Without doubt, the most damaging episode in the relationship between the Indian republic and modern Nepal was the five-month economic blockade that devastated the latter’s economy, hit post-earthquake reconstruction, and created a humanitarian crisis through the autumn and deep winter.
During Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s visit to India, which he had refused to make without the blockade being lifted, Kathmandu and New Delhi must try to understand how this crisis came about and ensure that it does not recur.
Nepal might be a small country and economy in relative size, yet the open border and the links to the teeming plains of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar make it of vital importance to India — and it is a two-and-a-half-century-old nation state with great resilience but one that can only be prosperous and inclusive as a stable, sovereign democracy.
Unfortunately, Kathmandu has lately suffered both micromanagement and macromanagement at the hands of New Delhi, which have sown the seeds of long-term instability. From involvement in government formation to meddling in Constitution drafting, New Delhi’s emissaries and agents have kept Nepal on the boil.
In the main, it is the Nepali politicians who brought things to such a pass with their weak-kneed kowtowing to Indian diplomats and apparatchiks. They allowed the vital links with New Delhi’s national political class to fray, and slowly Nepal policy landed on the laps of unaccountable personnel. No wonder New Delhi blundered into the blockade, implemented to register dissatisfaction with the new Constitution adopted on September 20, 2015.
Tree in the forest
The blockade happened like the tree that fell in the forest — did it or did it not fall if no one heard the crash? It inflicted enormous suffering on the Nepali people, and the very sovereign status of the country teetered on the edge, and yet even after it was finally lifted, the world at large did not know that the blockade had even happened. As far as the New Delhi think tanks and opinion-makers are concerned, many did not even bother to read the new Constitution before deriding it.
Certainly the Constitution is a problematic document in many ways, even though it has the legitimacy for having been voted in favour by 85 per cent in the Constituent Assembly, which itself was elected by 78 per cent of the electorate. As a ‘rights-based Constitution’, drafted by politicians rather than by a committee of jurists, it will be a difficult document to implement because of the promises it makes — including in expanding the scope of fundamental rights to cover a whole slew of economic, social and cultural rights.
Why India carried out the blockade is the question that has taken up Kathmandu’s waking moments these past few months. Some of it may have to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s annoyance that the Constitution did not declare Nepal a Hindu state, which would have helped his domestic agenda. There also seems to be some deep strategy on how to gerrymander Nepal’s federal demarcation to keep space for Indian influence on issues related to natural resources and national security.
Whatever the goals, the Indian proactivity on the Constitution was designed without reference to Nepal’s citizenry of mountain, hill and plain, and certainly with inadequate knowledge of the country’s history and demography. Most interestingly, because the news-savvy Nepali public knew who was doing the blockading, over the long months it did not revolt against the Oli government despite its numerous failings.
The New Delhi intelligentsia was more than willing to buy its Ministry of External Affairs’ suggestion that the blockade was not by India but by the plains-based parties of Nepal unhappy with the new Constitution. The Madhesi Morcha leaders were certainly protesting, but the blockade was implemented at the border points through its officials by India two days before the Morcha formally took responsibility for the blockade on September 24.
For keen observers, there is no dearth of evidence to point to the blockade’s provenance, and so it did not require Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to inadvertently concede in the Rajya Sabha on December 7 that this was not the first but second time that India was applying a blockade on Nepal.
Truth be told, one can thank the heavens that the blockade was not implemented by the Madhesi Morcha, because that would have created an insurmountable hurdle between the communities of Nepal. Fortunately, the blockade ended before the much-feared possibility of a hill-versus-plain communal conflagration became reality, proving yet again that the people have more sagacity than the overlords.
Historically, Kathmandu’s state establishment has been insensitive in the way it has treated the Madhesi citizenry of the plains, economically marginalised and held at arm’s length on national identity which has been propagated as hill-based. Politics and bureaucracy remained the preserve of the hill Brahmin (Bahun) community in the democratic era since 1990, and so while the hill ethnicities too simmered in discontent, the plains populace erupted in the Madhes Movement of 2007-08.
The insensitivity of Kathmandu continued during the plains agitation of the past months, when police firing killed more than 40 protesters. Investigations have not been ordered into the police excesses even as, to this day, the appointment to high office continues to be skewed against the marginalised communities. Dignity of all identities is something yet to be internalised by the state.
While the historical injustices of the past are an unkind reality, the new Constitution is meant to apply redress. The question is whether the text is so inimical to the plains communities of Nepal that it cannot be addressed through amendments, and whether the South Asian superpower should have blundered into the debate.
It must be noted that the plains electorate routed the Madhesi Morcha parties in the Constituent Assembly elections of November 2013. Further, those Morcha leaders who were from the plains elite communities worried over the prospect of political oblivion when the Muslims, the ‘Nepali OBCs’, the Tharu and other plains ethnicities begin to assert their position. These leaders had little to lose in igniting passions, and were energised when New Delhi weighed in on their side, even as some individuals made speeches inciting communal violence.
Since Nepal’s democratic era started in 1990, the citizens have suffered a decade-long conflict, a decade of polarising transition, and a bad earthquake. Matters of human rights, rule of law, social justice, wealth creation, equity and employment — all of these have been kept in abeyance. The Constitution was supposed to end the suspended animation and lead towards a more secure future, but no sooner was it promulgated than the blockade hit.
In the days ahead, Nepal and Nepalis are confronted with the task of implementing the new Constitution, and the Constitutional Bench under the Supreme Court is sure to have its hands full. The Constitution is a chaotic document that will be hard to implement, but there can be no doubting that it is socially progressive, protecting diversity and inclusion as core values. There may even be matters in there to inform Indian scholars and activists, including the institution of proportional electoral representation, the absence of capital punishment, LGBT rights, and guarantees of representation by gender. There remain outstanding issues, of course, including rights of orphans and rapid citizenship for foreign husbands of Nepali women.
Looking to the future, with demarcation of federal provinces still remaining to be completed, and given India’s positioning on the matter thus far, one cannot be certain now that Nepal has turned the corner even though the blockade has been lifted. The matter of federal demarcation remains superheated, and it is probably best to let it cool before being tackled. In the meantime, Nepal should move on to local government elections, which have been hanging fire for more than a dozen years, allowing a lack of accountability to destroy democracy at the grassroots.
India and intolerance
As India is roiled by tensions within, with a myriad challenges emanating from its religious-, sectarian-, regional- and class-based divides, New Delhi must introspect on its activities in South Asia, on which so much rides. Increasingly, it seems to act unilaterally and exhibiting what might be termed ‘Indian exceptionalism’. The Nepal blockade has only been the latest in a run of recent adventurism from Bhutan to Bangladesh to Sri Lanka.
At the centre of Indian exceptionalism is the sense of entitlement that comes from being the largest democracy in the world, but the quality of that democracy certainly must be evaluated within India and by those from elsewhere who wish it well. Indeed the definition of nationalism is at the core of both the present-day disquiet under the Modi government as also the relationship with the neighbouring countries.
Nationalism, or one might say ultra-nationalism, is used to suppress dissent within each country of South Asia. It allows the state establishments alone to define international relations including with the neighbours, and simultaneously weakens the oversight and resolve of civil society, intelligentsia and media. This is happening all over, but when Big India acts without accountability among its decision-makers, the injury is transmitted all over.
The Nepal blockade should be an opportunity for New Delhi’s intelligentsia to introspect on whether it has compromised on its independent voice on international matters. The goal of South Asian solidarity in the interest of social justice requires this of New Delhi’s well-heeled. When intolerance takes root in each of our countries, it leads to closed societies and intimidates the intelligentsia.
On his state visit which began on 19 Feb, Mr. Oli may prefer to let bygones be bygones and not talk about a blockade against landlocked Nepal which flouted the principles of international law, Panchsheel and good-neighbourliness. He will surely not demand reparations for the economic and humanitarian harm caused, which can be quantified. But it would be reparation enough if Nepal is allowed to pick up the pieces, to be able to reconstruct and rebuild in a sovereign space, free to make and learn from its own mistakes.
(Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.)
The article was first published in The Hindu.