After Sri Lanka, will it be Nepal’s turn?


by Rajeewa Jayaweera

After effecting ‘course correction’in Sri Lanka in making its leaders replace the former regime’s ‘look East’ policy with a ‘look India’ policy, news from Nepal would suggest that India has now turned its attention to the tiny Himalayan Kingdom turned Republic in intervening on behalf of two minority communities having its origins in India, similar to its involvement in Sri Lanka on behalf the Tamil community.

Nepal is a landlocked country with an area of 147,181 sq. kms. It is located in the Himalayas with China in its northern border and India in its southern, eastern and western borders. Hinduism is practiced by around 81% of Nepalese, the highest percentage of any country, Buddhism by around 10% followed by those practicing Islam, Kiratism, Christianity and Animism.

Nepal, since the abolition of its monarchyin 2007 has not had a permanent Constitution for around nine years and has been grappling with the task of drafting one since it declared itself a Federal Republic on 28 December 2007. The task was finally achieved on 20 September 2015 when a new Constitution was signed into law after being passed by a record 85% in the 601 member Constituent Assembly. It was overwhelmingly supportedby the three main political parties in Nepal i.e. Nepali Congress (NC) who in the past has not opposed India, Communist Party of Nepal –Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UMI) and Unified Communist Party of Nepal –Maoist (UCPN-M).

Two ethnic groups, the Madhesis and Tharus mostly living in the Terai District bordering the Indian states of Bihar and Uttara Pradesh are of Indian origin. They are demanding greater autonomy. They form around 30% of Nepal’s population. The Terai is the granary and a key industrial base of Nepal. The political parties of the Madhesi and Tharus carried out protest marches during the final phase of the Constitution being finalized and some of its representatives quit the Constituent Assembly a few weeks prior to 20 September.

Its passage rather than being enthusiastically greeted was simply ‘noted’ by India.

The new Constitution may not necessarily be the perfect answer to all of Nepal’s problems. Nevertheless it is an achievement for which the Nepalese need be commended and not berated. It has been achieved after a struggle lasting almost 10 years and encompasses Federalism, is Republican and defines Nepal as a secular state. It also represents the political aspirations and will of the Nepalese people.

Some BJP leaders in India have interceded on behalf of the Madhesis and Tharus communities demanding Nepal should be a Hindu state rather than a secular state. The Indian Foreign Secretary S.Jaishankar’s arrival in Katmandu to impress upon the Nepalese leadership of the need to amend a Constitution still in the process of being finalized,was considered an ‘intrusive act’ by Nepalese leaders.

Foreign Secretary Jaishankar’s failed mission to Katmandu was followed with a blockade by the Madhesi and Tharus communities of the border entry points in the Terai District halting all road transport from India to Nepal. It is widely believed that the blockade has the support of India.

Such blockades have a crippling effect on Nepal as all its supplies including every drop of fuel are brought from India by road transport. India shut down 20 of the 22 official border crossing points in 1989 over a trade dispute with disastrous consequences to the Nepalese economy. The effect on ordinary citizens is unimaginable. This writer during regular visits to Nepal in 2006/7 experienced firsthand the impact of fuel shortages during blockades by Maoist rebels resulting in all vehicles being issued with a maximum of five liters of petrol by all service stations. Drivers would spend ten hours a day queuing to purchase 15 liters of petrol in a day from three different service stations. Two former Prime Ministers of Nepal Sher Bahadur Deuba and Madhav Kumar Nepal and a future Prime Ministerial candidate Khadga Prasad Oli have all called for the end of ‘India’s undeclared blockade’. A former Indian National Security Advisor is on record calling the blockade ‘the stupidest thing’ India could do. The situation worsened last Monday when Nepalese cable operators blocked out Indian channels. The Madhesis and Tharus communities hit back by shutting out Nepalese channels in the Terai district.

The Madhesis and Tharus politial parties have commenced seeking Indian support in resolving their problems with Kathmandu which is viewed with alarm and is not appreciated by other Nepalese communities. India, by throwing its weight behind the Madhesis and Tharus people has earned the wrath of other communities and is fast exhausting the goodwill created during the visit to Nepal by Prime Minister Modi and the lead role it played in the aftermath of the recent devastating earthquake in Nepal.

India’s involvement in drafting the new Constitution is no secret and the end result should be no surprise. India has already proposed seven amendments to the new born Constitution with the ‘advise’ for Nepal ‘to resolve its differences through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation to enable broad-based ownership and acceptance’, ignoring the fact that 85% of the Constituent Assembly including some representatives of the Madhesi and Tharus communities has endorsed the new Constitution.

India has a long history of meddling in the affairs of small Nepal. The 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship was subsequently replaced with two separate treaties dealing in Security and Trade. During renewal negotiations in 1988, Nepal’s refusal to accommodate India’s requirements resulted in India demanding a single trade and transit treaty. Nepal adopted a hardline position resulting in a serious crisis in Indo–Nepal relations. Nepal took up the position in accordance with the UN charter - that transit privileges were "a fundamental and a permanent right of a land-locked country" and declared India’s demand for a single treaty as unacceptable. During this period of wrangling, two temporary extensions expired in March 1989. India then imposed a virtual economic blockade of Nepal which lasted till late April 1990. As time passed, Indian economic sanctions over Nepal steadily widened. Preferential customs and transit duties on Nepalese goods entering or passing through India (whether imports or exports) were discontinued. India did not renew agreements relating to oil processing and warehouse space in Calcutta for goods destined to Nepal. Aside from these sanctions, India cancelled all trade credits it had previously extended to Nepal on a routine basis. Nepal meanwhile referred the matter to the United Nations but received hardly any support from the world body. Relations further deteriorated in 1989 when Nepal delinked its rupee from the Indian rupee previously accepted freely in Nepal. India retaliated by denying port facilities to Nepal in Calcutta preventing delivery of oil supplies from reaching Nepal. The economic consequences of the dispute for Nepal were catastrophic. Nepal’s GDP growth rate plummeted from 9.7% in 1988 to 1.5% in 1989. Shortly after the imposition of sanctions, Nepal experienced deficiencies of imported goods i.e. coal, fuel, oil, medicine and spare parts. Nepal also suffered economically from higher tariffs, the closure of border points and the tense political atmosphere. Nepal reverted from being one of the most thriving economies in Asia to the league of world’s poorest nations.

Although economic issues were a major factor in past disputes, India was also displeased with the 1988 acquisition of Chinese weapons by Nepal, hitherto an Indian monopoly. India linked security with economic relations and insisted on reviewing India–Nepal relations as a whole. Nepalese King Birendra had to back down after worsening economic conditions led to a change in Nepal’s political system, in which the king was forced to institute a parliamentary democracy, in effect a quasi-regime change. The new government sought quick restoration of amicable relations with India.

Past disputes have essentially been between the ruling Ranas of Nepal and India based chiefly on economic issues during which time the pro Indian Nepali Congress and some segments of the Nepalese society were supportive of India.

The present dispute originating from India’s support for two minority communities is not with decisions of a ruling family but with a decision by 85% of the people’s representatives including the generally pro Indian Nepali Congress and involves the ‘will of the Nepali people’. The onus of preventing further deterioration of relations lies with India, the main objective being not to drive Nepal to adopt a ‘look north’ policy. Some of the origins of Sri Lanka’s ‘look East’ policy between 2005 and 2015 lay in India’s policies towards Sri Lanka.

Signals from Delhi indicate foreign policy decisions originating from the Prime Minister’s office heavily influenced by security agencies rather than the South Block (MEA) as was the case in the past. In the current scenario with Nepal, the possibility of India reverting to its modus operandi to effect constitutional change in Sri Lanka in 1987 by way of the 13th Amendment cannot be ruled out.

There was much hubris over the invitations extended to SAARC leaders by the Indian Prime Minister in May 2014 for his swearing in ceremony. Soft power diplomacy was in play in the overtures made during Indian Prime Minister’s recent visits to SAARC countries. Friendship, goodwill and generosity of the friendly ‘big brother’ were in ample display. That said, the manner in which Indo Nepal relations evolve in the coming days would be a suitable yardstick to gauge what is in store for small South Asian nations not in sync with ‘big brother’ India’s objectives and equally importantly, its suitability for Permanent Membership in the UN Security Council.


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