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India’s Nepal policy: A balancing act between Kathmandu and Tarai

India’s involvement in Nepal’s politics and the upsurge in Madhes region have roots in history, and the potential to complicate ties between the neighbours

india Updated: Sep 20, 2016 00:43 IST
Prashant Jha
Nepalese activists from the Federal Alliance (members of the Madhesi and ethnic communities) chant anti-constitution slogans on the first anniversary of Nepal's new constitution in Kathmandu on Monday
Nepalese activists from the Federal Alliance (members of the Madhesi and ethnic communities) chant anti-constitution slogans on the first anniversary of Nepal's new constitution in Kathmandu on Monday(AFP)

As Nepal’s Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ arrived in India last week, a senior Nepali member of his delegation told HT, “We want India to welcome the constitution. That will help build trust.” India had only ‘noted’ the constitution promulgation exactly a year ago.

A top Indian diplomatic source was quick to reject the possibility and said New Delhi couldn’t go so far.

“We recognise it as a major achievement, we welcome the amendment that has taken place, we can appreciate Prachanda’s efforts to bring everyone on board. But our principled position will remain. This constitution needs work, large segments of the society are still angry,” the source added.

Eventually, there was a convergence of sorts. Prachanda called the constitution a historic achievement, and said he was committed to bringing everyone on board. Narendra Modi expressed the confidence that under Prachanda’s leadership, the constitution would be successfully implemented through ‘inclusive dialogue, accommodating the aspirations of all segments of your diverse society.”

The inference was obvious.

Discontent among Madhesis — people of the Nepali plains who speak languages such as Maithili, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Urdu, Hindi and sharing extensive cross-border links — remains a factor in the Kathmandu-New Delhi relationship.

The community has long been excluded from power structures by the Nepali hill establishment and is now seeking greater space in the polity. While Nepali society is diverse, Nepali state is exclusionary — along with Madhesis, others like Janjatis, Tharus, women and Dalits remain marginalised.

Many in India had not even heard of Madhes till last year, when the constitutional process sparked off major protests in Nepal’s southern plains for six months and led to disruption of supplies across the border, and public bitterness between the two governments.

But India’s involvement in Nepali politics and the upsurge in Madhes have deep roots in history. And unless resolved, the issue will complicate India-Nepal ties.

Read | Why India must speak up strongly on Nepal

A player in Nepali politics

When India expressed concerns about Nepal’s constitutional process last year, many asked — what is Delhi doing in a neighbouring country’s ‘internal politics’?

The first reason is Delhi’s long history of involvement in Nepal.

New Delhi has had a role in every regime change in the landlocked country. Kathmandu politicians have often sought this role, even though they are known to turn against it when Delhi’s actions do not suit them.

In 1951, then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru mediated an agreement that opened up Nepal’s path to democratisation and modernisation. In 1988-89, Rajiv Gandhi blockaded Nepal — catalysing a movement for democracy backed by Indian leaders.

And in 2005-06, Delhi facilitated a political understanding between Maoists and democratic parties that eventually led to the abolition of monarchy and the peace process, which culminated in the constitution.

This is why no one was surprised when India mediated an agreement between the Nepali government and Madhesi parties — on the request of then PM Girija Prasad Koirala — when a movement broke out in the Tarai (plains) in 2008.

The pact promised an autonomous Madhes province and proportionate inclusion of Madhesis in state organs in the constitution. Shiv Shankar Mukherjee, who served as India’s ambassador to Nepal during the period, confirmed this.

The second reason for India’s interest in Nepal is an open border and the concern that any instability in the Tarai will inevitably spill across.

The analogy with Sri Lanka is often drawn. As an official told HT, “Look at the similarities. There is a majoritarian regime, and a substantial section of the population, which is alienated and angry. This section shares extensive cross-border ethnic and linguistic links. Today, they are asking for inclusion. Tomorrow, like Tamils, they may ask for secession.”

This, he said, would impact India directly. By asking Nepal to accommodate Madhesis, India was engaged in ‘preventive diplomacy’.

A third, often unstated, factor also drives New Delhi’s involvement in Nepal.

India believes Madhesi accommodation would lead to a greater ‘balance’ in the Nepali polity — dominated by hill communities grounded in deep anti-Indian nationalism. This, in turn, will create a more friendly dispensation in Kathmandu, New Delhi thinks.

Read | India must design a new Himalayan policy

The constitutional impasse

The issue came to a head last year when Nepal’s political leadership was drafting a constitution that many said eroded political representation, affirmative action, citizenship rights for Madhesis and deprived federal provinces of power in key areas.

During Modi’s visit to Kathmandu in November 2014, he urged Nepali leaders to draft the constitution through consensus — a clear signal that no group, including Madhesis, should be excluded. But in the final months leading up to the constitution’s promulgation, India apparently decided that any constitution was better than no constitution and did not drive the message home. There was a clear divide within the foreign ministry as Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, Ranjit Rae, pressed for strong action and officials in Delhi decided not to be seen as interventionist.

But this changed in September. By then, Madhesi protests had escalated and many had died in Tarai. Politicians from Bihar had begun clamouring about how their constituents were alarmed at the treatment received by their relatives across the border. The Indian establishment was suddenly furious at the complete disregard shown by Nepali leaders towards their own long-term interests and Indian concerns. Foreign secretary S Jaishankar went as PM’s special envoy to tell Nepali leaders to pause the process — but by then, it was too late.

After the constitution came into force, Madhesi protesters decided to block the border to pressurise Kathmandu. India tacitly backed the tactic. This generated an ultra-nationalist backlash in Kathmandu, where leaders blamed the entire Madhes crisis on India. They also invited a greater Chinese role. (See box) But sustained pressure eventually forced Nepal to amend the constitution and increase Madhesi representation.

Today, a new government — led by Prachanda who raised issues of Madhesi discrimination during his Maoist rebellion days — has promised to make further amendments, and bring Madhesis on board. If this happens, Delhi will be relieved. If it doesn’t, Kathmandu-Tarai polarisation will continue to increase, making it increasingly difficult for Delhi to have good relations with both.

Read | India pins hope on Prachanda to enact Nepal constitution

The China card

As India spoke of the need to ensure Madhesi inclusion in the constitutional process, Nepal’s establishment played what has come to be known as the ‘China card’ — dangling the threat of developing closer ties with Beijing in order to get Delhi to change its policy track.

This was used most effectively by King Mahendra. In 1960, he dismissed a democratically elected government. India saw it as a setback for democracy. But then India-China tensions grew. Worried about the prospect of the Kathmandu Palace developing closer ties with China, India dropped its support for democracy. Strategic imperatives prevailed over values.

But this card has also failed twice. King Birendra tried to get arms from China. Rajiv Gandhi was furious, and limited the number of border points for trade. This crippled Nepal, the royal regime fell. In 2005, King Gyanendra took over, and tried to cultivate ties with the Chinese. But the India-backed democratic movement succeeded. In both cases, China did little to save the monarchs. India gained strategically, democratic values also prevailed.

Last year, as a supplies crisis hit Nepal during Madhesi protests, Kathmandu again turned to Beijing. A series of agreements on connectivity and transit were signed. But given geographical and economic constraints, it will take years — if not decades — for China to become an alternative to India in terms of source of supplies or transit. But what has changed is the Chinese willingness to play a role in internal Nepali politics. It offered full support to the previous KP Oli government and tried to preserve it.

Worried about the China card, there are voices in Delhi who would like to focus solely on preserving the relationship with Kathmandu establishment. There are others who believe the card has its limits, India should not get alarmed, and instead focus on pushing Nepal towards an inclusive polity. “An inclusive Nepal will be a friendly Nepal. We will gain strategically and our principles will be vindicated,” said an official.