What India loses by pushing Nepal into crisis

by Hannah Haegland

n 2006, a peace accord ended a civil war and Nepal began a new era as a secular, democratic republic. After eight years of political negotiation, over two weeks ago, Nepal announced its new constitution. It is a landmark document, a boon for South Asian democracy and pluralism, with provisions aimed at protecting minorities, including LGBT and Dalit communities.

Like the initially unamended constitutions of many nations around the world, however, it has flaws. For a significant number of Nepalis, the foremost among these is its failure to adequately safeguard the rights and representation of women, indigenous communities like the Tharus, and important Terai communities like the Madhesis. Dissatisfaction with the constitution resulted in widespread protests, some of which involved violence by police and protesters, resulting in over 40 deaths.

Peaceful protests like that of Dang students, who took to the streets with books in hand to voice concern over political turmoil disrupting education serve as a poignant reminder for politicians of what the real game is. As justification for their peaceful protest, students cited their right to go to school: “We are being deprived of our basic rights.” The next generation of Nepalis are ready to begin life in the new democratic, federalist, republic.

The hard-fought constitutional victory was welcomed by China and the United States. Initially, the UN merely acknowledged the promulgation, but a few dayslater Ban Ki-moon’s spokesperson said the secretary-general “commends the Nepali people” and called the constitution “a milestone in the peace process”. The Indian response to Nepal’s announcement has been overwhelmingly negative. India coolly “noted” Nepal’s constitutional announcement on the day of and a few days later went on to publicise an article-by-article prescription for how the Nepali Constituent Assembly needs to rewrite it. India’s legitimate concern is with the lack of representation of groups like the protesting Madhesi and the related instability on the border. Its handling of the situation, however, amounts to an undeclared economic blockade and demonstrates short-sighted strategy, prioritising a lower objective at the expense of long-term Indian interests.

Indian punitive response to Nepal constitution

Not surprisingly, there are two competing narratives of recent events on the India-Nepal border. The first version of the past few weeks is that India has severely limited the movement of supplies across the Nepal border out of concern that protestors will sabotage transports on the Nepal side. If the Nepali government cannot maintain enough domestic stability to ensure import safety, why would India continue to send petrol, gas, food, and other supplies? What is suspect about this narrative is that the protestors India says it fears are the very Madhesi protestors it has been supporting in its objections to the new constitution.The alternative account is that India has imposed de facto economic sanctions on Nepal as a coercive and interventionist political maneuver to pressure Kathmandu to go back to the drawing table with the constitution. Nepali legal experts claim Indian action is “a breach of international conventions and multilateral agreements.” Indian leadership was coordinating with Madhesi protesters before the border closed up. Through Indian Oil Company (IOC) restrictions and heightened border inspections and customs clearance procedures, the flow of goods into Nepal has stopped almost completely. The IOC is actually cited as initially claiming that the Bakr Eid holiday was the initial reason for denying Nepali Oil Company imports.

Nepal Times was reporting meetings between Madhesi leaders from Nepal with Indian government officials in Delhi as early as March. These groups (not unlike other political groups in Nepal) were threatening armed revolt if the constitutional process was not completed soon. Indeed the Times predicted that Delhi was preparing to “use the Madhes card in Nepal” and violence was imminent. Protests over the constitution have been ongoing, especially in the weeks leading up to its announcement. However, it was not until after India began “hinting” at supplies being held up and heightening security measures, which some allege constitutes a blockade, that Madhesi protesters responded with sit-ins at stalled points of entry. This version of events suggests that both India and the Madhesi protesters in Nepal see the cut-off of supplies at the border as a way to pressure Kathmandu to redo the constitution.

Regardless of the order of events, Indian behaviour points to conflicting agendas. In a certain light, Indian Prime Minister Modi is taking the unrest on the border seriously. India called its ambassador back and Modi is reported to have met with National Security Advisor Ajit Doval on the threats posed by instability on the Nepali border. On the other hand, India has at the very least facilitated or, more likely, intentionally orchestrated the closing of the Indo-Nepali border. Why?

One possible explanation is the Assembly elections in Bihar. There is support for Madhesi protests in Bihar, with family and economic webs of connections crossing the international line. With almost ten per cent of the national population, Bihar state elections are always important. The upcoming October-November voting, however, has particular significance for the BJP. Support of the Madhesi andolan in Nepal will bolster Modi’s popularity in Bihar.

Consequences of India continuing along this path

The most severe consequence of India maintaining its current course of involvement in the constitution-related Nepali political crisis will be an increasingly unstable Nepal. Petrol rationing consistently coincides with domestic unrest in Nepal. When the majority of working people and students cannot get to work and schools are shut down, they have time to get politically active. Growing #BackOffIndia protesters hostile towards Indian interference are burning Modi effigies.

Even if India’s pressure pushes the Nepali government to take the constitution back to the drawing table together with protesting parties, India’s role in getting them there will have undermined the Nepali government’s sovereignty, delegitimising the constitutional process. Publicly interventionist politics are destabilising. Nepal is a nation that has only been at peace since 2006.The August 24 Tikapur incident highlighted by media for the sobering degree of violence entailed – including the death of a two year old child, murder-by-spear of a senior Nepali police official, and burning alive of an Armed Police Force soldier – is a reminder of just how much instability is at stake and how important supporting the legitimacy of the Nepali government is. Tharu leaders have said that police opened fire on a peaceful protest that day. They also said, however, that the thousands of protestors’ aim was to replace the Nepali government in their local area with a “Tharuhat Government”. A Nepal army general is quoted as saying Tharu protester violence was instigated by a branch of the Maoists.

Armed opposition is increasingly likely in a scenario where unrest grows while the Nepali government loses legitimacy. Continued violent protest could dismember the fledgling constitutional order in Nepal, compounding India’s border insecurity and exacerbating separatist agitation in India’s northeast. Now that it has been announced, the new Nepali constitution, while imperfect, is the best path to stability.

There are three additional costly effects for India of continuing to limit the transport of goods across the border. First, if the blockade continues, protests escalate, and instability worsens, Nepal could unravel. The international community has poured money and diplomatic energy into the Nepal peace process and post-earthquake reconstruction. If it implodes, India’s role in triggering instability will receive some blame.

Second, India enacted a similar undeclared economic blockade in the 1990s and Nepal ended up pivoting towards China as a result. China’s growth in regional influence since then suggests that it will be even more likely to take advantage of a Kathmandu-New Delhi chill. A BBC Hindi report quotes Anapurna Post editor in chief Yuvraj Ghimire as saying Nepal and China are now working to open the Rasuaagri border passage. Third, the nature of Indian involvement in Nepal over the last few weeks sets a terrible standard of coercive regional leadership. Continuing along this path will confirm the worst fears of small states around the region about Indian interference.

A way forward

What is the alternative to blocking supply transports to one of the world’s poorest nations in the aftermath of an earthquake? Indian pragmatism.

Constitutional amendment prescriptions are more effective behind closed doors on diplomatic backchannels. Supporting the democratic process by championing the constitution as a laudable and necessary beginning to a longer, legal negotiation will affirm the Nepali government’s sovereignty within its own borders.

A meaningful settlement with the Madhesi and other protesting minorities is only possible if the Nepali government comes to the table as a legitimate authority. As Sanjay Kumar observes, one of the greatest costs of Indian actions being perceived as “meddling” is that attention in Kathmandu shifts from constitutional reform and domestic stability to anti-India sentiment and a divisive brand of Nepali nationalism. Finally, ending the de facto economic blockade will strengthen India’s long-term goal of a secure and stable neighbour and partner.

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