The year 2015 was historic in many ways. It was a year for both despair and enthusiasm. While Nepal suffered from a devastating earthquake, it also promulgated its most awaited constitution through the Constituent Assembly (CA) elected by the people. The earthquake brought the country together where the ‘non-inclusive’ Constitution divided the country further. India, which was highly appreciated for its role during the earthquake, had to face stark criticism and anti-India slogans for its alleged hidden hand in the ‘undeclared blockade’ at the border and the issue of Lipu-Lekh Pass.
Fallacies in the New Constitution
Strong protests have erupted in Nepal since the promulgation of the new Constitution in September 2015. The Constitution neither followed the proper procedures nor did it address the aspirations and legitimate rights of the Madhesis, Tharus, women, Dalits, Muslims and indigenous people. The agitated parties have been on the streets, protesting, for more than five months, causing obstruction at the India-Nepal border, which has resulted in an acute shortage of fuel and other essential goods in Kathmandu. It has also claimed more than 50 lives.
The Constitution was produced in haste through a fast-track mechanism without proper consultation with all 601 CA members. In fact, even the CA members had to abide by their party’s dictate, else they would have been liable to face disciplinary action which could have led to their expulsion from the party. Surprisingly, Nepali Congress (NC), one of the architects of the Constitution, decided to table the amendment two weeks before it was promulgated. It is also significant to mention that the Unified Maoists and other parties approved the Constitution by formally registering their dissenting opinions on several provisions of the new Constitution.
In fact, it was the outcome of the five most influential leaders of each of the three major political parties - NC, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML), and Unified Maoists - who overlooked the dissenting voices of the Madhesis, Tharus, women's groups, Janajatis (indigenous people), and other marginalised groups such as the Dalits and Muslims. All of these leaders, with the exception of one hill Janajati, come from the dominant hill high caste Brahmin/Chhetri. Therefore, not even a single influential Madhesi and Janajati CA member from any major political party has publicly defended the Constitution.
Women, who account for more than half of Nepal’s total population, also came out on to the streets to protest the discriminatory clause on citizenship. Unlike the interim Constitution, the promulgated Constitution does not grant equal citizenship rights to men and women. Women marrying a foreigner are not given equal citizenship rights compared to women marrying Nepali men. Similarly, the passing of the new Constitution was not welcomed by the Janajatis (who constitute one-third of the total Nepalese population), as their demand for proportional and inclusive representation, identity-based federalism, etc, were not accommodated. The strongest dissent came from the Madhesis and Tharus, who also comprise one-third of the total Nepalese population.
Aspirations of Madhesis
Strong protests were triggered in Madhes as the three major political parties - the Nepali Congress, CPN-UML, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), and the Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (Democratic) - rushed through the Constitution without implementing the previous agreements signed between the government of Nepal and the Madhesi parties in 2007 and 2008. Although some aspects of the earlier agreements have been included in the new Constitution, the four core issues - electoral constituencies based on population, proportional representation of Madhesis in government bodies, autonomous identity-based provincial demarcation, and equal citizenship provisions for Nepali women marrying foreigners - have not been not incorporated.
The stalemate over the acceptance of the new Constitution and unrest in Madhes, a region bordering the Indo-Nepal border, has propelled anti-India sentiment among the ruling elites. Madhesis are waging a ‘non-cooperation movement’ on the India-Nepal border, which has halted the entry of fuel and other essential supplies to Kathmandu from India. The ruling elites of Kathmandu claim that the ‘blockade’ is imposed with Indian support as India did not welcome the non-inclusive Constitution.
However, the leaders of the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) that consists of four major Madhesi parties has publicly acknowledged the blockade as of their own making, and have offered to lift it only after their legitimate demands are addressed in the new Constitution. India has rejected the allegations of Kathmandu, stressing that the tension at the border is a result of internal protests in Nepal, and that the Nepalese government should urgently resolve the issue to create a sense of "security and harmony" in the Terai region and ensure "uninterrupted commerce."
In 2014, Nepal figured prominently in India’s foreign policy, with the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi paying a visit to Nepal, the first Indian PM to make an official visit in 17 years, followed by a subsequent visit in November 2014 for the 18th SAARC summit. Modi, who enchanted Kathmandu in 2014, had to face a major backlash in 2015 with the rising anti-India voices since the promulgation of the Constitution.
The devastating 7.9 magnitude earthquake of 25 April 2015, followed by the powerful aftershock of 7.4 magnitude on 12 May 2015 , caused massive destruction and claimed thousands of lives in Nepal. Within hours of the calamity, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to the Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and Nepalese President Ram Baran Yadav assuring them of India’s commitment to help Nepal. Within six hours, India dispatched a team of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) along with relief material. India’s total relief assistance amounted to USD 67 million, and it committed to another USD 1 billion (one-fourth as a grant). Though India’s swift response was highly appreciated, the Indian media was severely criticised for being insensitive in their reportage of the tragedy.
Controversy Over Lipu-Lekh Pass
A major controversy emerged between India and Nepal when Nepal claimed that the Lipu-Lekh Pass to be a disputed tri-junction in which Nepal has an equal share. Lipu-Lekh was mentioned in the China-India joint statement during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China in May 2015. The joint statement read: “The two sides agree to hold negotiation on augmenting the list of traded commodities, and expand border trade at Nathu La, Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass and Shipki La.” Nepal, under the pressure of the media, civil society and the opposition, demanded that China and India withdraw the mention of Lipu-Lekh in their joint statement.
Nepal argued that the mention of Lipu-Lekh Pass in their joint statement threatened Nepal’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, Indian experts counter-argued that both China and India have been referring to Lipu-Lekh Pass as one of their border trading points since 1954. Indian experts have pointed to Nepal’s position on Kalapani and Lipu-Lekh Pass as being politically motivated, especially given how ultra-nationalist groups have been involved in spreading anti-India sentiment and demanding a ‘Greater Nepal’ to gain political mileage.
The political parties of Nepal should resolve the differences in the Constitution at the earliest through a process of dialogue with all the discontented parties. If the issue is not resolved, three kind of scenarios may evolve: one, Madhesi youth will be radicalised, resulting in violent armed action; two, the demand for a separate state will gain momentum (like CK Raut's group) rather than the current demand for an autonomous province; and three, further progress towards communal violence between the hill people and the Madhesis will be made. Alongside, there will be escalation in cross-border crimes such as arms smuggling, fake currency trade, human trafficking, as well as terrorist activities. The continuous intensified tension will draw the attention and consequent role of other players like the EU, US, China and Pakistan. These will have far deeper and lasting implications for India-Nepal relations.
Sourness in India-Nepal relations although temporary, may linger for a few more months. The current anti-India sloganeering in Kathmandu will prevail till the crisis is resolved. India, with its tremendous leverage in Nepal, should not shy away from its responsibility but engage all the political parties for early resolution as witnessed with the agreement between the Madhesis and the Government of Nepal in 2008. There is a perception in Madhes that India might reverse its course to placate the leadership in the hill region, which would further complicate the Nepalese situation. India also needs to manage the Nepalese media and public perception in Nepal to contain the rise of anti-India propaganda.
In 2016, Nepal is likely to be primarily engaged in the issue of Madhes and the new demands of the Janajatis. It will face strong challenges in implementing the new Constitution, especially the federal provisions. With the visit of Nepalese Prime Minister to India and China, and the Chinese President’s visit to Nepal, there will be deliberations on China's increasing influence in Nepal and India's reactions. In all these, the most ignored will be the earthquake-affected people, despite the massive inflow of foreign aid to Nepal.