By Sushma Swaraj
I rise to make a statement on the Calling Attention Motion on "Situation in Nepal and the State of Indo-Nepal Relations”. Members would agree that India and Nepal share a unique relationship of centuries-old civilizational ties based on shared geography, history, culture, language and religion. The two countries have close political relations, wide-ranging economic cooperation and deep-rooted people-to-people friendship. India provides Nepal broad-based development assistance for infrastructural projects in health, water resources, agriculture, irrigation, education, culture, and rural & community development. Our 1950 Friendship Treaty provides for open borders, free movement, and gives Nepalese citizens effective ‘national treatment’ in terms of education and employment in India, including in our Army as well as in some civil services, where they are allowed to compete along with Indians.
India has always stood for a peaceful conclusion to Nepal’s on-going political transition after decades of instability and violence. At times, at the request of Nepali political parties, we have actively facilitated that process. Throughout the process of Constitution making in Nepal, there has been a political consensus in India on providing unstinting moral and material support to Nepal in its efforts to establish a peaceful, stable and Constitutional democracy. We have remained closely engaged with Nepal during its ongoing political transition and have consistently supported early promulgation of a broad-based, inclusive and durable Constitution. Prime Minister emphasized this during his two visits to Nepal in 2014, when he advised Nepal’s leadership to work with a ‘rishi-man’ to frame a Constitution based on ‘sahmat’ rather than ‘bahumat’. I believe that this advice, of a neighbour and will-wisher, reflects the broad opinion of the House as well as our polity.
Soon after assuming office in May 2014, our Government has embarked on a rejuvenated partnership with Nepal, injecting a new sense of optimism in this vital relationship. There was significant progress in the area of hydropower cooperation and connectivity. Prime Minister visited Nepal in August 2014 on the first PM-level bilateral visit in 17 years, and again in November 2014 for the SAARC Summit. I myself visited Nepal in July 2014 to co-Chair the Joint Commission, which met after 23 years. When a devastating earthquake struck Nepal in April 2015, India was the first responder with its largest ever disaster relief operation appropriately called ‘Operation Maitri’. For the long-term rehabilitation phase, India’s commitment of US$ 1 billion (1/4th of which would be as grant), was announced on 25 June 2015 in Kathmandu, which was the largest pledge among all international donors. It is over and above our existing commitment of another US$ 1 billion, 40% of which would be grant, over the next five years. India will continue to extend all assistance, in accordance with the aspirations of the people of Nepal, for peace, stability and socio-economic development of the country. This should leave no one in any doubt of our care, concern and heart-felt friendship for our northern neighbor.
Prime Minister’s call for consensus and broad-based ownership, conveyed during his two visits to Nepal, in August and November 2014, was strongly and consistently conveyed by Government both before, and after the draft Constitution was put out for public consultations from June-August 2015. Our advice was reiterated on several occasions including the visits by CPN-UML Vice-Chairperson Bidya Bhandari in January 2015, UCPN(M) senior leader Baburam Bhattarai in March 2015, UCPN(M) Chairman Prachanda in July 2015, senior leader of Nepali Congress Sher Bahadur Deuba in August 2015, as well as other visitors from Nepal. I personally re-emphasized our advice during my visit to Nepal in June 2015, and Prime Minister re-stated it during his telephone conversation with PM Sushil Koirala in August 2015. Our Ambassador in Kathmandu was also in regular touch with Nepali political parties in this matter. Therefore, any suggestion that our position lacked clarity or that there was lack of engagement simply has no basis.
The draft Constitution that finally emerged was perceived as non-inclusive by several sections of the Nepalese society, particularly in the Terai, who became restive and came out in protest from mid-August 2015 onwards. Several contentious provisions in key areas - such as constituency delimitation, inclusion for needy sections of the society and provincial boundaries - were apparently incorporated in the draft, either at a late stage without due debate and discussion, or by diluting important provisions of the 2007 Interim Constitution under which two successful elections had already been held in 2008 and 2013.
In an effort to head off what clearly was a looming crisis, Foreign Secretary travelled to Nepal on 18-19 September as Prime Minister’s Special Envoy. He advised the Nepalese political leadership to (a) give more time for dialogue to bring about broad-based acceptance; (b) send a positive signal to the disaffected sections of the Nepalese population that their grievances will be addressed; (c) reflect on our assessment that if the protests were not addressed politically, the agitation in the Terai areas could intensify; and (d) prevent a further deterioration of the situation in the Terai and on the India-Nepal border. Regrettably, these cautions passed unheeded.
As a result, the Constitution adopted on 20 September 2015 was perceived by large sections of Nepal’s population as non-inclusive and diluting the representation already available to Nepal’s ethnic and social groups since 2007. Unrest in the Terai escalated sharply, causing over 55 deaths and injuries to hundreds since August. The agitation, which completed 100 days on 23 November 2015, has seen protestors obstructing movements of cargo trucks across India-Nepal border crossings, thereby affecting supplies of fuel and other essential commodities from India to Nepal.
The Constitution was expected to mark the culmination of Nepal’s peace process and political transition after decades of violent instability. That the new Constitution established Nepal as a federal democratic republic was duly noted and recognized by us. But we could not ignore the fact that several sections of the Nepalese society felt that their interests had not been taken care of. Our position, without being prescriptive, is that remaining issues about perceived under-representation, should be resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and institutionalized in a manner that would enable broad-based ownership of the Constitution. The then Government of Nepal, led by former PM Sushil Koirala, had also approved two important constitutional amendments on constituency delimitation on the basis of population and inclusion for needy sections, by the Cabinet on 2 October 2015. But the new government has not yet moved forward on these amendments.
This has caused continues resentment among the disaffected sections of the Nepalese population, and the situation in many parts of the country bordering India remains violent. With a 1751-km long open border with the five Indian States of Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Sikkim, India is directly affected by developments in the Terai. The unfortunate use of force on 2 November, to forcibly remove protestors obstructing the Raxaul-Birganj route, and thereafter on 22 November against protestors in Saptari, has further vitiated the atmosphere. An Indian citizen was also killed, and we have sought an investigation into his death.
Leading members of the international community as well as many in Nepal have increasingly taken a position similar to ours. The USA, UK, EU and UN have spoken about the need to ensure an inclusive Constitution and address fundamental issues through dialogue. Moreover, India’s ties with Nepal have always stood on their own merits and will continue to be so. Even as protests continued in Nepal, India has maintained constant touch with its leadership. On 11 October 2015, Prime Minister called PM K.P. Oli following his election and conveyed his hearty congratulations. I hosted the Deputy PM and Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa on 18 October 2015.Prime Minister again spoke to PM K.P. Oli on 2 November 2015. In addition, our officials including the Ambassador closely monitor the situation.
Let me take this opportunity to also clarify to Members that contrary to some canards on this issue, there is no blockade by India, which we have repeatedly clarified, of supplies going to Nepal. Obstructions are by the Nepalese population on the Nepalese side, in which GoI cannot interfere. There were incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India following the promulgation of this Constitution. Our freight companies and transporters also voiced complaints about difficulties of movement and security within Nepal.
In fact, Government of India has facilitated supplies wherever possible. Several thousand trucks have remained stranded for weeks, waiting on the Indian side of the border crossings. We have kept them there to respond quickly if the blockages on the Nepal side are peacefully lifted. The primary crossing of Raxaul-Birgunj, which accounts for two-thirds of our trade, remains closed from the Nepali side for more than two months. However, every day, several hundred cargo trucks have still been passing through those crossing points that are open and available. Despite constraints, Indian Oil Corporation has delivered POL supplies to the extent possible. More than 400 medical consignments were cleared through the India-Nepal border in November 2015. We are also assisting in re-routing stranded POL tankers and vehicles carrying medical supplies through other available crossing points, as also airlift. But there are also logistical constraints and the best remedy remains a political solution leading to the end of the agitation.
Yesterday, I had another good meeting with the visiting Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Nepal,Kamal Thapa. He assured me that there has been progress in the dialogue on the contentious issues with the agitating parties. This gives us hope that an early resolution would be found for the political problems facing Nepal. We will continue to encourage all sides to come to a solution sooner rather than later.
The causes underlying the present state of confrontation in Nepal need to be addressed credibly and effectively by the political parties and people of Nepal themselves. India’s only interest is in a peaceful, united and stable Nepal. And our approach to the present crisis is completely consistent with these objectives. There has also been the broadest goodwill for Nepal in India and full political consensus on our policy. In that tradition, I would urge the House to consider the merits of a visit to Nepal by an All Party delegation. The Government will be guided by the sentiments of the House.
Swaraj is an External Affairs Minister of India. This is an excerpts of the statement delivered by External Affairs Minister on Calling Attention Motion on ''Situation in Nepal and State of Indo-Nepal Relation'' in Rajya Sabha.