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29 September, 2015

Nepal ties under strain

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Ten mnths ago, visiting Nepal, Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed more than 10 bilateral agreements, demonstrating his government’s readiness to go the extra mile for this small neighbour. Alluding to the efforts to frame a new Constitution, he warned that if the statute failed to reflect the aspirations of all communities, including Madhesis, Pahadis and Maoists, Nepal could face difficulties.

Nepal is facing those difficulties now.

On September 20, President Ram Baran Yadav promulgated the new Constitution, rejecting India’s plea to postpone it to provide time to make it acceptable to the largest number of people.

Madheshis, Tharus and Janjatis living in the Teria region, who have close ties with the people of the bordering Indian state of Bihar, were up in arms even before the Constitution was promulgated. They say it denies them a legitimate share in the political system. About 50 persons have died in the violence and repression in the region so far.

Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, who visited Nepal as Modi’s special envoy, conveyed India’s concern to leaders of all parties. He argued that the Constitution was not acceptable to nearly 40 per cent of the population and it should not be introduced while there was widespread unrest.

Nepal took up the task of making a republican constitution following abolition of the monarchy in 2008. As the fractious constituent assembly could not complete the task in the allotted time it was dissolved and a new one elected. Acute differences among the parties hampered its working too.

Early this month, the mainstream parties agreed on a Constitution which proclaims Nepal a secular democracy.

Many Nepalese leaders told Jaishankar they were aware that the document was imperfect but they wanted to move forward, and were ready to make suitable amendments later on.

Officially, India’s objections to the new Constitution are based on the discontent among the Madhesis and others who have familial links with India. The Modi administration’s hostile position may also be related to unhappiness over Nepal becoming a secular republic.

The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the fountainhead of the Hindutva ideology of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, has long been of the view that India is a Hindu nation. Its top leaders have publicly demanded scrapping of the reference to secularism in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution.

Nepal is the only other Hindu-majority country in the world, and the RSS views its endorsement of the secular ideal as an act of betrayal.

Nepal, with a population of 27 million, is a land-locked country. It has borders with India on three sides and with China on the fourth. It gets most of its requirements of essential supplies from or through India. It relies exclusively on the state-owned Indian Oil Corporation for petroleum products.

The violent agitation in areas close to the Indian borders has brought vehicular traffic between the two countries to a halt. Hundreds of trucks carrying supplies to Nepal are reportedly stranded at Indian border checkposts.

Nepalese media allege that India has imposed an unofficial blockade to force the country to accept its demand. The Indian government refutes the suggestion and claims the goods movement has stopped because of the violence on the Nepalese side.

It is in India’s interest to delink the issue of goods movement from the political problem. Some elements in the Madhesi community may want to hold up movement of goods as a strategy to put pressure on Nepal’s mainstream parties to pay attention to their grievance. India should not play into their hands.

There are reports that the Nepalese authorities are turning to China to tide over the difficulties arising from the tense situation in the areas close to the Indian border.

“Nepal has never bowed down to anyone and will not bow down even now,” Deputy Prime Minister Bamdev Gautam told an Indian newspaper. “We will establish contact with China through land and with other countries through air to get essential supplies.”

Nepal has urged China to restore immediately the road links which were snapped by a devastating earthquake earlier this year.

Meanwhile a chink has appeared in the solid phalanx the mainstream parties presented so far with former Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who is supportive of Madhesi sentiments, quitting the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and resigning from Parliament, amid speculation of an Indian hand in the development.

As the Indian government has pointed out, the problem Nepal faces is a political one. Essentially, it is an internal problem of Nepal, and its political system must be able to resolve the outstanding issues without meddling by powerful neighbours. --Gulf Today, Sharjah, September 29, 2015.

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