three main reasons.

First, trucks were diverted through customs' posts where UDMF had little influence such as Bhairahawa, Nepalgunj and Biratnagar. This meant that there was no shortage of supplies in most parts of the country.

Secondly, petroleum products were unofficial being ferried through Thori and Chitwan National Park protected by the Nepalese Army.

Finally, constrained supplies were enough to satisfy people willing and able to pay a premium and almost nobody protested against the artificial scarcity.

Also read - India's spectacular policy failure in Nepal

When government agencies not only condone but actively encourage informal trade, the transaction no longer remains smuggling or black-marketing.

By January-end, the 'blockade' had become a joke with restaurants getting away with pricy 'blockade menu', roads experiencing 'blockade traffic jam' and socialites marking 'blockade evenings' with additional soirees.

Perhaps there was some rethinking in New Delhi that the blockade was proving to be counter-productive, which they conveyed in no uncertain terms to UDMF politicos.

The regime in Bihar was impressed upon by the trade lobby of Champaran and Motihari that blockages along Raxaul-Birgunj alone were pushing away their businesses towards Gorakhpur and Bahraich in Uttar Pradesh.

RJD chief Lalu Prasad may have conveyed that to his UDMF visitors in Patna. Meanwhile, the Permanent Establishment of Nepal was determined to tire out protestors at all costs.

The end of the blockages could have been a little more political. But once the establishment in Kathmandu sensed the exhaustion of New Delhi and the desperation of UDMF, it mobilised hired hoodlums, and with the help of compromised officials on both sides of the border, drove away protestors from the sit-in venue in one swoop.

Confusion in the Madhesi ranks

Predictably, leaders of UDMF are fighting among themselves like generals of a defeated army. Sadhbhawana Party Chairperson Rajendra Mahato, who maintained the occupation of the Friendship Bridge along Raxaul-Birgunj border against all odds, has been blamed for causing its collapse with his intemperate remarks that "either all entry points needed to be obstructed or everything must open up".

Mahato's remarks were censured by the chair of Federal Socialist Forum-Nepal Upendra Yadav and the chief of Tarai-Madhes Sadhbhavana Party Mahendra Yadav.

India seems to have lost interest in Madheshi protests. It realised the blockade was counter-productive

Tarai-Madhes Democratic Party Chief and the widely respected face of UDMF Mahanth Thakur too expressed his unhappiness.

There is complete confusion in the ranks of all Madhes-based parties and the triumphalism is hard to miss in Kathmandu where the PEON seems to be under the impression that their tenacity has won the day.

That may indeed be so in the short term.

Dissatisfaction, however, continues to fester in Tarai-Madhes. This has unpredictable implications for the controversial statute.

Amendments fail to meet expectations

The much-ballyhooed amendments proposed in the constitution before the statute had even gone into implementation, were unilaterally passed by parliament despite dissatisfaction of protesting parties. India immediately welcomed the modification as steps in the right direction. However, the 'newly improved' statute still fails to address fundamental concerns of Madhesis and Janjatis.

Unequal citizenship provisions that reinforce patriarchy remain unchanged. Retention of geography as criterion of representation implies that Tarai-Madhes with only 20 districts will continue to be disadvantaged in comparison to mountains that have 50 districts. Though the latter accounts for less than half of the country's voters, it but will elect more members to the Lower House of the parliament.

Representation in the Upper House will be even more skewed, with each province getting 8 seats irrespective of their population. As there is only one Madhes based province, Madhesis will remain forever a tiny minority.

Just to understand the scale of this inequality, it amounts to Uttar Pradesh and Sikkim sending the same number of MPs to the Rajya Sabha in India.

Amendments to ensure proportionate inclusion are equally illusory.

Most of all, nothing has even been promised about demarcation of boundaries of provinces in line with agreements signed with mainstream parties by protesting Madhesis.

Leaders of Madhes-based parties have been saying that they will not settle for "empty promises". This time, they have failed to elicit even a face-saving gesture of goodwill from the regime.

The confusion is unlikely to last long. Madhes-based parties will have to overcome their petty interests and come together for the sake of Madhes. Protests may have dampened for now, but they can erupt any time as long as the grievances remain.

But It's not too late for course-correction. This is something New Delhi can gently remind PM Oli when he comes calling.

More in Catch - 100 days of Oli-garchy: Nepal PM's joke is on the people

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First published: 11 February 2016, 2:32 IST
CK Lal @CatchNews

The writer is a noted journalist and political columnist from Nepal.