India ‘shifts’ stance, asks Madhesis to drop demand for changes in constitution

Published on May 16, 2017 10:11 AM IST

India’s advice to drop the demand and contest local elections is shocking, say top Tarai leaders.

Activists take part in a rally to support ethnic Madhesis in Kathmandu. The Madhesis, who live in the plains, say the new constitution dilutes their political power and should be changed to accommodate their concerns.(Reuters file photo)
Activists take part in a rally to support ethnic Madhesis in Kathmandu. The Madhesis, who live in the plains, say the new constitution dilutes their political power and should be changed to accommodate their concerns.(Reuters file photo)
Hindustan Times, New Delhi | By

Indian diplomats in Kathmandu have told Nepal’s Tarai leadership to drop the demand of changes in constitution and participate in the second phase of local elections scheduled next month, a move being seen as a dramatic U-turn on a policy crafted over two years.

Delhi insists its old policy of broader constitutional accommodation is intact, but top Tarai political leaders, who expressed dismay and shock at what they said was a betrayal, told HT the “advice” came from the “highest levels” of the Indian embassy in Kathmandu.

It was a misreading, a misinterpretation of the message and there was no shift in India’s stand, sources in Delhi said.

After Nepal promulgated the constitution in September 2015, the country has witnessed a standoff between Kathmandu and parties of the Tarai, the plains which border India.

The Tarai parties argue that the constitution, promulgated by parties led by hill leaders, eroded political representation, affirmative action and created provinces in a way that would dilute political power of the plains.

“For over a year and a half, India agreed with us on the need for an amendment and the impossibility of accepting elections under this constitutional framework as it exists. But ever since a new ambassador has come in, we are being told to give up the agenda,” a senior leader of the newly unified Madhesi party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, told HT.

Manjeev Singh Puri was in March appointed India’s ambassador to Kathmandu.

Another Tarai leader said a top embassy official had categorically told him that they should contest elections or face marginalisation.

“This will be an admission that that both our line and Indian line of the past two years was wrong. How can we do it? We will have no moral ground left,” the leader, who refused to be identified, said. The pressure was generating resentment against India in the Tarai. “People feel Delhi has let us down,” he said.

India has maintained the need to bring in amendments to address the demands of all political stakeholders, including Madhesis of the Tarai plains.

Delhi’s strong stance saw ties take a hit with the previous KP Oli government. Protests by Madhesis led to the disruption of supplies across the border in 2015-2016, which many in Kathmandu blamed on India.

But a change in government, the election of Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ as the prime minister and an alliance between the Nepali Congress and Maoists, improved bilateral ties.

At the heart of it was a commitment by the new ruling parties to amend the constitution, a promise Prachanda made to his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi during a visit to Delhi and at a meeting on the sidelines of the BRICS summit in Goa in October.

An amendment was registered in the Nepali parliament but was withdrawn as it couldn’t get the mandatory support of two-thirds of the members.

Another revised amendment, which dropped the controversial plan for redrawing provincial boundaries, was agreed upon by the government and the Madhesi parties. But the focus of the government was on holding local elections in two phases since the Madhesi parties said they would not participate in the polls without an amendment.

The first round of voting, in hill provinces, was held on May 14.

The rest of the international community in Nepal, which often looks to India for the lead, is also confused. A Western diplomat told HT from Kathmandu, “India often conveyed to us that constitution amendment must come before constitution implementation, as a pre-requisite for stability. But we sense a shift. This linkage is no longer being drawn. It is not clear to us what has happened and whether there is a reversal.”

Government sources in Delhi said there was no “new line” and the talk was stemming from “misperceptions”. “Our continued position is that Nepal government should take along everyone in its constitutional journey. During Nepali President Bidya Bhandari’s visit to India last month, too, we appreciated the efforts of the government to forge an agreement , which means we still would like to see broader consensus. So something is being lost in translation,” a source said.

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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