Nepal : A Constitution In Crisis
Kathmandu is usually a bustling city. Tourists throng the streets, overloaded taxis and autos zip by; quaint eateries usually extending onto the pavements are packed with customers and the night life has much to offer. Yet, none of this is now visible. It is now a city of queues. Mile long lines wind away in front of fuel outlets and even larger ones wait for precious LPG cylinders. Few tourists are visible, and most taxis and autos park idly on the roads. The quaint eateries are dense with wood-smoke – most have switched to fire-wood for cooking – and dishes disappear from the menu daily, simply because there is nothing left to cook. Some sardonically display a ‘Modi Menu’ indicating that there is nothing available. It is a sad indicator, not only of the situation that Nepal has been reduced to, but also of the state of Indo-Nepal relations. As Nepal struggles to find a way out of the impasse created by the promulgation of its Constitution, it is India that is perceived to be the villain of the piece.
Just six months ago, when Nepal was shattered by two devastating earthquakes, it was India that had responded with alacrity to airlift tons of fuel, clothing, tentage, medicines and other essentials for its ravaged neighbor. It then earned a good-will that was palpable and that episode was viewed as one of the highest points of the traditional Indo-Nepal friendship. The good-will has dissipated now. But unless Nepal itself finds a way out of the impasse it is in now, it could change irrevocably, not only the future course of the country, but also the shape of Indo-Nepal ties.
Nepal’s New Constitution
At the heart of the issue is the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution which was announced ceremoniously on 20 September 15 after almost a decade of wait. Although endorsed almost unanimously by the Nepal Constituent Assembly and all major parties, it was termed as unacceptable by the Madeshis and Thuru ethnic communities – the plains people of Indian origin- who feel that they have been discriminated against. Their nationwide agitation against the Constitution has left over 40 dead in the past three months and the blockade that they have imposed in Southern Nepal has crippled the nation.
The Constitution which defines Nepal as “A Secular, Democratic Republic divided into Seven Federal Provinces” is perceived to be heavily loaded in favour of the ‘Paharis’ the hill people who were the original inhabitants of Nepal. It ignores the rights of the Madeshis who make up almost half the population. The Madeshis – people of Indian origin from UP and Bihar had moved into the plains region of Southern Nepal (the Terai) and converted the densely forested, mosquito infested region into a thriving economy. In spite of their role in developing Nepal they have felt a sense of subjugation by the Chettris and Newars, - the ‘Pahari’ hill people who dominate Nepal’ s politics.
At the heart of the grouse is the Federal nature of the Constitution which divides the country into 7 Federal Provinces, each one geographically designed to have a majority of ‘Paharis’ (Some feel this was done just to ensure that the electorate of the present rulers remains intact). The Madeshis want the Terai region to be made into two separate Provinces comprising of the plains region of South Nepal. This will create two Madeshi dominated provinces, each one just 40-60 kilometers wide, but running 800 kilometers along the entire Southern belt of Nepal. Perhaps strategic thinking has had a major impact in drawing out the Provinces. The Nepali government will be loath to have the entire swath of the Southern border to be under the sway of the Madeshis.
The other bones of contention lies in the issue of Proportional representation and citizen rights. The allocation of seats in Parliament should ideally be based on population which would give the Madeshis almost half the seats. Instead the present Constitution bases it on geography, thus ensuring that the ‘Paharis’ get the bulk of the Parliamentary seats. Women’s rights and citizenship is another moot point. Senior positions such as the Prime Minister, Chief Ministers, Army Chief, Chief Justice and other sensitive appointments can only be held by people whose parents are both Nepali. In case of Angikrit citizenship i.e. when the father is an Indian and the mother is a Nepali (which occurs very regularly since cross-border marriage is very common) the children would not be eligible for most senior government positions and be treated as second class citizens in their own country. It also denies rights to women, since a Nepali woman cannot guarantee descendent citizenship to her child, if the father is not a Nepali himself.
The Blockade and its Effect
The Madeshi protests against the Constitution erupted almost as soon as it was announced. Even as the rulers called upon the People of Nepal to light lamps in their homes to celebrate their new Constitution, the Madeshis responded by announcing a black-out in their homes. Street protests spread soon thereafter and the death of five Madeshis in street firing merely intensified it. The heavy handedness of the Government in putting down the initial protest, led to a hardening of the stance and the Madeshi imposition of a blockade in Southern Nepal that has paralyzed the country.
India and Nepal have a 1751 kilometer long open border, through which vehicles and personnel transit freely. Almost 3000 vehicle transit daily through the 21 transit points on the border – over 300 of them being fuel trucks alone. Almost all the daily essentials of Nepal come in to the land-locked country via this route. In effect, Nepal is not land-locked. It is India locked, surrounded by its giant neighbor on three sides. Its Northern border with China is blocked by the forbidding Himalayas, making it virtually dependent on India for its trade and commerce.
The blocking of the Birgunj- Raxaul border – the main crossing place on the Indo-Nepal border - along with the other crossings, has reduced the inflow of trucks entering Nepal to just around 10-15 every day. Empty vehicles returning from Nepal are prevented from returning leading to huge lines of stranded vehicles on both sides of the border. Food and perishables are permitted to pass, but fuel, pharmaceuticals and even earthquake relief materiel remain blocked on the Indian side. The effect of the blockade has created a humanitarian crisis that affects virtually every Nepali household. Its effects have been compounded by the fact that Nepal has still not recovered from the massive earthquake that shook it earlier. Even today 200,000 families stay out in the open in tents. A poor crop this year, caused by unpredictable weather patterns has added to the misery. As Prime Minister Oli himself put it, “The Earthquake and the blockade have shattered the dreams of Nepal to become a prosperous and self-reliant nation”
India is being blamed for the blockade – in fact most newspapers call it “The Indian Blockade” – though it is being engineered almost entirely by Madeshis within Nepali territory. It is hard to see how India could have broken the blockade without entering Nepali territory. Yet, perhaps airlifting of critical supplies could have been done. After all it was the Indian airlift after the earthquake that got it so much good-will. A similar move now would have established it as a neutral player, but a genuine well-wisher of Nepal.
Predictably, Prime Minister Oli has turned to China for help. China has agreed to supply 1.3 million liters of fuel, with 1000 tons to be provided on an immediate basis. But the logistics are daunting. Only two transit points exist on the mountainous Nepal- China border, one at Kerung in Rasuwa district, the other at Tatopani. The latter route was blocked completely after the earthquake and the Kerung route too was severely damaged. So much so that only 12 trucks made it to Kathmandu from that treacherous route from China.
As Nepal turns to China, anti-India sentiment has reached a high. Even school children are being taught that it is India that is responsible for its predicament. The social media has gone into overdrive with the hashtag #backoffIndia going viral across Nepal. Demands have also been raised to expel the Indian envoy from Kathmandu. And the firing at the border where four Nepali youth were gunned down by the Sashastra Seema Bal and the temporary detainment of members of the SSB by Nepali border guards, further fuels anti-Indian emotions.
Perhaps there is some truth in the perception. India has not been too enthusiastic of the present Constitution and expressed concerns over it “addressing the rights of the minorities”. Many feel that greater pressure could have been brought upon the Madeshis to ease the blockade on humanitarian grounds – after all the leaders of the United Democratic Madeshi Front are in regular touch with Indian leaders and known to be under their influence. Perhaps electoral compulsions have played a part. The tumulus Bihar elections were being conducted and there was a reluctance to clamp down on the Madeshis for fear of alienating their relatives and families on the Indian side.
That perception seems to have seeped across to the global community as well. The United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon expressed “concern over the obstruction of essential supplies on the Nepal-India border”, Bangladesh has commented obliquely that such actions will hit at agreements such as the Burma Bangladesh India Nepal agreement and even the European Union has urged an end to the unofficial blockade of Nepal, with the finger pointed at India.
Breaking the Impasse
Four months down the line, the first attempts to fix the Constitution have finally begun. The Nepali Government tabled the Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament in December which proposed significant changes to the existing constitution. These include proportionate representation of Madeshis in all organs of the state, the addressing of women’s rights and also the allocation of parliamentary seats on the basis of population. It has announced a parliamentary committee to re-demarcate the existing provincial boundaries and submit its recommendations within three months, thus addressing the key demands of the Madeshis.
As of now the proposals have not been accepted by the United Democratic Madeshi Front who insist on having 83 of the 165 seats in Parliament allocated to them, having proportional representation in all arms of the state and government and having two distinct provinces comprising exclusively of the plains area of the Terai to them. As the impasse continues, so does the blockade and with it the immense sufferings of Nepali citizens.
India should now step in more seriously to address the issue. The Nepali Constitution is flawed, but then all Constitutions, including our own, go through a process of evolution and maturity. Yes, the rights of the Madeshis have to be safe-guarded so they do not become second-hand citizens in their own country but at the same time the sovereign integrity of Nepal must be protected at all cost. India was a major player in brokering a peace deal between the government and the Maoists, which helped end the 10 year long Maoist insurgency in Nepal and paved the way to it moving towards a genuinely democratic government, (Ironically that deal also helped the present government come to power). It must now play a similar role to resolve this impasse between the Madeshis and the Nepal government. Already the damage to Indo-Nepal ties has been immense. Nepal sees India as interfering unduly in its internal affairs and disturbingly some now see India as trying to take over Nepal in the same way as it did to Sikkim. There are also fears that the Madeshis will try to carve out a homeland for themselves in Southern Nepal breaking the integrity of the country. Three Madeshis were arrested recently for conducting a mock referendum as to whether the plains area of South Nepal should be declared an independent Madeshi state and that is a dangerous portend for the future.
India should now take steps to ensure that the Madeshis end the blockade, while at the same time, ensuring that their rights will be looked after in the amended constitution. A few airlifts and the release of a few hundred fuel trucks from the border will alleviate the situation considerably and give breathing space to all parties. If this impasse is allowed to continue, the damage to Nepal and Indo-Nepal ties will be irreparable.
The Modi government has attained notable success in its foreign policy and its focus on ‘neighbors first’ has helped wean many of its neighbors towards India. By helping Nepal resolve this constitutional crisis – without interfering too much in the mechanism – it can generate immense good-will, and help stabilize one of its most valuable and strategically important neighbors.