Is China the new blockade in Indo-Nepal relations?

The past few months have been abuzz with the significant changes in the Indo-Nepal relations, which are nothing short of a cause for alarm.

The relations between the two which can be traced to more than a century ago, have not witnessed the best of days ever since the former Hindu kingdom adopted its new constitution in September 2015.

The issue of the Madhesi community has been a bone of contention between the two nations. The Madhesis accuse the Nepalese government of their improper representation in the constitution. Their demand for a separate province has caused a stir on both sides of the border. Not to forget, the strong traditional and cultural ties the community has with the Indian state of Bihar in particular.

The economic blockade that followed has brought the day-to-day life in Nepal to a standstill. Nepal is highly dependent on India for fuel, oil and medicines with India providing more than 60% of its supplies. In its absence, the country is facing a crisis of sorts. And moreover, the limited supplies that are being brought into the country are being sold in black at exorbitant prices. According to a news channel, gas cylinders are being sold for as much as ₹6000 each.

India remarked that, Nepal should adopt a constitution that is more inclusive of its population and that the ‘political problem requires a political solution’. On the other hand, Nepal is wary about India’s intentions with regards to the economic blockade and its support for the Madhesis.

The blame game could not be left far behind. Nepal’s accusation of India intervening in its internal affairs has given legitimacy to the voices of others in the subcontinent like Bangladesh, Pakistan and especially China. They too have long accused New Delhi for snooping around their internal matters.

Let’s not forget India’s large economic clout. It has been the major supplier to Nepal for its essential goods and services. The devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April last year also saw increased assistance from India. One can say between China and India, the latter enjoyed much better privileges in Nepal than the former.

Following the stand-off, Nepal has been forced to look beyond our nation. Asking for Chinese assistance was the only choice it was left with. And China did provide support to the country in the time of a grave crisis. It provided about 1000 metric tonnes of petroleum after India’s pompous behaviour following the adoption of the Nepalese constitution which didn’t get down too well with India.

But it would be imprudent to assume that China extended a heartfelt gesture only on humanitarian grounds. In global politics, every action has a reason, a strategic reason to be precise. The reason for China trying to be a friendly neighbour in wake of dwindling Indo-Nepalese ties is not difficult to comprehend, leaving India to be perceived as the ‘bad boy’ one more time.

Why is India so concerned with what is happening across the border?

As mentioned above, India’s support for the Madhesis is because of the latter’s age-old ties with the former. A huge number of Madhesis in Nepal had migrated from India. Members of the same community also reside in Bihar.

Moreover, amidst all the protest, India does not want to project itself as a mute spectator. It’s not surprising that a country’s political influence in a region is largely influenced by its mediating power and even more so when the people in question have a strong affiliation with India. But the fact of the matter is that this is no way for India to show its strength. Trying to act as the boss will only devoid it of its friends, the signs of which are becoming quite visible. In a real friendship there are no leaders and followers.

India’s behaviour will create problems for it. We have already seen one such instance in its loss in the recent assembly elections of Bihar.

If New Delhi doesn’t have anything to do with the blockade and it truly is a result of what’s happening inside Nepal, then nonetheless it can still play an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region without using the upper hand.

The recent end of the impasse following Nepal’s decision to amend the constitution has been hailed by India as a ‘positive step’. But the Madhesis are not satisfied with the solution package and see it as a vague and insufficient one.

What follows will be a crucial step that will reflect whether the two nations go back to being the old pals that they have been or there will be another cloud on the horizon.

Nandini Sinha

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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