On Monday, the internal polarisation in Nepal and the India-Nepal bilateral dynamic took a turn for the worse. As protests escalated in the Nepali border town of Birgunj, the Nepal Police used force. There are competing versions of what exactly happened, but at the end of it, a young Indian adult, Ashish Ram, was killed in the firing by the Nepali side.
India has called him ‘innocent’, but Nepal has claimed he was part of the protesters who were throwing stones and ‘petrol bombs’. The Madhesi protesters had escalated the agitation in response to Nepal police action earlier in the morning to clear the border and end their blockade. The dissenters have blocked the movement of goods and supplies from India, particularly at the busy Birgunj crossing, to generate pressure on the government to amend the constitution, make it more inclusive and revise federal boundaries.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to his Nepal counterpart, KP Oli, to enquire about the incident and ask for investigation. He has also reiterated the Indian message that Nepal should try to find a credible internal political resolution. This is wise advice that Nepal has ignored for the past few months. The Tarai agitation is now in its third month. Life is paralysed, border blockades have caused shortages across Nepal and there is a real risk of further polarisation.
The Madhesi street is getting radicalised and could be attracted to separatist slogans while Kathmandu’s political elite continues to stoke ultra nationalism and palm off the entire problem as an Indian conspiracy. This is but a cover to hide its reluctance to share power and create an inclusive political structure. The fragility at the border is taking a toll on Indian citizens and interests.
New Delhi must stay firm and tell Kathmandu to wake up and set its house in order. The issues are not intractable — all that Madhesis are asking for is political representation according to the population, affirmative action through proportional inclusion in State organs, and a revision of the boundaries of states, so that they can access political power they have been deprived of. Kathmandu is playing with fire and has no one to blame but itself.