In Nepal, India’s intervention sours celebrations of a new constitution
By Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
For seventy years, Nepali politics dreamed of a constitution drafted by the people, and when the day finally came on September 20, the country entered another phase of political turmoil.
The promulgation of a new constitution was supposed to be a historical event. Unfortunately, while one half of the country was celebrating the constitution in the hills and Kathmandu, another half was mourning the deaths of scores of people killed during the protest movement that had started a month earlier in the plains.
That the constitution was approved by almost 90 per cent of the Constituent Assembly (CA) mattered little in the face of violent resistance by the Madhesi and Tharu populace living in the southern plains. And now, with India jumping in the fray and engineering a blockade at the southern border—an earlier blockade of 1989 led to multiparty democracy—Nepal’s political future has become as uncertain as ever.
The parties in power, an amalgamation of communist and democratic forces, were taken by surprise when India issued a series of statements—three in three days—warning Nepal to accommodate the demands of the Madhesi people. The parties had not expected India, whose Prime Minister had recently visited Nepal and assured the people of it’s “neighbourhood first” policy, to blatantly support the minority cause and impose a blockade at the border crossings. However, the ruling parties are refusing to give in buoyed by a resurgent nationalism among the Nepali people.
The daily lives of people in the Madhes had been disrupted for the last several weeks, with the government mobilising the army and imposing curfews in dozens of districts. The disruption has now spread to the rest of the country, and the people of the capital, Kathmandu, are the hardest hit. Already there are long queues for fuel and people are finding it hard to obtain cooking gas.
India, however, refuses to accept it is a blockade and instead points to the security situation in Nepal. The strategy by the protestors has not helped. Most of them are now using the border crossings, or “No man’s land,” where Nepali security forces are not allowed to operate, as the site of the protests.
The issues that led to the protests are mostly political, although they have been coloured by historical grievances and perceived notions of inequality and injustice. The most salient issue is that of demarcation of boundaries regarding the federal provinces. The Madhesis and the Tharus want the boundaries demarcated in such a way that it empowers them and ends the historical domination of the upper caste people of hill origin. They are also demanding demarcation of electoral constituencies based on population and an affirmative action policy that amends historical injustices.
Nobody in Nepal had imagined Indian intervention at such a scale, which they believe has both strengthened and weakened the demonstrators. A month earlier, on August 24, a seemingly harmless political gathering of the Tharu minorities, turned into carnage when a group of protestors isolated and then lynched policemen. At the end of the day seven policemen, and a child, lay dead. Soon the protests spread to other districts in the southern plains, and the state, in order to ensure smooth promulgation of the constitution, imposed curfews and other security measures.
Nepal’s search for peace and stability has been elusive. When Nepal emerged out of the decade long Maoist People’s War in 2006, a constituent assembly was seen as one component of Nepal’s peace process, as a way of ending a long history of inequality and exploitation. A constituent assembly elected by the people was supposed to ensure political reforms that would guarantee political stability and prosperity for future generations.
The first CA elections were held in 2008 under a shadow of violence. Nepali Army was in the barracks, and the UN was monitoring the arms and armies of the Maoists. The CA, then, was dominated by the Maoists and minorities, and the mainstream political parties were on the defensive. The assembly was unable to produce a constitution in time and was dissolved in May 2012. The next CA elections were held in 2013 under a neutral government, widely believed to be propped by India. The results threw a surprise. The Maoists were soundly defeated, as were the Madhesi groups. The Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (UML) together formed a clear two-thirds majority.
The new assembly started disowning the previous agreements about the content of the constitution as well as the process. The ensuing process slowly began to alienate the key forces responsible for the 2006 People’s Movement which had overthrown the monarchy and established the CA in the first place.
The events of the last several weeks has generated an ethnic polarisation unseen in Nepal’s history. Conventionally, Nepal has prided itself for peace and harmony among its multitude of ethnic groups and nationalities. The recent events, however, have created a sharp divide between the people of hill origin and the people of plains origin. Even if the political conflict is resolved, it will now take years to repair the relationship between the two communities.
India’s involvement in Nepal’s internal affairs has added ramifications, both internal and external. First, its advocacy for the Madhesi cause has diminished the moral authority of the Madhesi and Tharu movement. Many people believe that India has other hidden interests behind its support for the current movement, one of them being its dissatisfaction with Nepali leaders’ proximity to China.
If India is able to broker a new political agreement, which is likely given its leverage and power, it will only humiliate the hill population and the mainstream political forces. The division this will create between the hill population and the plains population may be unsurmountable.
If both the Nepali political establishment and India continue on the current path, it could lead to continued instability and political chaos, which could necessitate international intervention. If India relents, then the political parties may crack down on the movement and create a situation of negative peace where there is absence of violence, but people would continue to suffer from exploitation and inequalities.
The best way forward is for the ruling parties and the Madhesi community to hold dialogue and find solutions internally. It is the only way that can provide a respectable outcome that can retain the dignity of all parties and shore ownership of the new constitution.
Given the high-handedness of India’s intervention and the rigid posturing of Nepal’s ruling parties, that remains as tricky as ever.
All Rights Reserved with The Oslo Times