India’s Himalayan headache in Nepal

PRATIM RANJAN BOSE | Updated on March 09, 2018

The political demands of the Madhesis are not without basis, but their economic blockade is hurting India as well

“Not taking a decision is a decision in itself,” former Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao once famously said.

It is not known if the upland-elite dominated ruling class in Kathmandu were avid followers of Rao; but, they had nearly pushed the country to the brink by sidestepping a decision on the just demand of the Madhesi, Tharu and other communities (loosely referred as Madhesis here) from the Southern plains, for equality and federalism.

Angry Madhesis have blocked the main trade route of Nepal for last four months, inflicting major damage to the economy. But neither the coalition government of KP Oli, not known to be sympathetic to Madhesis, nor the principal Opposition, the Nepali Congress has shown adequate interest in addressing the issue.

To understand the reasons behind the current controversy, one must take a look at the historic neglect and discrimination meted out by Kathmandu to one-third of its population, which has stronger cultural links with the Indian States of Bihar and UP than the hill districts of Nepal.

The ruling class was never keen to share power with ‘dhotis’ or ‘Biharis’ — as Madhesis are commonly referred to. A fraction of Kathmandu’s development budget is directed to the plains, which contribute over two-thirds of the tax revenue. There is a high incidence of poverty and illiteracy in the Madhesi belt.

The social elite in Kathmandu are largely of hill origin. Madhesi representation in the armed forces is negligible. And nine of the top 10 districts of Nepal exporting cheap labour abroad are in the plains.

But ask a hill politician and rarely will he admit the discrimination. Instead, he will accuse India of favouring Madhesis, knowing fully well that, until recently, India hardly cared for them.

Historic neglect

Though India is a principal donor to Nepal, barely 20 per cent of the aid is spent in the Terai region. Second, Delhi offers countless scholarships to Nepali citizens but Madhesi names seldom figure among the recipients.

In January 2007 — when Nepal was preparing to form the first democratically elected government in May 2008 — Madhesis put up a strong case for proportionate political equity. The movement, originally spearheaded by a civil rights group, challenged the stranglehold of all established parties, including Maoists, in the plains.

The movement went through many twists and turns before entering a decisive phase in February 2008, when Madhesis called an indefinite strike to force the interim government to carve out their political space before Nepal went to the polls.

But Delhi forced Madhesis to sign on the dotted line. The strike was withdrawn in two weeks with Kathmandu promising to fulfil Madhesi demands in the new constitution to be brought out at a later date.

After prolonged delay, the constitution was hurriedly promulgated on September 20 this year. The provinces were demarcated in a manner that the domination of hill districts remains intact. This, coupled with the shape and size of electoral constituencies, will keep power tilted in favour of the hills. The 2008 agreement found its way to the dustbin.

Broken promises

The State restructuring committee formed by the first Constituent Assembly proposed the creation of 11 States to give space to ethnic identity groups. But as the ball started rolling in July, Kathmandu first proposed six provinces. The decision soon changed to eight. But a mere two-day strike by the upland population in Karnali convinced Kathmandu to settle for seven provinces.

All but one Madhesi party voted against it. Though Madhesi parties had a dominant vote share in the plains in the last election, due to multiplicity of parties and the skewed nature of the electoral system, popular aspirations were not reflected in the seat-share. The constitution was passed by a 90 per cent majority.

But the common Madhesis put a spoke in the wheel.

As I travelled through the riot zone last month, I could see youngsters, barely 15 or 16 years old, taking charge of the streets. They have little faith either in the government or their own leadership. The entire society is gripped by the hysteric call for ‘Madhesh’ — a symbol of their political, cultural and economic identity.

Kathmandu is still on promise mode, seeking to involve an all-party committee in resolving the core demands in three months. Common Madhesis suspect the intent.

If the recent unofficial visits of top ministers and ruling politicians to New Delhi are any indication, Kathmandu is now lobbying for an ice-breaker. The intention is clear: let New Delhi broker a deal, so that they can keep their political constituencies in the hills intact by fanning anti-India sentiments.

India’s role

All the three major parties — Oli’s CPN(UML), Prachanda’s UCPN(Maoist) and Nepali Congress — have witnessed further erosion of support base in the plains over the last few months, and are now more dependent than ever on hill constituencies.

Madhesi leaders wouldn’t oppose Indian intervention either. They are glad that New Delhi didn’t try to stop their protests to keep Kathmandu happy — an act that Kathmandu interprets as an India-orchestrated blockade.

Moderate forces in the Madhesi parties fear continuation of the blockade may alienate them further from the hill community. But no one dares to push the pause button fearing a popular backlash.

It’s a deadlock. And, there is a tempting invitation to New Delhi to once again interfere in Nepal’s domestic issues. But the Narendra Modi government is now avoiding the trap. India is already embarrassed at the failure of its diplomatic apparatus in reading Kathmandu’s mind between July and September this year. Modi was taken aback by the former Sushil Koira government’s tacit refusal to his proposal to visit Janakdham, the mythical birthplace of Sita, in the Madhesi heartland, during the SAARC summit in November 2014.

Many believe Kathmandu disappointed Modi under the influence of the Chinese. If that is correct, China played a smart game.

In comparison, Indian diplomacy lacked tact. Madhesi parties nearly lost their political constituency by voting for Koirala, who promulgated the controversial constitution, reportedly under Indian influence.

Time to take a call

India, it appears, is taking a more cautious view on Nepal. It is concerned that the trouble, if not resolved, may spill over to the Indian territories through the open boundary.

There is a possibility of radical forces hijacking the movement if the issue is not resolved through dialogue. New Delhi cannot be dispassionate about the Madhesi movement as it enjoys popular support in UP and Bihar. At the same time, continuation of the blockade is not in the larger Indian interest.

Published on December 18, 2015

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