Anil Kumar Jha, fiery Madhesi leader from the Nepalese Terai, opened up with a broadside: "You are pro-Kathmandu and anti-Madhesi".
He was referring to my speech in the Rajya Sabha in December 2015 protesting against the blockade imposed by the Modi government on Nepal. The speech had given me my five minutes of fame in Nepal, widely reported in the local press and endlessly recycled in social media. This had led to our host, Bimal Nidhi, earlier deputy PM and now a prominent leader of the Nepali Congress, inviting me to his country to spend a week exchanging views with the entire spectrum of Nepalese political opinion. These opinions ranged, at one end of the spectrum, from the Rashtriya Janata Party-Nepal (RJP-N), a recently formed conglomerate of the numerous disgruntled Terai parties, to the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) or UML at the other end, with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) falling in between while tilting to the Left, and the Nepali Congress (NC) also falling in between but tilting slightly tothe Right. I also spoke to a number of smaller parties, besides journalists, commentators and academics.
To Jha, I protested weakly, "No, no, I am only pro-Nepal". But Jha wasn't having any such double-talk. He said the people of the plains were being discriminated against, divided to keep them from asserting themselves in one voice, denied equal democratic rights only because they were linked by "roti-beti" relations to neighbouring India, not given their due weight in parliament through derogations to the principle of representation in proportion to population, denied homogeneity in the ethnic composition of provinces to divide the Madhesi voice, and tripped up in their effort to secure equitable representation in the higher echelons of the administrative and diplomatic services. Moreover, constitutional provisions had been introduced to deny high political and constitutional office to naturalized Nepalese extending even to judicial positions and the armed forces. Further, new conditionalities were being imposed on the naturalization of Indians marrying Nepalese citizens. Only the government of India understood these humanitarian concerns - and here was I, taking up cudgels for these 'Paharis' and Kathmandu Valley leaders who were responsible for the oppression of the people of the Terai.
Jha continued that Nepal is a collection of "nations" or "nationalities" and the opponents of the RJP-N were bent on keeping these nationalities in conflict with each other to remain in power. He stressed that the Madhesis had "no desire for separation". They had "Nepal" in their name and flew the Nepalese flag. Calling them "secessionists" was a false charge. But the constitution, as it stood at present, was "completely unacceptable" to them. What they were demanding were constitutional amendments that would meet their concerns. Instead, implementation of the constitution was proceeding at break-neck speed and the salience of Madhesi demands was being swept aside. One proof of this, he claimed, was that in Province 5, the number of security forces outnumbered the local population (a claim strongly disputed in my later conversations).
Jha conceded that it was agreed on all hands that the Madhesi demands were "just"; that the way of accommodating these demands was through amendments to the constitution; and that amending the constitution accordingly was entirely feasible and could be done. Why then was it not being done?
The argument that it could not be done because the current Deuba (Nepali Congress) government did not have the required two-thirds majority was eye-wash, said Jha, because they could, if they were serious, work on KP Oli Sharma of the UML and Comrade Prachanda of the Maoists to bind the nation by coming together with the ruling coalition on these issues of urgent concern to the Madhesis who feared that if the three tiers of elections - local bodies; provincial; parliament - scheduled in succession for the period between now and May 2018 actually took place, what little incentive there remained for amending the Constitution would disappear. Hence, RJP-N had decided to boycott the election and called upon its supporters to not cast their ballot. One round of the local body polls had already taken place; the second round, mostly in the Terai, was due in a few days; and the third, stand alone for the much-wrangled over Province 2, is scheduled for September 18.
Mahantha Thakur, hailed as "Leader of Leaders" (Netaon ke Neta) because he presides over the conglomeration of Terai leaders who have merged into the RJP-N, elderly, wizened, more soft-spoken than his younger colleague but with steely determination in his voice, weighed into the discussion by deploring the 'Kathmandu' habit of regarding the people of the Terai plains as "Indian" and, therefore, not loyally Nepalese. They were, therefore, treated as "dependencies" of Nepal and denigrated as "migrants". The fact is, said he, that whatever the face of the Nepal government, the ruling elite remains unchanged, and so the plains people remain always the object of discrimination, with nowhere to turn because the same ruling elite packs the administration and even the judiciary.
Pradeep Giri, nominally of the Nepali Congress but with a high reputation as a non-partisan intellectual who had denied himself political power when it was repeatedly offered to him because he preferred to moderate internecine conflict rather than be part of it, said the fundamental mistake I was making was in asking India to turn its back on Nepal. That was impossible. "The fact is that India exists, it influences us - and so you cannot stand apart." How, he asked, can India extricate itself from a process that India itself had started? He said everything of significance that had happened in Nepal since 1946 was because of India's involvement and motivation (why "1946" I wanted to ask but didn't so as to not interrupt the eloquent flow of his words of wisdom and experience). There was a kind of "contract" between India and Nepal that India could not now renege on. It is true, he went on, that the "contract" was thrown away in 1960 (when the Nepalese monarchy clashed with the Indian government), but it had been renewed when "we all came together, including India, to create a Republic in Nepal".
I had earlier met the Prime Minister who had averred that he would like to amend the constitution now if he could cobble together a two-thirds majority in the present Constituent Assembly; if that did not prove possible, he hoped parliament, after the next election, would do so. Next morning, when I called on the Foreign Minister, Krishna Bahadur Mahara, the Maoist leader second only to Prachanda, he had said the task was to bring around the UML and the Madhesis to find a basis for compromise that would facilitate the amendment process.
I had already obtained the Madhesi view; my most urgent requirement was to meet the UML leadership. Unfortunately for me, the second round of local body elections was coming to its climax and neither Oli nor his right-hand man, Ishwar Pokhrel, General Secretary of the UML, was immediately available in Kathmandu, both being out campaigning.
However, fortunately for me, Pokhrel had given an interview to Kathmandu's latest English-language newspaper, Republica, in which he stressed that the UML could not be called "anti-Madhesi" since "UML is a party with its origin and base in Terai-Madhes. It was born and evolved and expanded from Madhes". He went on to list the special efforts made by UML, when in office, to resolve the citizenship issue and expedite the distribution of citizenship "to those who had been deprived of it"; make the Postal Highway, a key infrastructure requirement of the Terai, a reality; create a separate battalion in the Nepal army for Madhesi youth; and the promotion of a massive irrigation program for farmers in the Terai. "This anti-Madhes tag we have been labeled with is a crude joke on our overall efforts for the development of Madhes." "We are clear about one thing," he added, "the people of Madhes are nationalists and are actively involved in the protection of our frontiers."
Therefore, he concluded, "We have never said the Constitution should not be amended. We have only said that amendment should be justified." And that, of course, is the nub of the problem. Non-UML elements argue that the amendments they propose are "justified". Hitherto, UML have not accepted the "justification". But as UML, in Pokhrel's words, is of the view that the "Constitution is a dynamic and amendable document", should we in India not be leaving it to the Nepalese to sort out these matters of detail among themselves?
The answer would be a big "Yes" if we were to accept the fundamental proposition that Nepal is a sovereign, independent state that has emerged from a decade of revolution to transit from a Hindu monarchy to a genuinely secular republic with a constitution negotiated after eight long years, flexible enough to be amended as and when consensus is reached.
Instead, Modi took it upon himself to avenge his humiliation at being denied by the Nepal government the opportunity of influencing the Bihar election by distributing thousands of bicycles to Madhesi girls (many of whom are likely to find Bihari bridegrooms) after addressing a massive rally on Nepalese soil in Janakpur on his way to the Kathmandu SAARC summit in November 2014. (Full details may be found in successive columns I wrote for this site in 2015-16). Springing to the defence of 'Madhesi' demands, despite an overwhelming majority of Madhesi members of the Constituent Assembly having voted for the Constitution as framed after years of intensive negotiation, Modi sent his Foreign Secretary as a "special envoy" to Kathmandu to dissuade the Nepalese from proclaiming a constitution they had successfully passed with well over the required constitutional majority. Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar's behaviour was described as akin to "Lord Curzon's". The comparison was apt as what would we have made of Lord Mountbatten returning to India on 24 January, 1950 to order us to not promulgate our constitution two days later on 26 January?
To demonstrate his resentment over Nepal's rebuff, Modi joined recalcitrant, defeated Madhesi elements in imposing an "inhuman" blockade that lasted for months on the transportation of essential goods from India to Nepal (before the blockade simply "evaporated", as another keen observer of Nepal politics, Kanak Mani Dixit, put it). The adjective "inhuman" came from Yubaraj Ghimire, a well-known Nepalese journalist who writes for The Indian Express, and is otherwise concerned at the sharp decline "in the past decade" in India's "influence" over Nepal. Another scholar with a deep understanding of India and Nepal, Hari Sharma, said, "it was clear as daylight" that it was not the discredited Madhesi leaders but the government of India that was behind the blockade. He added that he had it from reliable sources that Jaishankar had warned the Adviser to the Nepal PM, "Don't think Modi is like Manmohan" and that Doval had also told the Nepalese that, mindful of his two years sojourn in Nepal on meditation, Modi was particularly unhappy over the cancellation of the proposed Janakpur rally. So, concluded Sharma, "Modi is sulking".
The blockade still rankles. So much so that one detached non-political Nepali observer said that because of the blockade, the Pakistani victory over India in the recently concluded Champion's Trophy had been "widely celebrated in Nepal".
Whatever the truth of the remarks attributed (without corroboration) to the Foreign Secretary and the National Security Adviser, the fact is that the phenomenal goodwill Modi had generated by visiting Nepal in the immediate aftermath of his being sworn-in, and addressing the Nepal Parliament to enthusiastic applause after virtually every sentence, has now been blown away by the imperious tone of his intervention in Nepal's constitutional affairs and the blockade that followed.
Pashupati Shumshere SJB Rana, scion of the Rana clan that had ruled Nepal till India, in 1950-51, had helped restore the primacy of the monarchy, and is now leading the Rashtriya Prajatantra Party with 37 members in the House. He said that notwithstanding Modi's "extraordinarily successful" visit, and the "immediate and generous" Indian response to the earthquake, the blockade had "wrecked" all the goodwill generated. Memories of the deprivation caused were perhaps "fading" in the plains but in "hill areas," he said, "resentment simmers". The time, therefore, has come to "reset minds".
Baburam Bhattarai, former PM and now a dissident from the Maoists, leading his own party, Naya Shakti, recalls the days of Nehru and Koirala when Nepalese leaders had "excellent relations" with their Indian counterparts until the monarchy broke these relationships. Modi, he bemoaned, has "no relationship with Nepalese leaders". He came to Kathmandu with "good intentions" and made an "excellent speech" in Parliament but has since shown that he has no real knowledge of the "ground reality" in Nepal. So, "caught in a time warp", he went into "micro-management" of Nepal's politics and "wasted a year" trying to sort out the Madhesi issue. It has ended with the Madhesis "feeling betrayed by India".
Narayan Kaji Shreshta, head of the International Department of Prachanda's Maoist Centre, believes India has realized that its blockade of Nepal was a "big mistake" but Indian "agencies" continue with "money and advice" to provoke RJP-N to not participate in the on-going local body elections. RJP-N, he added, is "following Delhi's advice", but "Delhi itself is divided". Hence, says Prakash Rimal of The Himalayan newspaper, Nepal is "not anti-India but anti-South Block". There is general relief that the new Indian Ambassador is less "interventionist" than several earlier envoys (described by one journalist as "Bengali-Biharibabus who concentrated exclusively on Madhesis. So, our new Ambassador's passion for golf is greeted with immense relief! He is credited with encouraging the Madhesis to participate in the on-going local body elections despite RJP-N's boycott call.
Given the current tension at the Sikkim-Bhutan-China tri-junction, what concerns most of us is the impact of Modi's games on Nepal's relationship with China. The Nepal PM says, "Nepal's relations with China are good, but not special". He adds that good relations with China improve Nepal's security, but will never be like Nepal's relations with India. That is reassuring. The Foreign Minister is even more reassuring. He says Nepal will never cash in on "anti-India sentiment" to strengthen ties with China or weaken them with India. We believe, he adds, "in friendship with all", but maintains the relationship with India is essential, inescapable ("anivarya").
Pashupati Rana is less sanguine. He sees President Xi of China as "assertive world-wide" and believes that this is reflected in Nepal. Earlier, China never interfered in Nepal's internal affairs. Now that is changing - albeit glacially. The railway through Tibet stretches already to Shigatse and will, within three to four years, extend to near Kathmandu and, perhaps later, to Lumbini. Chinese investment in Nepal is already greater than India's and schools to teach the Chinese language and culture to Nepalis are mushrooming. (China, it needs to be added, now has daily air connectivity, far more than India has, between Kathmandu, Beijing, Chengdu, Guangzao, Kunming and Lhasa). So, India needs to rethink its role in Nepal in the changing context. That is the "key requirement".
Ishwar Pokhrel (UML) is even more direct when I eventually meet him. "We are not pro-China nor anti-India," he says, "but, although we know the Chinese, we are not in India's hands." True, he points out, that landlocked Nepal is surrounded on three sides by India, but on the fourth side, China is there. "We are independent; we have our own sovereignty; we have our international rights; we were land-locked, we now want to be land-linked; so why can we not have trade and transit agreements with China?" To this end, he seeks of India that "we should stick together"; be "frank" with each other; listen to "both sides"; and be careful of each other's "sensitivities".
The politicians are circumspect. Observers are less so. India, says the well-informed commentator, CK Lal, is "contemptuous" of Nepalis, particularly its politicians, who, India believes, can be "bought". Hari Sharma adds that every interaction with India tends to be, for the Nepalis, a "humiliating experience". Yubaraj Ghimire is bluntest of all: "Nepal's growing connectivity with China is largely in rebound to India's economic blockade of 2015".
What India needs to understand, says Hari Sharma, is that the relationship between Nepal and China has to be viewed in the context of a "larger process", of which Nepal seeks to be a beneficiary of the Chinese "One Belt-One Road" project whatever India's reservations on the subject.
The bottom line, as put to me by Nabindra Raj Joshi, the well-regarded former minister (NC), is: "We have a constitution. It is being implemented". So much for Modi's attempts to block constitutional progress in Nepal. Moreover, that constitution is flexible and can, without disruption, accommodate amendments. Anil Kumar Jha (RJP-N) himself admitted, in his indictment of my Rajya Sabha speech, that most Nepalese regard the RJP-N's demands as "just" and are willing to amend the constitution in this regard. In other words, there was no justification whatsoever for Modi to have leaped into the fray as a savior of Madhesi interest. The Nepalese themselves are more than aware of their unfinished work. To better balance representation between the populous plains and the sparsely inhabited hills that occupy much more of Nepal's surface, the present constitution that differentially treats the population:representation ratio in different regions of the country can be tweaked to increase Madhesi representation in the Upper House by increasing the number of local bodies in the plains (as witness Lakshadweep with a population well under 50,000 having an MP, when in most of the rest of the country, one MP represents an average population of 1.5 million). On language, Nepali is the national language but everyone seems open to adding Maithili, Avadhi and even Brajbhasha to the list of official languages -as it is these older versions of Hindi rather than contemporary Hindi per se, that constitute the lingua franca of the Madhesis. (Clearly, it is the desire to distance their identity from India rather than any of these semantics that is behind the resistance to Hindi - understandable).
Finally, and this is the clinching proof, in the second round of local body elections held on June 28, the day I left, the voter turnout was estimated at 73.7 per cent notwithstanding the RJP-N's boycott call; several well-known RJP-N national and local personalities defied their leadership's orders and stood as Independents (and won);but, most telling of all, RJP-N came a poor fourth, well behind the UML (surprise, surprise!) who were the clear winners, NC second and Prachanda's Maoists far behind in third place. We have to shape up to these new realities instead of continuing Modi's practice of backing losers.
And, begging Pradeep Giri's pardon for denying his allegation that I believe India should "turn its back" on Nepal, I think, on the contrary, that we should build with the constitutional democracy we have fostered in Nepal a relationship of maturity that treats Nepal not as a protectorate or as a buffer against China, but as an independent, sovereign nation that best understands its own interests, and believes that it is not in a subservient Nepal but in a Nepal that holds its head high that India can best find true friendship with its northern neighbor.
Where do we go from here? I am reminded of Robert Frost's famous lines: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -/I took the one less travelled by/And that has made all the difference." It is time that with Nepal we now "take the road less travelled by" - and that will make "all the difference".