Discerning the Constitutional Conundrum in Nepal

Madhesi imageDisplaying Madhesi image.jpg

Displaying Madhesi image.jpgDisplaying Madhesi image.jpgIt has been more than three months since Nepal promulgated its new Constitution. While the new Constitution has been a moment of rejoice for many, the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis of the Terai region have expressed resentment towards the same. This has sparked political and social turmoil in the country, shifting the centre’s relations with the internal as well as external actors. With India overtly supporting the Madhesis, the Indo-Nepal bond is under severe duress. The fiercely nationalistic assertion of a Nepali identity vis-a-vis the growing anti-Indian feeling amongst the Nepali population seems to portend a highly volatile future.

While India’s concerns about the representative nature of the Constitution may be legitimate, its highly aggressive attitude towards the same might drastically alter perceptions. From Nepal’s perspective, this can be seen as a dualism between two forces – Nepal’s perception of its internal diversities and the geo-politics of the Indo-Nepal relations.

Madhesi standing in Nepal has always been complicated. As a geographical area, appropriating to itself an ethnic colour, Madhesis constitute around one-third of the low lying regions of Terai and largely practise Hinduism. They represent a migrant community that settled at the foothills of the Himalayas, fleeing the Mongol invasion of India. Their demand for an autonomous Terai region, greater representation in the Civil Services and establishing a federal democratic governance model have been some of the causes of their strained relationship with Kathmandu. Despite their contribution to 60 per cent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), they have been historically discriminated. Most have not been issued citizenship certificates, do not have access to social benefits and the region has been devoid of quality infrastructure.

Even the new Constitution places them at a severe disadvantage due to clauses of representation, with the omission of words like ‘proportional’. The earlier clause in the interim constitution, “and in the case of Madhes on the basis of percentage of population” has been dropped. It also states that “only citizens by descent will be entitled to hold to hold the posts of President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, Chairperson of National Assembly, Head of Province, Chief Minister, Speaker of Provincial Assembly and Chief of Security Bodies” and systemically discriminates against citizens by birth or naturalisation.

This has prompted an aggressive step by India to support the Madhesi agitation. Not only is the region marred by violence and unrest, this victimhood has led to drastic stand still of the economy as all supply from India to Nepal has been stopped. With economic blockade in place, the expected growth rate of the country has declined from the forecast of 4.5 percent to 1 per cent. The closed factories, shortage of oil and cooking gas, shutting down colleges and hospitals has exacerbated the situation further. Despite these challenges, the Madhesis have been able to sustain their agitation, without any coercive methods.

The first problem stems from the fact that Kathmandu refuses to even acknowledge the agitation of Madhesis. Despite being an economically productive region, the fear of secession and the loss of rich agro spaces seems to overshadow the structural violence meted out against Madhesis. Moreover, Kathmandu seems to believe that India’s intervention in the issue has strengthened ground for their demands. The miscalculation by Kathmandu lies in underestimating the potency of a violent civil war in the country.

The second problem can be attributed to the implications of the fissures in the Indo-Nepal relation on China. While India has been supporting the blockade in an already economically deteriorating Nepal, China has been cajoling Nepal by supplying essential oil and food packages. For India, the constitutional process appears to be a betrayal of the promise to create an inclusive social document for the people. The statements from both China and India appears as if both consider the other’s diplomacy as unviable and short-term in nature. Looked in-between the two most powerful South Asian economies, Nepal fits Nitasha Kaul’s expression of ‘a pawn in the power posturing’.

Both the assessments have certain shortcomings. Nepal needs to acknowledge the Madhesi leadership and understand their transformation since 2005. It is important to delve deeper and accept that they are willing to pick up arms, if need be. As seen in the Madhe-Maoist clash of 2007, the agitated group of Madhes have come to understand that they cannot be used as pawns anymore. The widening of this gulf may have unprecedented implications that may hamper Nepal’s stability and progress.

On the other hand, India’s current involvement in Nepal may have been guided by the operating Hindutva forces, who have a vested interest in creating a Hindu Nepal. In fact, some internalisation of the ideologies is visible in the current ban on cow slaughter and declaration of cow as the national animal. The other issue may be the accommodative constitution of Nepal towards China, which may put India at a disadvantage.

Both India and Nepal have to become more accommodative to each other’s need. A couple of weeks ago, Nepal agreed to amend its Constitution and India has also sent out a positive signal in this regard. However, what remains to be seen is the reaction of the Madhe community. While Nepal has to genuinely make attempts to keep its socio-economic institutions intact, it is equally important for India to not be on the offensive end. Coercive diplomacy may be the only option while dealing with tough neighbours. However, in case of the fraternising relationship between Nepal and India, caution needs to be exercised. Otherwise, one might just end up reinforcing the already existing ruptures and alienating a nation and its people.

It has been more than three months since Nepal promulgated its new Constitution. While the new Constitution has been a moment of rejoice for many, the Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis of the Terai region have expressed resentment towards the same. This has sparked political and social turmoil in the country, shifting the centre’s relations with the internal as well as external actors. With India overtly supporting the Madhesis, the Indo-Nepal bond is under severe duress. The fiercely nationalistic assertion of a Nepali identity vis-a-vis the growing anti-Indian feeling amongst the Nepali population seems to portend a highly volatile future.

While India’s concerns about the representative nature of the Constitution may be legitimate, its highly aggressive attitude towards the same might drastically alter perceptions. From Nepal’s perspective, this can be seen as a dualism between two forces – Nepal’s perception of its internal diversities and the geo-politics of the Indo-Nepal relations.

Madhesi standing in Nepal has always been complicated. As a geographical area, appropriating to itself an ethnic colour, Madhesis constitute around one-third of the low lying regions of Terai and largely practise Hinduism. They represent a migrant community that settled at the foothills of the Himalayas, fleeing the Mongol invasion of India. Their demand for an autonomous Terai region, greater representation in the Civil Services and establishing a federal democratic governance model have been some of the causes of their strained relationship with Kathmandu. Despite their contribution to 60 per cent of the nation’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP), they have been historically discriminated. Most have not been issued citizenship certificates, do not have access to social benefits and the region has been devoid of quality infrastructure.

Even the new Constitution places them at a severe disadvantage due to clauses of representation, with the omission of words like ‘proportional’. The earlier clause in the interim constitution, “and in the case of Madhes on the basis of percentage of population” has been dropped. It also states that “only citizens by descent will be entitled to hold to hold the posts of President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Chief Justice, Speaker of Parliament, Chairperson of National Assembly, Head of Province, Chief Minister, Speaker of Provincial Assembly and Chief of Security Bodies” and systemically discriminates against citizens by birth or naturalisation.

This has prompted an aggressive step by India to support the Madhesi agitation. Not only is the region marred by violence and unrest, this victimhood has led to drastic stand still of the economy as all supply from India to Nepal has been stopped. With economic blockade in place, the expected growth rate of the country has declined from the forecast of 4.5 percent to 1 per cent. The closed factories, shortage of oil and cooking gas, shutting down colleges and hospitals has exacerbated the situation further. Despite these challenges, the Madhesis have been able to sustain their agitation, without any coercive methods.

The first problem stems from the fact that Kathmandu refuses to even acknowledge the agitation of Madhesis. Despite being an economically productive region, the fear of secession and the loss of rich agro spaces seems to overshadow the structural violence meted out against Madhesis. Moreover, Kathmandu seems to believe that India’s intervention in the issue has strengthened ground for their demands. The miscalculation by Kathmandu lies in underestimating the potency of a violent civil war in the country.

The second problem can be attributed to the implications of the fissures in the Indo-Nepal relation on China. While India has been supporting the blockade in an already economically deteriorating Nepal, China has been cajoling Nepal by supplying essential oil and food packages. For India, the constitutional process appears to be a betrayal of the promise to create an inclusive social document for the people. The statements from both China and India appears as if both consider the other’s diplomacy as unviable and short-term in nature. Looked in-between the two most powerful South Asian economies, Nepal fits Nitasha Kaul’s expression of ‘a pawn in the power posturing’.

Both the assessments have certain shortcomings. Nepal needs to acknowledge the Madhesi leadership and understand their transformation since 2005. It is important to delve deeper and accept that they are willing to pick up arms, if need be. As seen in the Madhe-Maoist clash of 2007, the agitated group of Madhes have come to understand that they cannot be used as pawns anymore. The widening of this gulf may have unprecedented implications that may hamper Nepal’s stability and progress.

On the other hand, India’s current involvement in Nepal may have been guided by the operating Hindutva forces, who have a vested interest in creating a Hindu Nepal. In fact, some internalisation of the ideologies is visible in the current ban on cow slaughter and declaration of cow as the national animal. The other issue may be the accommodative constitution of Nepal towards China, which may put India at a disadvantage.

Both India and Nepal have to become more accommodative to each other’s need. A couple of weeks ago, Nepal agreed to amend its Constitution and India has also sent out a positive signal in this regard. However, what remains to be seen is the reaction of the Madhe community. While Nepal has to genuinely make attempts to keep its socio-economic institutions intact, it is equally important for India to not be on the offensive end. Coercive diplomacy may be the only option while dealing with tough neighbours. However, in case of the fraternising relationship between Nepal and India, caution needs to be exercised. Otherwise, one might just end up reinforcing the already existing ruptures and alienating a nation and its people.

A.R. Rakshitha

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