Not everyone is happy with Nepal’s new constitution, particularly the Madhesis of Indian origin settled in the plains. But rather than voice its displeasure, New Delhi should work quietly to bring about necessary amendments
By Seema Guha
Nepal got a brand new constitution on Sep-tember 20. It should have been a red letter day for the country, because at last, after seven long years of squabbling, the political leaders were able to put together the nation’s secular constitution. Yet, the constitution—brought about by the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of ordinary Nepalis—has ignited violent protests in the plains and threatens the unity of the new Republic. In short what should have been a day to celebrate has turned into a major crisis. It is a time bomb which, if not handed carefully, could lead to convulsions across the length and breadth of the land locked nation.
The constitution, which is surprisingly progressive on several counts, including full rights for gays, lesbians and transgenders, fails to address the core concerns of the people living in the Terai region. Madhesis are people settled in Nepal’s plains from the adjoining Indian state of Bihar. While they are loyal citizens of Nepal they also look to their country of origin in times of crisis. The representation of the Madhesis in Nepal’s Parliament will be drastically reduced by the new constitution. The main demand of the Madhesis is representation equal to their population and federal redistricting that maintains Madhesh—which would guarantee the group a bigger representation in parliament. Madhesis see the move to restrict their parliamentary numbers as an attempt to take away their political clout.
In the western Terai, the indigenous Tharus are unhappy at the prospect of being split in two and forced to share their pro-vinces with hill districts that, they fear, will corner all the development funds and get the better of the Tharus.
The constitution was pushed through by the four main political parties, despite knowing that this was not acceptable to a large number of its citizens. The Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal Unified, Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist refused to heed the advice of President Ram Baran Yadav, himself a man from the Terai region. He asked them to speak to all sections in the plains. As news of the constitution being forced through spread, violent protests shook the plains. The tough stand taken to quell the violent protests resulted in the death of at least 42 persons, among them policemen who were lynched by the mob. The murderous assault on the police spread bad blood across the nation. The hope for a new beginning with a brand new peoples’ constitution, in the drafting of which neither the monarchy nor the Nepalese army had a say, was drowned in the anger and violence in the plains. Nearly 40 percent of Nepal’s population live in the Terai region and so a large section of the country is unhappy with the new arrangement.
India, which played a major role in getting the Maoists to the table for talks in 2006, is extremely unhappy with the turn of events. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had spoken to his Nepalese counterpart, Sushil Koirala, on ensuring that all sections in Nepal are consulted and given their due in the new Constitution. However, despite the excellent ties between New Delhi and Kathmandu, especially after Modi’s two highly successful visits to the neighbouring country, this sudden turnaround came as a shock. Having invested both time and energy to take relations with Nepal to a new plane, New Delhi is now making no bones about its irritation with Nepal’s top political leadership.
In fact, before the constitution was finalised, India invited UCPN (Maoist) chairman and former prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, and his wife; CPN-UML leader Madhav Kumar Nepal; and Nepali Congress leaders, Sher Bahadur Deuba and Ram Chandra Poudel; to India in July when negotiations on the constitution were in the final stages. In Delhi they met India’s top officials and were advised to take the Madhesis and other groups into confidence before finalising the constitution. It is said that the political leaders assured New Delhi that all interests would be taken into consideration. In a recent visit to Kath-mandu, Indian foreign secretary Jai Shankar delivered the same message.
New Delhi has issued two curt statements since the new constitution was unveiled. The first was on Sunday, September 20. Nepal’s other neighbour China warmly welcomed the constitution on the same day. China’s footprints are already spread across Nepal and in the past, whenever the monarchy wanted to needle New Delhi, it would invariably play the China card. Like every small nation sandwiched between two big powers, Nepal will continue to use China to score points against India. But can India afford to antagonize Kathmandu and allow China to spread its wings further in Nepal, is a question the government has to answer. By sulking and over-reacting India is helping neither the Madhesis nor itself.
New Delhi did not congratulate Kathmandu when the constitution was unveiled by an unsmiling and clearly troubled Nepal President Ram Baran Yadav. The MEA statement merely said: “Throughout the process of constitution making in Nepal, India has supported a federal, democratic, republican and inclusive constitution. We note the promulgation in Nepal today of a consti-tution. We are concerned that the situation in several parts of the country bordering India continues to be violent. Our ambassador
in Kathmandu has spoken to the prime minister of Nepal in this regard. We urge that issues on which there are differences should be resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and enable broad-based ownership and acceptance. This would lay the foundation
of harmony, progress and development in Nepal.’’
India followed this up with another terse statement on September 21: “We are deeply concerned over the incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India following the promulgation of constitution yesterday. Our freight companies and transporters have also voiced complaints about the difficulties they are facing in movement within Nepal and their security concerns, due to the prevailing unrest. We had repeatedly cautioned the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in these regions. This, if done in a timely manner, could have avoided these serious developments. We have consistently argued that all sections of Nepal must reach a consensus on the political challenges confronting them.”
“The issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved through force. We still hope that initiatives will be taken by Nepal’s leadership to effectively and credibly address the causes underlying the present state of confrontation,’’ it read.
The mood in the government is anger at Nepal’s defiance. But as a sovereign nation, Nepal has every right to go ahead with its own plans. The problem however is that the Madhesis also need to get their due. Unless that happens, the situation is likely to deteriorate further. Once there is unrest, there will certainly be an exodus into the neighbouring Indian state of Bihar. The timing could not have been worse for the Modi government, which has put all its energies into winning the state elections scheduled for next month. Some of India’s frustration at Nepal has to do with the Bihar elections.
“India’s reaction has been unusually strong,’’ says analyst SD Muni, who has long followed events in Nepal. “There was no need for Delhi to come up with this kind of statement which naturally will not be well received in Kathmandu. Urging all sections to work together is fine, but we cannot be arrogant. Nepal is a sovereign nation after all,’’ he adds.
India’s anger stems from the fact that Nepal’s usually docile leaders have snubbed the prime minister. There is irritation not just in the government circles but also among sections in the RSS which wanted Nepal to retain its character as a Hindu kingdom. Seventy percent of Nepal’s population is Hindu. This section is also pro-monarchy. India’s petulance will encourage this section, as well as the extreme Left wing cadres among the Maoists. None of this is good news for either India or Nepal.
Nepal is equally angry with India for what it perceives as New Delhi’s arrogance. “India is playing with fire. Instead of encouraging the Madhesis it should calm tempers and ensure that this problem is resolved amicably. It is not something that cannot be worked on and solved to the satisfaction of all,’’ says Kanak Mani Dixit, the editor in chief of the prestigious Himal Southasian magazine, published from Kathmandu.
“New Delhi will be blamed if the situation takes an uglier turn,’’ he adds.
Many Nepalis now realize what Sri Lankas felt about India’s interference in its ethnic problem. They say they can understand what the Sinhalese majority felt when India, for its domestic political considerations, championed the cause of the Sri Lankan Tamils. What the Nepalese forget was that Tamils were second class citizens in the island nation.
Kanak Mani Dixit admits that there are many loose ends in the new constitution which have to be tied up. He says the people of the Terai have to be accommodated, but violent protests is not the answer. “I am very happy that the making of the constitution is now complete after a wait of nearly eight years. It’s not optimal, drafted as it is by politicians. It’s filled with contradictions, in the sense that there are a profusion of promises,’’ says Dixit.
Women’s groups are unhappy with the new constitution as it discriminates against Nepalese women in what is already a patriarchal society. If a Nepali woman marries a foreigner, their children cannot become Nepali unless the man first takes citizenship, a process that could take around 15 years. But if a man marries a foreigner, the women can easily get Nepali citizenship and their children are Nepali regardless of the wife’s nationality. The Madhesis are also worried because many in the community marry from across the border in India.
However, there is still time to amend the constitution and allay the fears of the plains people. And instead of publicly slamming Nepal, India should work quietly behind closed doors. Anger and frustration are not the right tools to be used in diplomacy.