FEATURED | Nepal's New Constitution and India's Response - A New Low by Mikhil Rialch
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FEATURED | Nepal's New Constitution and India's Response - A New Low by Mikhil Rialch

By Mikhil Rialch

FEATURED | Nepal's New Constitution and India's Response - A New Low by Mikhil Rialch

In the course of two weeks, the relations between India and its smaller neighbor to the north have hit a new low. Twitter storms have been raised and television channels have been cut in response to an 'unofficial' blockade of fuel and supplies.

On 20 September, the Nepal Constituent Assembly's (CA) unveiling of the Constitution - its seventh in almost seven decades - witnessed fireworks and gaiety across the country. However, in further south of the Terai region, the tension seemed palpable. The political context met with a state of flux, which hailed by many as the finish line of a tortuous nine-year odyssey since King Gyanendra's ouster in 2006. As the promulgation of the Constitution is largely owing to the united front presented by the three major parties in Nepal - the Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist. While the text of the Constitution was approved by nearly 85 per cent of the 601 CA members, the main opposition came from 60-odd legislators belonging to the Terai region. Their defiance stemmed from the concerns of the Madhesi, Tharu and Janajati communities residing in the region- wherein the new Constitution is seen as a gateway to their political marginalization.

Genesis of Crisis

The bone of contention lies in the Constitutional amendment which seeks to recarve the country's 28 million population from the erstwhile fourteen provinces to seven federal provinces. The Madhesies, along with the Tharus and the Janajaties make up over 40 per cent of Nepal's population and, as such, expected a proportional representation on the basis of population. However, being divided across five of the seven with only one province with a clear Madhesi majority, a perceived political disenfranchisement triggered their call for concern.

The rift between the Madhesies and the central government is, at one level, the historical struggle of plains-folks versus hill-elite. The rift can be seen two ways: first, the Madhesi predominance in the Terai region guarantees them the vote bank of the province, but the new demarcation of provinces, it only guarantees half the population (consisting mainly the hill-elite) with 100 seats, while the other half (Madhesi, Tharus, Janajati) receive only 65 seats. And secondly, the 'proportional inclusion' clause provides several castes of the hill communities with reservation- a move that further marginalizes the Madhesies.

With such intricacies attached, the Constitutional announcement caused a new imbroglio- where, dissent turned into protest, cities faced a lock-down, and police were put to action to quell any form of state unrest. And with Madhesi and Tharu political parties aiming at a grand alliance to commence the second phase of protest, the current volatility seems to grow bigger and bitter.

Indian Response: From Suggestive to Abrasive

India’s longstanding paternalistic attitude towards Nepal's political transition from a royalist monarchy to that of a secular, federal democracy met with a pithy response with the 20 September Constitutional announcement. While Kathmandu grumbles over this lackluster response, Indian officials claim that it has given them cause. The MEA's official release stated, "We are deeply concerned over the incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India following the promulgation of Constitution yesterday..." It went further, stating, "We had repeatedly cautioned the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in these regions. This, if done in a timely manner, could have avoided these serious developments."

Over the course of the last few months, Indian response to the developments in Nepal have undergone a transition- from polite suggestions to cautionary warnings to, finally, barely-veiled disapproval. The official reason for Indian apprehension is the risk of "spillover" from the violence in Terai - which lies along the porous India-Nepal border - into Indian territory. Also cited are complaints by freight and transporters on difficulty of movement. However, India’s disapprobation can be assessed based on two criticalities. First, the immediate cause of the upcoming Bihar elections. The politically fractious state of Bihar has been the keystone to any Indian election, and this year promises to be a keenly contested tug-of-war between the ruling NDA and the grand alliance of the Congress, the RJD and the JD(U). Any spillover from the Terai crisis could quite conveniently end up in the latter's court. Safeguarding poll-bound Bihar from external infractions is, after all, a responsibility of the Centre.

Secondly, over the course of the Constitution's progress, India has increasingly perceived itself to be the slighted party. Revisiting 2006 when India brought together the forces that have finally delivered the Constitution, it had a key influence over its formation, even playing guarantor to some parties. However, it had sought guarantees for the rights of the Madhesi people. According to officials, none of these commitments were upheld by the Nepali government in the new Constitution. With its proprietorship over the Constitution-building process shrunk to a minimum, India was left seething, clearly evidenced by the Hon'ble Home Minister Rajnath Singh's remarks in August of protecting the "Madhesis as Indians" (The Indian embassy was forced to issue a denial following Kathmandu's protests). The natural India-Madhesi affinity means that India is strongly in their corner, even if it translates to being against the other 85 per cent of Nepal's lawmakers.

Skirting the 'I' Word

India's efforts to stall the announcement and reach a more inclusive conclusion have included actors at the highest corridors - from Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar's two-day visit to Sushma Swaraj's remarks and Prime Minister Modi's telephone call imploring his counterpart, Nepali Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, to obtain, "consensus, not numbers". But apart from putting a stay the announcement of the Constitution till the 4 pm final deadline, Nepal did not bat an eye. Jaishankar's visit met with a point-blank refusal by its three top leaders - Koirala, Maoist chief Prachanda and UML's K.P. Oli. Swaraj's requests were countermanded by an implacable Dinesh Bhattarai, Nepal's Foreign Affairs Adviser, who baldly stated, "Flexibility has to come from both sides" (referring to the stalemate between the government and the Madhesies).

This state of flux also raises concerns over India’s big brother attitude towards its smaller neighbours- often resulting into concerns of intervention. As India has long been accused of casting its shadow in the political affairs of Nepal. In this regard, instances like Rajnath Singh's remarks and Jaishankar's meetings with the Madhesi leaders- raises Nepal’s concerns over India's true motive in furthering their cause. In his statement of 22 September, Maoist chief Prachanda strongly affirmed that Nepal does not want to be India's 'yes' man- signalling a rift in the relations.

The Road Ahead

Considering the above, India doesn't have many options on the table. As India’s sublime response to Nepal's announcement, along with Jaishankar's bordering-on-blunt remarks has generated a major backlash, which is reflected in Nepal’s social media stand, which strongly slogans at “back Off India”. Adding to this contention is the crucial ‘China factor’. As unlike India's cold posture, China extended a warm welcome to Nepal’s Constitutional   success. In congratulating Nepal China stated that "Nepal [should] seize the opportunity to realise national unity, stability and development" China's such open backing towards the CPN-UML supremo KP Oli for the Prime Ministerial berth is as unprecedented as it is worrisome in South Block circles. Its recent offer to train officers of the Nepali army, which already buys significant quantities of arms and equipment from China raises strategic concerns for India. In light of China's economic and military overtures to Nepal, playing the disapproving uncle is perhaps not the best course of strategy for India.

Some however, such as Indian Member of Parliament D.K.Tripathi, think India shouldn't have been too critical of Nepal's decision in the first place. The concerns of the Madhesies can certainly be addressed in the coming months or years. As he said: “Nepal has adopted a Constitution, and like all other constitutions in the world, this too will mature and evolve”.

What appears is that, India’s concerns, while somewhat masked, are justified to some degree. While Terai accounts for one-fifth of Nepal's territory, it comprises more than half of its population. An unstable Terai is bound to shake up Nepal's constitutional fabric, especially now since the Constitution's opponents stand in resolute unity. Rather than engaging in a war of words, India should monitor the situation from a distance. Its bonhomie with the Indian-origin Madhesies means that it could play an honest broker if the situation gets out of hand and, more importantly, when the need to act as a facilitator is not just a necessity, but comes via invitation from Kathmandu itself.

About The Author:

Mikhil Rialch is a Strategic Affairs Researcher at the Oval Observer Foundation, NewDelhi. He specializes in socio-political issues in South Asia. / Thomson Reuters Researcher ID: L-7185-2015