Perceptions matter in ties between nations. The view in Nepal now is that, India, unhappy with the Himalayan nation’s new constitution, is playing Big Brother and teaching its neighbour a lesson by blocking the supply of goods. New Delhi has denied an official blockade and has blamed the ongoing protests in Nepal’s Tarai plains against the recently-promulgated constitution and the resulting security threat for Indian transporters’ reluctance to take vehicles across the border.
This stance hasn’t cut much ice in Nepal. The disruption in the supply of petroleum products, for which the land-locked nation is entirely dependent on India, has forced Kathmandu to restrict the movement of vehicles and stop the sale of petrol products to private vehicles. “Why is India doing this to us? We didn’t expect this from a country that professes to be our friend,” said Kathmandu taxi driver Bimal Magar, who spent a whole night at a fuel station queuing up for 10 litres of petrol. The anger has spread online. #BackOffIndia was a top trend worldwide on Twitter last week. It has also spilled over onto the streets with the tricolour and effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi being burnt. Surprisingly, until recently, Modi was very popular across Nepal due to his two visits last year during which he announced US$ 1 billion in aid for development projects.
What went wrong?
One reason for the anger against India is due to New Delhi’s reaction to Nepal’s new constitution. While the rest of the world welcomed it, India just took note of the statute passed with overwhelming majority by an elected constituent assembly.
India made it clear it was unhappy with the way the constitution was pushed through by the three major parties without taking the protesting Madhesis, Tharus and other marginalized communities on board. But New Delhi was more upset at the false promises made by leaders in Kathmandu.
“We were assured all along that concerns of Madhesi, Tharus and Janajatis would be addressed before promulgating the constitution. But at the last stage they (the three major parties) pushed through the statute while protests were raging in Terai,” said a senior Indian diplomat posted in Kathmandu.
Concerns expressed through a statement by External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj urging “widest possible agreement” fell on deaf ears. By the time foreign secretary S Jaishankar landed in Kathmandu to salvage the situation, it was already late as voting on the constitution had been completed two days ago with Madhesi parties quitting the process.
“Our request was the delay the promulgation by a few days so that the protesting parties are brought on board, but it seems the major parties thought New Delhi will have no option but to welcome the statute once it is promulgated,” he added.
India had played a key role in ending the civil war in Nepal and bringing Maoists to the political mainstream. New Delhi’s lack of active involvement in the last stage of the constitution drafting process is seen by some as reason for the present state of affairs.
“India played a key role in the peace process but I wonder if New Delhi’s hesitance to play a more active role towards the end of the constitution process led us to this situation,” said Daman Nath Dhungana, former speaker of Nepal’s parliament and one of the drafters of the 1990 constitution.
There’s a perception that India is supporting the protests as Madhesis share family, linguistic and cultural ties across the border. This despite New Delhi’s denial that it is not supporting any group and its main concern is security and stability in Nepal and mainly along the border.
Protests have been raging in Tarai since August when the major parties decided to divide the country into seven federal states. Worried that they would be under-represented in national and state legislatures, Madhesis and Tharus launched violent protests. Clashes with police claimed 44 lives. Once the statute was promulgated, they decided to target customs points at the border so Kathmandu felt the pinch and leaders of the three major parties - Nepali Congress, Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoists) - took their demands seriously.
A new statement from New Delhi mentioning the fears expressed by Indian transporters about sending their trucks to Nepal when protests had intensified at the border, led many in Kathmandu to presume that India was planning to blockade Nepal.
There’s a reason for that. In 1989-90, differences over the renewal of trade and transit treaties led India to impose a 15-month embargo on goods coming to Nepal. It was also seen as New Delhi’s retribution for Kathmandu’s procurement of anti-aircraft guns from China. Fearing a spillover of violence into its territory, India strengthened border security leading to the delayed entry of vehicles even where no protests were taking place. The rest is history - or a repetition of it, as many in Kathmandu believe.
Leaders in Kathmandu had not anticipated such a reaction from India. However, it gave them an opportunity to distract the masses from the statute’s faults and the need to address the Madhesis and Tharus’ demands. “It was strange that our close friend India, who played a key role in the peace process didn’t welcome the constitution,” said KP Sharma Oli, chairman of the ruling Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist). Rebutting India’s denials of an embargo, the politician, tipped to be Nepal’s next prime minister, said Kathmandu was willing to clear any misunderstandings that may have crept up due to misinformation.
New Delhi’s unhappiness with the statute, which treats some citizens as less equal, was expected. But the terse wording of its statements left a bitter aftertaste in Kathmandu.New Delhi also failed to anticipate the backlash from ordinary Nepalis, both online and on the streets, whipped up not just by fringe elements but also by leaders from major political parties and even ministers. It didn’t take long for relations to nosedive.
“New Delhi’s concern about violence on the border is justified as the Bihar elections are due in few days. But the way it handled the present situation could impact the positives gained from Modi’s Nepal visits,” said Lok Raj Baral, former Nepali ambassador to New Delhi. Now there is a sense that the issue needs to be quickly resolved. New Delhi is in damage control mode and consultations are underway at several levels.
Sensing they can’t treat the situation in Tarai any longer as a law and order situation, leaders of the major parties in Kathmandu have begun informal talks with the leaders of the protesting parties, a move welcomed by India. Once formal talks begin and protests in the border areas are called off, normal supply of goods into Nepal is expected to resume. If that happens, the crisis will blow over in a few days. But it will take years to bridge the trust deficit that has sprung up between Kathmandu and New Delhi after 12 months of a near-perfect relationship.