Monday marked the 100th day of the Madhesi-Tharu mass movement in Nepal’s southern plains -- right across India’s border. The struggle, which began in mid-August to prevent a ‘discriminatory constitution’, has transitioned into seeking substantial amendments in the statute and revision of federal boundaries once it was promulgated.
But with Kathmandu’s establishment unwilling to concede ground and responding with a strong security crackdown, the Madhes ‘andolan’ is on the verge of taking an even more radical turn. Over the weekend, four people were killed in Saptari district when protestors sought to block movement of vehicles on the highway at night -- and police responded with what local human rights groups are terming as excessive use of force and indiscriminate firing.
India had seen the dangers of such a constitution, urged Nepali leaders to take dissenters on board, and has tried to convince the Nepali leadership to listen to its own people and seek a political solution.
Unfortunately, Kathmandu’s hill upper-caste establishment -- led by Prime Minister KP Oli -- has dug its heels in, stoked ultra-nationalism and chauvinism to hide its own failures, and deepened internal instability.
Madhesis complain that the Constitution compromises the architecture of political representation, affirmative action, federalism, and citizenship. It shrinks the number of constituencies in the Tarai; it reduces the share of proportional representation component of the electoral system which had inbuilt quotas for excluded groups; it envisages that provinces would send an equal number of representatives to the Upper House rather than base representation from states on population.
All of this would erode Madhesi political strength. It dilutes the principle of reservation. And it gerrymanders the federal boundaries in a way where 12 out of the 20 districts in the plains are merged with the hills -- the Madhes-dominated province in the eastern Tarai is left resource-deprived, and Tharus are reduced to a political minority in the west.
The Madhesi anger is not just about the content of the Constitution, it is about the fact that the bigger parties rammed through a constitution despite the boycott of Madhesi forces and made little effort to engage with them. Add to this the background where Madhesis have always felt stripped of dignity and of being treated as ‘outsiders’ and it adds to a potent mix of sentiments, driving alienation.
The agitation parties now want a ‘package deal’ to address all these issues. To step up the agitation, they decided to block the border in September, and disrupt the flow of goods and supplies to Kathmandu. This has caused acute shortages in the valley.
Nepal government has termed it an undeclared Indian blockade, while Delhi said the problem erupted because of internal protests in Nepal and the government should resolve it and create ‘security and harmony’ in Tarai, to enable ‘uninterrupted commerce’.
The truth has multiple components. The Madhesis have blocked the border; the Indians have sent a signal to customs and security officials not to actively cooperate in enabling movement given the security situation; and transporters feel insecure because of the risks of violence on the other side.
Kathmandu, under Oli, appears to have embarked on a three-pronged policy.
One, it wants to tire out the protestors. This has not succeeded, for even 100 days after the movement kicked off, there is remarkable energy and mass participation in the andolan. The cry of ‘aar ki paar’, ‘abhi nahin toh kabhi nahin’ is being chanted across the Tarai, and leaders have been told not to surrender at any cost. Instead, the mood is only getting more radical, and the methods more aggressive.
Two, it wants to crush the protestors. A few weeks ago, the police burnt tents and sought to remove those blocking the border at Birgunj, the key junction which accounts for 70% of the traffic from India.
But this resulted in an escalation of the agitation. Security forces once again used force to remove those sitting on the highway on Saturday night but this has not deterred thousands from joining the andolan.
Now, there is talk of deploying the Nepal Army. The army has sensibly told the political leadership this requires a political solution. But Oli, in a meeting with other parties, has said he would use all means available with the Nepali state to break the protests.
The fact that the ethnic make-up of security forces (dominated by hill castes) is distinct from that of the protestors feeds the Madhesi narrative of internal colonialism, and encourages radical sentiments.
And three, Kathmandu wants to ‘scare’ India -- by playing the ‘China card’, stoking ‘anti Indianism’, and internationalising the ‘blockade’ issue.
China agreed to gift 1000 metric tonnes of fuel, and signed a commercial deal with Nepal. But the China card was probably more effective and potent as long as it was not played.
By playing it, Nepal has exposed its limits. Geography and costs make it unviable for Beijing to send in tankers of fuels to meet Nepal’s needs. The gift barely met a day of two of Nepal’s requirements; the commercial deal is yet to take off and the instruments and infrastructure to operationalise it are missing.
Madhesi leaders have also told China they would view this as an unfriendly act, and a Chinese flag has been burnt in the Tarai. China has told India that they too seek stability in Nepal, and this stability is possible only with the accommodation of the Madhes. Beijing will seek to make inroads, but it is unlikely this will alter the geo strategic balance in Nepal.
There is, even in normal times, latent resentment in Kathmandu against India -- and so it is easy to build on it, and create a narrative that Madhesis (who have traditionally been viewed as Indians or Indian ‘agents’) are only doing Delhi’s bidding.
By painting the blockade as solely India’s doing, the establishment can play this narrative up. But Delhi is all too familiar with this tradition of Nepali political forces instrumentally creating hatred for India. The opposition to Indian intervention is actually an invitation to a different form of Indian intervention -- where Kathmandu wants Delhi to tell the Madhesis to give up their struggle, settle for token changes, and postpone key questions like federalism.
India, well aware of the intensity of the Madhesi alienation, has stayed away from doing so. And this has infuriated Oli.
‘Internationalising’ the ‘blockade’ is a strategy with mixed benefits for Nepal for the simple reason that internationals cannot ignore the fact that Madhesi presence at the border is a strong reason for the ‘blockade’ in the first place.
The fact that all other routes except Birgunj have seen movement of vehicles -- albeit in more limited numbers -- also diminishes the claims that the blockade is absolute. Media commentaries in Kathmandu are now pointing to the smuggling of fuel products, lack of management of available petroleum, institutionalised corruption and government incompetence for exacerbating the crisis.
Nepal faces the risk of exposing its own internal vulnerability -- on both the question of a contested constitution and its human rights record -- on international platforms. In Geneva, India –- in a rare and surprising move –- raised the issue of Nepali state committing human rights violations in the Tarai. During PM Narendra Modi’s visit, India and UK jointly agreed to the need for an inclusive and lasting constitutional settlement in Nepal. Delhi has not really invested its diplomatic capital internationally on any large scale, but if it decides to do so, it is obvious that Nepal would have a tough time countering it.
Staying the course
There is now a deadlock. Kathmandu’s establishment does not want to budge -- with Oli calculating this is making him a ‘nationalist hero’ though there is a slight turn in the public mood, with many in the media and civil society increasingly asking the government to find a political solution to the crisis.
Oli’s government is fragile and with increasing public disillusionment, it is possible that the political alignment will change. But this is probably not a solution for you need the support of all sides, including Oli’s party, to pass the amendments.
For its part, the Madhesi agitation is growing in intensity; rallies are planned across the plains. And Madhesi parties may even declare a parallel constitution soon.
For India, it is not a pleasant situation. But diplomacy is often not pleasant and a regional power sometimes has to do what it has to do. Indian policy has faced flak internally for not ‘welcoming’ the Nepali Constitution, for ‘intervening’ in Nepal’s internal affairs, for ‘taking sides’. But the fact is that Indian stance must be seen in the context of Delhi’s intimate involvement in Nepal’s internal affairs historically. Inaction at a time of such turbulence across the open border was not an option.
Indian policy is guided by both liberal and realist impulses at the moment. It is backing the right ‘values’, of inclusion, of minority rights, of accommodation of dissent through peaceful political means; it is encouraging a political structure that takes into account diversity of Nepal; it is opposing state brutality, human rights violations, including on international platforms.
It is also a ‘realist’ policy because India can see that if the Madhesi question is not accommodated within the constitutional framework, the agitation in Tarai would grow.
All the ingredients for a separatist movement are in place in Tarai -- an ethno-nationalist movement, minority alienation, state brutality, a ruling elite and security apparatus of a distinct ethnic make-up, and cross border linkages.
India cannot afford such a movement right across its open border. The memories of Sri Lanka are all too fresh. And that is why Delhi needs to stay the course as it encourages the reluctant ruling elite to share power with its minorities. It may be a villain in Kathmandu today, but Delhi is doing a huge favour to the Nepali state by advising it consistently to find a solution within a united Nepal before it is too late.
100 days into a mass movement, there is only one answer to the crisis in Nepal -- Kathmandu needs to wake up and to listen to its own citizens of the plains.