Nepal must be allowed to charter its own future

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K S Venkatachalam

The historical relations between India and Nepal are bound by strong religious, cultural and linguistic ties. India has a reciprocal arrangement with Nepal, which allows the people to travel to each other’s country without a visa. There are many Nepalese working in India, and there is a separate regiment that has both ethnic Nepali Gorkhas and ethnic Indian Gorkhas serving in it.
However, the Indo-Nepal relations became strained ever since a constitution was promulgated. Nepal’s constitution is a historical document in many respects in Nepal’s history, as it was for the first time that all the main political parties, cutting across their sectarian politics and ideologies, unanimously adopted the constitution. The framers of the constitution, in their own wisdom, came with a constitutional provision that allowed proportional representation of its people based on demarcation of constituencies based on delineation of geographical regions and population, instead of just population, which is the more accepted form for determining the proportional representation to parliament. This led to a situation where people living in hills and mountains, who form less than 50 percent population, were given the bulk of the seats, while people living in plains with over 50 percent population got only 65 seats in the 165-member parliament, as against 100 seats earmarked to the people of hills.
Similarly, in the upper house, the allocation was made based on geographical reasons, which meant that people from hills were allocated 39 seats, and people from plains got a mere 16 seats, the other four being reserved for nominated members. This was viewed by Madhesis — people living in plains who have close family ties with the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — as an infringement on their rights, and a deliberate attempt to keep them away from acquiring a majority status in parliament. When their pleas to give them representation based on population were not heard, it led to widespread protests.
The Indian government was upset with Nepal as at the drafting stage the Nepalese leaders, including the present prime minister, gave an assurance that the interests of Madhesis would be protected. But, unfortunately, many of the leaders including the former prime minister, Khadga Prasad Oli, also reneged on the assurance given to Indian leadership.
As expected, the Madhesis took to the streets to protest, and blocked all trucks from India carrying essential supplies, fuel and medicines from entering Nepal. As Nepal is a landlocked country, it depends on India for 40 percent of its requirements. The blockade caused great hardship to the Nepalese people, and there was a growing resentment against India, as it was felt that India was behind the de facto blockade.
To make matters worse, the then prime minister of Nepal, Oli, instead of reaching out to India to mediate in the matter, allowed the resentment to fester, and indirectly encouraged people to organise protests against India. By one stroke, Oli managed to destroy the groundswell of support the people of Nepal had for India. He also took advantage of the crisis by deftly playing the China card. He broke all conventions by visiting China and not India in his first overseas trip. China, which was looking for an opportunity to expand its influence in the Himalayan kingdom, readily agreed to meet the shortages of fuel and essential items caused by the blockade. However, because of geographical constraints, China could not sustain the supplies for long forcing Nepal to again turn to India for help.
This strategy of Oli to end India’s ‘monopoly’ in the region was not taken kindly by India, as it was felt that he was playing politics by manipulating China against India in an effort to break India’s monopoly. India also realised that because of Oli, it did not have the same leverage as it had before. It may be mentioned here that when Nepal was hit by a massive earthquake on April 2015, rendering over 650,000 homeless, it was India that first came to the rescue by rushing essential supplies to Nepal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi personally took it upon himself to galvanise the entire government machinery to extend all possible help to Nepal to cope with the unprecedented tragedy. The speed with which India rushed essential supplies to Nepal even invited praise from China. China, on its part, also rushed medicines and other relief supplies to Nepal.
The lack of reconstruction efforts post Nepal’s earthquake and withdrawal of support from Oli’s coalition partners led to his downfall. The common man in Nepal felt that that it was India that was behind Oli’s removal. Secondly, there was also a feeling in Nepal that India was behind bringing various political factions together to oust Oli and support Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda,’ the leader of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), as Nepal’s prime minister. This seems to be farfetched as it was Prachanda who had given assurance to India that he would keep the interest of the plains in mind at the time of the drafting of the constitution. However, later he joined hands with Oli by ignoring the genuine concerns of the Madhesis, and provided more representation in the constitution to people living in hills and mountains.
Prachanda realised that since his survival largely depended on goodwill with India, he chose India as the first destination after taking over as prime minister. His recent visit to India came at a time when the Indo-Nepal relations were not at their best. The visit was aimed more at creating a climate of trust, and to develop a better understanding between the two countries. He has also given an assurance that he would soon amend the constitution to give Madhesis their rights.
India should also try to keep out of Nepal’s politics as any interference directly or indirectly may lead to political instability, which is not in anyone’s interests. Although denying the legitimate rights of Madhesis is discriminatory, but India would be well served to allow the elected representatives to find a solution. It must be mentioned that ever since the abolition of monarchy in 2008, no government has been able to provide political stability; eight prime ministers have since come and gone.
Both India and China should realise that having a stable government in Nepal is in their interests, as any instability could lead to deprivation and untold hardship to the people of Nepal.
India and China should allow Nepal to charter its own future, and restrict their engagement only by helping the country to come out from the devastation caused by the earthquake. India should also change its geo strategy by allowing Nepal to decide its own future, and should not view its attempt to forge better relations with China as a threat. On the other hand, India’s entire focus should now be on completing all the projects that were announced by the Indian prime minister during his visit to Nepal. This would not only lead to improved relations, but would also promote groundswell of support from the people of Nepal.