Why India must speak up strongly on Nepal

  • Prashant Jha, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Sep 13, 2015 22:04 IST
Protesters chanting slogans take part in a general strike organised by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) demanding autonomous regions based on ethnicity to be drafted into the new Constitution in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Reuters Photo)

Nepal’s top three political parties – Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist), and the Maoists – have decided to push through a constitution in Nepal. This was supposed to be the culmination of a long-running peace process, but it could now well be the cause of a prolonged conflict, civil war, and even a secessionist movement right across the open border.

For India, the stakes could not be higher. It is now time to shed the diffidence of not appearing interventionist, for developments in Nepal are already having a direct impact on Indian interests. India’s special relationship with Nepal, and active role in its politics, also gives it a more than legitimate space to do so, especially if the objective is to defuse a conflict.

The brewing confrontation

For forty days, Nepal has been burning.

The game-changer in Nepal’s constitutional deadlock was the decision of the Maoists to break ranks with their allies, Madhesi parties of the plains, in June this year. Both forces had fought together for an identity based federal system, which would empower the Madhesis, the ethnic tribes called the Janjatis, and other excluded groups. The older forces had a federal design which would maintain demographic advantage and political dominance for hill Hindu upper caste communities, which had traditionally wielded power.

Maoists shifted sides, and signed up to a constitutional deal that reversed many of the achievements for the excluded groups. An electoral system was designed which would leave these groups of the Tarai under-represented in the national legislature; provisions on proportionate inclusion of the marginalised into state organs were dropped; draconian citizenship provisions were introduced which hurt the rights of both women and Madhesis; and federal boundaries were carved out in a manner to suit the ruling elite.

The Tarai rose up in flames.

Madhesis and Tharus of the plains had long felt aggrieved at the power structure, and saw the constitution – to be promulgated by an elected Constituent Assembly – as an opportunity to win their rightful share. Indeed, in past political agreements in 2007 and 2008, this was the promise made by the top leadership.

The constitution was not just meant to draw out a new political system. It was also a new social contract for Nepal’s various ethnicities which had been kept under a united framework primarily through the force of a monarchical-military state. The primary fault-line in the country was undoubtedly that between the hills and the plains. The hill establishment saw the Madhesis, who shared ethnic and cultural links with people across the border in India, as the fifth column. The Madhesi struggle was as much a quest for dignity and inclusion, and an effort to be an equal Nepali citizen, as it was for representation and federalism. The constitution was meant to heal these wounds, address these grievances, and through a shared process of consultation, lead to a document that would define Nepal as a nation.

The dreams have now been shattered, both on the substance of the constitution and the process through which it is being promulgated.

Madhesi and Tharu objections to constitutional provisions were brushed aside. The Kathmandu leadership was first complacent that the marginalised social groups would not be able to mount a movement, but as a spontaneous people’s uprising erupted in the plains, the government decided on a path of brutal suppression. Violence by protestors did not help, but the state response – now documented by National Human Rights Commission as well as the Tarai Human Rights Defenders Alliance and other international watchdogs – has been brutal.

Over 40 people have been killed, mostly in police firing. The Tarai has been paralysed for over three weeks, with a complete shutdown of schools, colleges, industries, vehicular movement and the highway. The army has been deployed and curfew imposed, but this has been defied, with thousands of protestors on the streets every day.

Indian advice ignored

India, led by an able ambassador in Kathmandu, Ranjit Rae, had anticipated this situation. When PM Modi visited Kathmandu in August, he addressed the Constituent Assembly and spoke of the need to write a constitution with a ‘rishi-man’, to be sage-like, to keep the long view, and to accommodate the aspirations of citizens from all communities and regions. When he went back in November to attend the SAARC summit, he was more specific – and urged political leaders in Nepal not to push through a constitution through a majority vote in parliament, but to adopt it through consensus and give a sense of ownership to all, be it people from the pahad or the Madhes.

In the past few months, India has maintained a consistent position that there must be widest possible consultations on the constitution and thorny issues must be resolved through dialogue. In a private conversation, PM Modi is even learnt to have PM Sushil Koirala that he must take the initiative and bring all stakeholders into a room, for it was not possible for five to ten people to push through a constitution.

Nepali leaders have chosen to ignore the wise advice. This is primarily because of two factors.

The first is the shared interest of top leadership of all three parties. They happen to be from the same community – hill Brahmans, with one leader, former PM Sher Bahadur Deuba, from the Chhetri community. In times of deep ethnic polarisation, their ethnic loyalties have prevailed over both party ideological agendas and national interest. This small cabal of four high caste men has decided the best way to maintain elite hegemony is to push through a document, written on their terms, which would benefit their social base and maintain a hierarchical and inequitable power structure, at the cost of other excluded communities. Irrespective of whether they are social democrats or Maoists, their primary identity at the moment is that of being a pahadi Hindu caste member.

The second reason is the convergence in the power ambitions of these leaders. PM Koirala wants to see the constitution promulgated under him, as he could project it as his legacy. He wants to then head into a party convention to ensure the victory of his loyalists, and is keen that in the new arrangement, he could take over as the country’s president.

UML chair KP Oli is the true ideologue of this ‘ram through the constitution’ line. He is the most conservative of Nepal’s political leaders in a long time – he happily allied with the king when a democracy movement was underway; his contribution to the anti monarchy agitation was limited; he was the most vocal opponent of the Maoist agenda for progressive political change; he has told interlocutors he does not believe in positive discrimination of any sort or affirmative action; he is a reluctant federalist, and believes any form of federalism itself is a ‘concession’. Oli sees himself as the next PM, and believes the quicker the constitution goes through, the sooner he will get to occupy the coveted house in Kathmandu’s Baluwatar area.

The most surprising addition to this group has been Maoist chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’.

A central pillar of the Maoist war was the liberation of ‘oppressed nationalities’; they flagged the federalism demand much before others; and their social base is of marginalised ethnicities. By siding with the establishment, Prachanda is now viewed as the ‘great betrayer’ among these very groups; he will also have a difficult time explaining the need for a People’s War which killed 16000 people if he had to sign up to a regressive constitutional draft finally. Prachanda’s interests are driven by self-preservation. He is apprehensive that war-crime cases may come back to haunt him; in the past decade in open politics, he is also understood to have amassed huge amounts of wealth. His deal with Oli, Kathmandu’s political circles speculate, rests on protection for these sins.


Nepalese police personnel detain a protester (C) during a general strike organized by the Nepal Federation of Indigenous Nationalities (NEFIN) demanding autonomous regions based on ethnicity to be drafted into the new constitution in Kathmandu. (Reuters File Photo)

Why India must act

For Delhi, a lot is at stake.

This is a peace process that was conceived and signed in New Delhi exactly ten years ago, at the end of 2005. India has been an actor through much of the process in Nepal – from encouraging Constituent Assembly elections, mediating between the government and Madhesi protestors in the past to come to pacts, getting involved in government formation exercises and more. Some of this was legitimate, some of it was excessive. But given India’s deep engagement in the process, it cannot wash its hands off at this moment of climax, when the process itself is about to crumble.

There are more specific interests at play.

Stability in Nepal has always been India’s top priority, and this was the original trigger for India shedding its ideological aversion to Maoists and ‘bringing them down the hills’, in JNU Professor S D Muni’s evocative phrase, to join the process.

India and Nepal have an open border. There are almost six million Nepalis working in India, according to Government of India estimates. Every family in Tarai shares a roti-beti relationship with families across the border in Bihar and UP. There are both Indian nationals and Indian businesses operating in Nepal. Unlike the Maoist rebellion, which was concentrated in the hills, this time around, the violence and turbulence is happening right across the open border in the plains. There are already reports of Nepal’s Madhesi citizens fleeing to seek refuge in Bihar and UP, from the districts of Mahottari and Kailali respectively, after violence. Conflict in Nepal will directly impact India, and it has to do all it can to avoid an escalation.

India also cannot ignore that what is happening in Nepal is the surge of ethno-nationalism. The Tamil case from Sri Lanka shows that if the legitimate grievances of a community are not addressed in time, political elements within the community can become radicalised, militarised, and a conflict escalate into an outright civil war. And when such a community has close links with communities across the border, for instance the Tamils in Tamil Nadu in the Sri Lanka case, India’s options become constrained.

The Madhes is at the crossroads. Those leading the current agitation are parliamentary moderates – all they seek is inclusion into the existing Nepali state structure, a fair federal settlement and space within the polity. If these reasonable demands are not addressed, the political constituency which will benefit the most is that of the secessionists in the Tarai. A young foreign educated scientist, C K Raut, has already returned home to wage a movement for a separate country, and his popularity is only growing. If the Tarai does not get what it is asking for in Nepal, more young men and women will get drawn to Raut and ilk. And given the links the community shares with Bihar, do not be surprised if there is a substantial political constituency in Bihar which begins to speak for the rights of Nepal’s Tarai. The intersection of domestic politics and foreign policy will only make matters more complicated for Delhi. It is time to prevent another Sri Lanka type situation emerging.

There is a legitimate apprehension in Delhi that any public move would only serve to alienate Kathmandu’s powerful hill elite establishment – and given that India has to do business with the Nepali state, this constituency cannot be ignored. This is true – but this is a constituency that is always the most adept at playing the anti India card.

Delhi has little to do with the current Madhesi unrest, but listen to Nepali politicians, and it would appear that this is all a grand Indian design. The ploy is to stoke ultra nationalism, scare Delhi and put pressure on India to use its influence with Tarai groups to sign up to a constitution against its interests. There is no reason for India to give in to such games. Delhi should also keep in mind that there is a substantial constituency in Kathmandu now – senior hill politicians in mainstream parties, key media outlets and civil society – which do not agree with the current ‘ram through the constitution’ approach. India’s moves will be seen as helpful by the reasonable moderate pahadi leaders, besides Nepal’s marginalised groups, who constitute the country’s majority.

And what Delhi can do

There are various tools at Delhi’s disposal. It must no longer shy away from using some of its political capital.

For one, it is time to issue a strong public statement. India has always made it clear that it seeks an inclusive constitution. But at a time when Nepal’s parties are pushing through a document with the army deployed and protestors being killed, Delhi has to go one step ahead. It must urge Nepal’s parties to hold the constitutional process; it must condemn the violence that has taken place in the preceding weeks including the killings of civilians; it should ask the government to reach out to dissenting parties, and ask dissenting forces to reciprocate and immediately initiate dialogue. The big three forces in Kathmandu calculate that once the constitution is through, the international community will come around. India must also make it clear that while it hopes to see Nepal write a constitution at the soonest, this must have the widest ownership of the Nepali people – anything less will not be welcomed.

The international community has long recognised India’s pre-eminent status in Nepal, and Delhi played a role in mobilising other actors and convincing them when it facilitated the peace process. It is time to embark on a similar exercise. In Washington, New York, London, Brussels, and Beijing, Indian diplomats must talk to their US, UN, UK, EU and Chinese counterparts to make them aware of the gravity of the situation in Nepal. Nepal’s political elite is hoping to play on real and perceived rifts within the international community. But proactive Indian diplomacy can easily bridge any such gulf, if it exists at all, or dispel the impression. No foreign power, including China, wants instability in Nepal. And no foreign power, including China again, would like to alienate Delhi on the question of Nepal. A common position will put pressure on Nepali leaders.

Three, it is time for Delhi to send a powerful special envoy to Kathmandu. Ambassador Rae has effective projected the Indian viewpoint. But it would send a strong message to Nepal’s political elite that this message has the backing of the political establishment. The special envoy must speak to all sides, tell the government to retreat from the path of brutal repression it has embarked upon, ask major parties to pause the process and display flexibility on the federal design, as well as bring back the Madhesi parties from the streets and convince them of the need to institutionalise current achievements. This special envoy could be the National Security Advisor, AK Doval, who has kept close track of Nepal over the past few years or it could be someone from outside government like senior BJP leader like Ram Madhav, who has closely tracked Nepal affairs for some time and has the confidence of both PM Modi as well as close interface with the bureaucratic-security establishment.

And finally, India has a range of tools, both overt and covert, which it has chosen not to use in Kathmandu at the moment. Delhi must be careful none of this hurts the Nepali people, for it is a select political elite which is driving the process. Each of the top leaders who are currently pushing a process that would lead Nepal to conflict has received Indian patronage of some form or the other. It is time to give the Nepali people a sense of the nature of such transactions. There is already brewing political anger in Bihar and civil society led efforts in border towns against Nepali state’s actions. Delhi can also pay heed to these voices.

There is little point in being a regional power if you do not exercise it at decisive moments. This is one such moment for India. It helps that Delhi’s interests converge with that of a majority of Nepali people. It is time to act.

Also read: Nepal’s constitutional politics: It's time to drop the arrogance

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