Nepal–India Relations: Unexplained sufferings

In this context, the Nepalese political leaders, mainly of the Nepali congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal- United Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML) and the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), might not have fulfilled their promise to India

March 12, 2016, 5:45 p.m. Published in Magazine Issue: Vol 09.No 16, March 4,(Falgun 21, 2072)

1.       Context

Nepal and India, thanks to tectonic legacy, are so placed that they get affected from each other's moves and, therefore, face bitter-sweet relationship. But, when it goes down to the lowest ebb for apparent or real reasons, it is the people on both sides of the border, who suffer the most. That is what the people in Nepal underwent for a period of almost five months starting in the second half of 2015. The sourness visible in the government- to- government relations gets eventually palliated. That looks the outcome of the February 2016 visit of the Nepalese Prime Minister Mr. K.P. Sharma Oli to India. However, a deep scar is left behind in the popular sentiment, irrespective of restoration of normalcy at the official level.

2. Events of consequence

It may be recalled that when Nepal faced a bloody Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist)-led insurgency for ten years (1996 to 2006) causing severe damage to life, infrastructure and economy of the country, its leaders were safe in the sanctuary in India. India too did provide military training to the insurgents along with, ironically, to their rival Nepal army personnel. India eventually got the Nepalese insurgents and the main political parties come together under a 12-point agreement (also called by some as Delhi agreement II, the first being that of 1951 agreed among the King, the Nepali Congress and the Ranas), which led to revival of the dissolved parliament, appointment of Girija Prasad Koirala, the leader of the Nepali Congress as the Prime Minister, signing of the peace agreement between the new government and rebels, grant of substantial number of seats in parliament to the rebellion party and drafting of a new interim constitution, 2007. The process discarded the Constitution of 1990, held election to the Constituent Assembly in 2008 to draft a new constitution, and abolition of 240-year monarchy. Interestingly, India recognized Nepal as a federal republic within hours of declaration. The situation of Nepal would have been different if these developments had resulted in framing of a new constitution on time leading to political stability. But they opened a Pandora's Box with unforeseen and serious problems pertaining to ethnic and regional grouses. The first Constituent Assembly died an unceremonious death in 2012.  Nepal elected a second Constituent Assembly in 2013 that produced a new constitution in 2015.  The production process turned out very painful. First of all, the Madheshi demand (some people living in the Tarai – the southern part of the country- prefer to be called Madeshi) for a separate federating state (initially one autonomous province over the whole of southern Tarai area and afterwards, two provinces over this same area) was not accepted in the new constitution declared on September 20, 2015. Secondly, on the eve of declaring the constitution, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent his special emissary Mr. S. Jayashankar, Foreign Secretary Government of India to postpone the date of the declaration of new constitution. As reported in the Times of India under the heading Nepal Snubs India, Mr. Jayashanker  had suggested to Nepalese leaders that a constitution should not be accompanied by such widespread unrest, and suggested they postpone the promulgation until the situation in the terai region was brought to normal, or even consider making a public assurance to the protesting communities. (September 20, 2015).

Regarding the protesting communities, it may be mentioned that for few months before the promulgation of the constitution, some communities, especially Madhesis and Tharus had been demonstrating to press for their demands.  The Tharu movement took a serious turn in Tikapur, located in the Kailali district of western Tarai, when a senior police official and local residents, were killed in clashes. An ethnic violence was feared. The disturbance eventually spread over the eastern part of the country taking a toll of over 50 lives over a period of couple of months. In the middle of this chaos, the political leaders decided to go ahead with six states within Nepal federation but changed it to seven under the pressure of the hill people. However, the wishes of Madhesi parties to see the Tarai districts of Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari included in the province no 2, comprises districts from Saptari in the east to Parsa in the central part–carved to satisfy the demands of Madeshis-remained unmet. That was and still remains the bone of contention. Besides, their demand is not limited to these three districts, they also want another province in the Tarai, although the demand for a separate province for Tharus seem to be not that strong as they used to be. When Nepal went ahead of proclaiming the constitution without meeting the Madhsi parties' demands, the situation went from bad to worse. Meanwhile, the Modi Government felt snubbed by the government of Nepal and decided to support the Madhesis in their agitation. As  per the Times of India 'in a coldly worded statement, India stopped short of welcoming the new constitution ..."Noting" the development, MEA said, "We urge that issues on which there are differences should be resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and institutionalized in a manner that would enable broad-based ownership and acceptance."  People's Republic of China, the other close neighbor of Nepal, did welcome the new constitution. 

3. Imposition of Economic Blockade

Following the declaration of the new constitution, India imposed economic blockade on Nepal in an unofficial manner on September 22, 2015 just after two days of the birth of a new constitution in Nepal. From 24 September 2015, the United Madeshi Front

(Madeshi Morcha) launched agitation fiercely in the Tarai area. They disrupted the border movements of all vehicles. The no-man's land was used as dharna site stopping the flow of goods to Nepal from India. India stopped the supply of all goods including medicines, postal service (112 postal bags were held back for almost 5  months at Raxaul), fuel and cooking gas. Learning from the Indian blockade of 1989-90, Nepal also should have taken concrete measures to lessen the dependence on India on the fuel and cooking gas by undertaking and expediting hydropower projects and increasing fuel storage facilities in the different parts of the country and diversifying the source of petroleum products. 

The blockade has virtually chocked Nepalese economy causing untold hardship to the people of Nepal including those living in the Tarai area. In other words, the imposition of economic blockade made the field clear for the black marketers and smugglers. The Nepali people who had already suffered heavily from the April 2015 earthquake reeled under the blockade including, loss of lives due to the shortage of live-saving drugs or lack of fuel to the ambulances.

The Government of India dealt Nepal as a bad boy and taught a bitter lesson of ignoring its wishes. The blockade lasted for almost five months and was lifted on February 6, 2016. In monetary term, the total loss of Nepal is estimated at Nrs. 270 billion. Other non-monetary and psychological costs are tremendous. Thus, a question is being asked in Nepal what for India dealt with the Nepalese so harsh and hard? What did India get from outburst of its wrath on a landlocked country? Was it worth for India to support the fissiparous and separatist elements in Nepal? How did Narendra Modi, who received a warm welcome in Nepal and won over the hearts of the Nepalese during his visit to Nepal in August 2014, get so angry so soon with Nepal? Nepalese are really at loss to understand the change-over rather the turn-over in his attitude to Nepal.

It may be recalled that the prompt decision of the Prime Minister Modi to dispatch the rescue and relief teams, along with other friendly countries and international community, to Nepal within few hours of devastating earthquake of April 2015 causing tremendous damage to the thousands of lives and billions of rupees, although the behavior of some of the rescue team members and the Indian TV coverage had become subject of criticism, was appreciated by both the Nepali government and Nepalese people. In this context too, the people in Nepal are wandering why they had face the wrath of Mr. Modi and his that has caused serious hardship to them.  

4. Critical review

From many indications, Nepal's relation with India is at the lowest, and it may take years to come back to the normal. India may have its reasons to feel snubbed in the process of Nepal's constitution making.  Nepali political actors did not, as usual, listen to its advice, about which, Foreign Minister of India Shrimati Susma Swaraj indicated in her reply to the discussion on Nepal at the Rajya Sabha, although she did not disclose what advices had been provided. She reiterated the Government of India stand, i.e. India did not impose any blockade on Nepal. She blamed the disturbance in Nepal due to which transporters were not carrying goods to Nepal. But she overlooked the fact that the Joint Madheshi Morcha itself recently said that they came under pressure from India to sit at the border two days after India had already imposed the blockade. Their statement clearly shows that the blockade was engineered by India and that the Morcha was only co-opted as fellow conspirator. If they had been left to themselves, they have little capacity to impose and sustain the blockade. In other words, if they had real capacity they would have continued their agitation even after the lifting of the blockade by India and driving away the agitators from the border point between Birjung and Raxaul- the most vital and important point for trade and transit between Nepal and India- through the use of the plain-cloth police personnel. In this context, the Nepalese political leaders, mainly of the Nepali congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal- United Marxist and Leninist (CPN-UML) and the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), might not have fulfilled their promise to India, but for their fault, how could India penalize the Nepali people by denying the rights guaranteed to a land locked country by international laws and conventions?

It may be recalled that India had imposed blocked to Nepal in 1989-90 making the situation equally harsh, probably even more so, because then China's capacity to help Nepal was far too distant than at present. But , India was more responsible at that time because she had kept to trade and transit points open. Nepalese , thus people are entitled to get a satisfactory answer from the Government of India, before they could forget the hardship they suffered during the current blockade at the hands of Modi government.

Instead of dealing with Nepal through Madhesis to get the interest served, or get her wishes included in the new constitution, India should come out openly what she had advised to the Nepalese political leaders that they did not listen to. In other words, Nepali people have the right to know what India, especially Modi's India wanted from Nepal? Is it the declaration of Hindu state in the constitution that Modi wanted? Is it the two provinces bordering India (having Kosi River on the east and Karnali River on the west) included in the constitution? Is it giving some space to the abolished monarchy (former King Gyanendra or his nominee), which was abolished at the behest of the Man Mohan Singh Government?  Does India find Nepal insensitive of her security concern and, therefore, want to have a security pact?

After all, the security question is the fallout of the division of India by British into two states–India and Pakistan and, so long as, they do not sort out their problem, Nepal cannot help India anyway. It does not mean Nepal does not have to be sensitive of India's security concern, especially not allowing her long open border used by unscrupulous elements. Similarly India also needs to ensure and take measures that would not allow the criminal and other unscrupulous elements to create problems to Nepal from her border, as security issue between the two countries should be looked into on a reciprocal basis. 

In the post 2007 developments, India has openly taken side of the Madhesis and tried and is still trying to have separate province/s for the Tarai area without any linkage to the hills. But they seem to have forgotten that three ecological regions of the country are inter-linked to each other and one would not be able to sustain on its own. Sooner India realizes this fact the better for it. First of all ethnic-based federalism is not possible in Nepal. Secondly Tarai province without the linkage with the hills would be difficult to sustain financially. Because, for Tarai's agro industrial development, can come only by harnessing the rivers up north. Similarly her growing ground water shortage (going down the water table) due to excessive extraction in adjacent India, Tarai's dependency to the hills on water for the power for irrigation and other uses is going to increase. This is why, Senior Development Anthropologist Bihari Krishna Shrestha, is of the opinion that 'devoid of links with the hills, the Tarai would be condemned to remain backward for all the times to come. While the Tarai stands the opportunity of becoming one of the most prosperous places in south Asia if its development were to be planned in coordination with those of the regions up north. Therefore, the demand for Tarai-exclusive province is of artificial making in the first place'. This has been acknowledged by Upend Yadav–one of the Madeshi leaders. As such he even went to the extent of saying that the current province No 2 would not be able to sustain from the offerings made to the Janki temple, Janakpur.

Over the years, especially after the change of political scenario in 2007, China has increased its interest in Nepal to prevent Nepal from being a threat to her soft under belly, Tibet and to ensure her interests not affected adversely. She has increased her seen and unseen activities very aggressively. The more India gets engaged in Nepal for Tarai area only, she would not be only isolating herself from the people living in other ecological zones, from where most of her Gurkha troops come from but also giving opportunity to China to play  more aggressive role in Nepal's affairs. The over engagement of both these neighboring countries would make Nepal a play ground for both China and India and other powers would also try to fish in the troubled water, ultimately India and China end up losing in the game.  Therefore, as India does not want UN sponsored initiative in Kashmir issue, it would be desirable for both China and India to convene an international meeting to formally declare Nepal as a neutral country with the guarantee of her territorial integrity and sovereignty not to be violated in any case. Similarly, trade and transit right can be guaranteed to a land-locked country. Both these countries could invite super powers and heads of international agencies to act as international guarantor to the formal declaration.   

Nepal is moreover entitled to receive compensation for all the losses suffered and psychological trauma Nepali people faced during the period of blockade. Nepali people want its government to raise this issue with Government of India and at the international forums and international organizations so that Nepal would not have to face Indian economic blockade again.        

4. Conclusion

Nepal can't change her neighbors. So it is bound to live with India and China. When Narendra Modi came to power he invited the heads of the neighboring governments to attend his swearing-in ceremony. He made Nepal as the second country to visit upon becoming the Prime Minister of India. From the tone of his speech to the Constituent Assembly of Nepal in August, 2014, there was high expectation in Nepal that under his leadership, New Delhi would take over the responsibility of handling Nepal from the level of security agency and bureaucrats to political level. There was expectation that India would shun from engaging in micro management of state affairs in Nepal through its security agency (RAW) and bureaucrats (Joint Secretary North and Indian Ambassador in Kathmandu), which it had started from Man Mohan Singh government following the signing of New Delhi-sponsored 12 points agreement. But all these hopes and expectations got belied when Nepal was penalized for 135 days in the form of economic blockade for the declaration of a new constitution framed and adopted by the democratically elected representatives through overwhelming majority.  Although there may be discontentment within the country on some of the provisions of the new constitution, they could be addressed through discussions and debates within the country and through constitutional provision. But it is interesting to note that India–claiming to be largest democracy- not  accepting  and dictating  the constitution making process of a sovereign and independent country, that had a constitutionally elected constituent assembly whose main job was to frame a new constitution for the country. Furthermore, equally surprising is that neither India has made the secret advices public nor has the Nepalese leaders visiting New Delhi at different times disclosed. In this context, Nepali people, including those living in Tarai, who were additionally fed with false hopes by their leaders, have the right to ask for an explanation and seek compensation from the Government of India for the psychological trauma they underwent and the economic loss the country suffered. Unless Nepal is assured of economic blockade not imposed any more in the future, it would be very difficult for them to forget the hardship they had to face for almost five months notwithstanding the visits Nepalese leaders pay, like the current PM K.P. Sharma Oli's visit, to New Delhi to improve and strengthen the bilateral relationship. 

Dwarika Nath Dhungel–a Senior Researcher, Social Sciences-is a former Secretary Government of Nepal, member of Nepalese Administrative Service (NAS)  retired, former Executive Director, Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS)-a policy research institute based in Kathmandu-, and Visiting Scholar ( 1999-2000), Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis, Indiana University, Bloomington Campus, Indiana, USA. In the preparation of this paper, a number of senior colleagues and friends helped me in terms of data and inputs to my draft write up. Of them, I want to remember with sincere thanks: Senior Journalist Aditya Man Shrestha, Senior Development Anthropologist, Bihari Krishna Shrestha, former Principal Secretary to late King Birendra Dr. Chiran Shumsher Thapa, Development Economist Dr. Krishna Prasad Acharya, former Ambassador Prof. Dr. Mohan Prasad Lohani, former Secretary, Government of Nepal and Senior Development Anthropologist Shyam Prasad Adhikari and Senior Sociologist Trilok Singh Thapa (Magar).

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