Birgunj has long been known as the Gateway of Nepal. Until the early 1970s, all roads to Kathmandu from the outside world had to pass through this commercial settlement. The Miteri Pool over the Sirsiya River connects the city with Raxaul in Bihar. Even today, the friendship bridge has to bear the burden of nearly two-thirds of all international trade of Nepal.
On a normal day, hundreds of oil tankers and container trucks pass through the Shankaracharya Gate on the Nepalese side of the border and then join its highway system. Nepal’s export through Indian rail, road and the Kolkata port also has to traverse this route. Jogbani, Sunauli and Rupaidiha are other major custom points that mainly cater to local needs.
For over one and a half months, protesters have been staging sit-in protests at the Raxaul crossing, disturbing normal movement. It has caused severe shortages of cooking gas and other fuel in much of Nepal. Scarcities in Kathmandu have prompted the Nepalese media to term the disruption in supplies an Indian ‘blockade’. The jingoistic rant has succeeded in diverting the attention from widespread protests in the entire Terai-Madhes plains that has been raging for nearly three months now.
Protests in Madhes erupted after a charter was adopted through ‘fast-track’ without following any norms of constitutionality and in flagrant violation of political settlements between different stakeholders. The Madhesbadis — political parties struggling for equality, dignity and justice for indigenous Madhesis — boycotted the process for four main reasons.
One, the constitution fails to incorporate provisions of the agreement reached between the State and Madhesbadis twice in the past. Two, the statute has regressed from citizenship, inclusion, representation and secularity provisions of the interim constitution. Three, parameters set for creating federal units in the interim charter were ignored in promulgating the new constitution, and, four, Madhesbadis were kept out of the 16-point understanding that set the terms for the enactment of the supreme law of the land.
In the brutal suppression of mass uprising, the police and paramilitary forces killed over 40 people. Nine policemen also died during the unrest. Closure of the border was adopted as a strategy of opposition only when the government failed to recognise grievances of protesters.
Despite disruptions in supply and difficulties in daily life throughout Nepal, the government has yet to begin serious negotiations with the agitators. The State and the media in Kathmandu appear determined to tire out and frighten the opposition with a combination of talks and trickery.
Due to the cultural and historic significance, Janakpur, a town about 160 kilometres east of the hubbub of Birgunj, has become the pivot for the protesters. Over the weekend, leaders of the Joint Madhesi Front (JMF) congregated in the town to assess the situation — and it is worrisome. Students stand to lose an academic year, business is dull or non-existent, bank EMIs are pending, etc. Despite this, there was pressure from the public upon JMF leaders to not lose nerve. They have decided to intensify the agitation.
Kathmandu is less than 150 kilometres north of Birgunj. Due to the bandha (complete closure) in Madhes, buses from Kathmandu stop near Simra, a village dominated by ethnic Pahadi settlers from the mid-mountains of Nepal. Here the resentment between communities is palpable. The possible rift between the Pahadis and Madhesis has become a matter of concern to many even in Kathmandu.
By and large, the comfortable classes of Kathmandu appeared sanguine that powwow between their counterparts in New Delhi and Beijing will help all unresolved issues disappear in a jiffy. Apparently, there is a reason the government isn’t taking the protests in Madhes seriously: Its core constituency in the capital city continues to look upon Madhesis with contempt.
There is a lot of excitement about relief coming in from Beijing. However, Chinese oil and gas is unlikely to bring much respite. Goods-laden transporters from mainland China have to traverse long distances through rough terrain and though technically it is possible, it’s extremely difficult for China to be a practical overland trade partner for Nepal.
The protracted protests appear pointless when some minor modifications in the promulgated constitution are enough to bring Madhesbadi protesters back into mainstream politics. Electoral constituencies based on population; proportional participation in state mechanism through inclusion; non-discrimination between citizens; and unalloyed secularity were enshrined in the interim constitution that have been either done away with or diluted beyond recognition in the new charter.
Restoring the status quo ante will be enough to correct these regressive features. Political settlement to create principally two provinces in the Terai-Madhes area — instead of single unit for the whole region as agreed upon in various previous settlements—isn’t difficult so far. As soon as provincial arrangements get implemented, redrawing the boundary will be almost impossible due to technicalities of the statute.
There is still hope that the Permanent Establishment of Nepal (PEON) will negotiate in good faith with Madhesbadis in their own enlightened self-interest. The window of opportunity may not last long. Frustration is increasing throughout Madhes and extremist voices advocating violent means to secure self-rule are getting louder. If such a situation comes to pass, the self-fulfilling prophecy of the PEON will come true and New Delhi will once again assert its role as the ultimate arbiter of the fate of the Nepalese polity.
The signs are already ominous. An Indian student was shot on Monday morning when Nepalese police tried to reopen the Miteri Pool by force. The tragic incident has sucked India deeper into the political crisis of Nepal. An amicable resolution of the ongoing protests now matters even more for normalising India-Nepal relationship.
(CK Lal is a Kathmandu-based political commentator. The views expressed are personal)