If the present and continuing phase of a deteriorating relationship between the two countries is any indication, Nepal’s love for India or vice-versa can only plummet further. Notwithstanding the desire expressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi that India was committed to strengthening the traditional bonds of friendship and kinship with the people of Nepal, Kathmandu appears reluctant to accommodate New Delhi’s concerns about the provisions of the New Constitution adopted by the Himalayan country. It appears that something seems to have gone seriously wrong with the handling of the situation from the Indian side also and the same has provided Nepal with an excuse to continue with its stand on addressing the concerns of people in its Terai region.
What has given the situation a new twist is the growing closeness between Kathmandu and Beijing, amidst speculation that newly-elected Nepalese Prime Minister K.P.Sharma Oli, may buoy Nepal’s relationship with China to new levels despite the Indian Prime Minister’s best efforts to strengthen relationship bonds with it.
There is a growing unease between the two countries ever since the agitation started by the people of Indian origin in the Terai region of the Southern part of Nepal, thus hitting the supplies of essential commodities, particularly petroleum products from India.
It is being said that the citizenship laws mentioned in the promulgated new Constitution perpetuate the problem of statelessness and thus fail to address the fundamental hurdle to economic development that bars nearly four million Nepalis from engaging in every day affairs such as buying and selling land, sitting for a higher-level examinations, accessing financial services, registering to vote or even acquiring something as basic as mobile phone sim-card.
The present ‘silent’ deadlock between the two countries is unlikely to break until the current blockade of Indian checkpoints, leading to shortages of supplies to Nepal, does not end. Secondly, the Nepali leadership should agree to enlarge the ownership of the new Constitution and increase its legitimacy. It was in this context that during his meeting with the External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi, the visiting Deputy Prime Minister of Nepal Kamal Thapa was told that his Government should ‘credibly’ address the challenges faced by his country, including in the Terai region at the earliest.
That New Delhi attached great importance to India’s relationship with Nepal was evident from the fact that soon after taking over as Prime Minister, Modi had last November, paid a much-hyped visit to Kathmandu. India had also played a key role as a mediator in bringing together all the Nepalese factions for drawing a constitution that was acceptable to all. Which, in fact, did not happen. The framing of the Constitution was the result of a 12-point agreement mediated by India wherein it brought in the Maoists and seven pro-democracy parties to become signatories.
As was feared, the new Constitution created widespread tensions in Nepal, particularly in the regions dominated by the Madhesis and the Tharus. While the Madhesis are concentrated in the eastern and central Terai regions, the Tharus are concentrated in far western Terai. Their objection to the new Constitution—related to new federal boundaries and other aspects, which they claim ‘‘abrogate previous commitments made to their communities and create ‘second class’ citizens.”
As per the Human Rights Watch Report, regarding the protests and police crackdowns in the Terai region, protests spread in August and deadly violence has continued since the promulgation of the Constitution on September 20. Much of the Terai, which is home to half of Nepal’s population, remained at a near standstill due to these strikes and unrest. Madhesi activists and leaders sat on a dharna situated on ‘no-man’s land’ between India and Nepal, blocking the check-posts. The Indian government pleaded that in view of this blockade and security reasons, in would not be possible to send transporters to Nepal. On the other hand, Nepali leaders charged that the ‘blockade’ would not have been possible without New Delhi’s tacit approval. It was owing to this blockade that thousands of trucks from India got stranded at the border with Nepal.
According to reports, approximately 45 people were killed in the Terai region during August and September in these violent protests, staged over the provisions of the new Constitution. ”…in all the five districts Human Rights Watch visited heard stories of police breaking into homes to beat the occupants, including women and elderly people; police using racial insults during violent incidents or threatening to kill members of the public; and police arbitrarily beating passers-by and harassing villagers belonging to communities which are seen as opposing the new Constitution.”
What will ultimately happen to Indo-Nepal’s long-term relationship? There are already indications that the new Nepali Prime Minister Oli is not in favour of granting concessions to Madhesis as they are being considered pro-India. Oli’s anti-India stand has obviously brought him close to China and Pakistan. The Chairman of the High level Political Coordination Committee, Pushpa Kamal Dahal aka Prachanda is widely known for his pro-China and anti-India leanings. The Indian Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae, had late last month expressed concerns about the growing anti-India sentiments in Nepal. He had said that “we are concerned about the activities of burning India’s national flag and Prime Minister’s effigies”
Therefore, it cannot be without a reason that Oli sent his deputy to pay India a visit, to gauge first-hand, the mood of the Indian leadership. India, on its part, has become used to the behaviour of the Nepalese leadership, over the years, welcoming or opposing New Delhi’s “point of view on the basis of whether it suits or does not suit them.’’
It therefore appears unlikely that anything encouraging will come out from Thapa’s first overseas visit, to India, after taking over as Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister.