Nepal-India Relations Sour: Is It Only About Madhesis Or Also About Hindu Rashtra?
Nepali students celebrate as they take part in the candlelight vigil welcoming the new constitution
NEW DELHI: This is the question being asked within Nepal, even as the international media also joins the search for answers as to why New Delhi has thrown a virtual tantrum about the new Constitution that Nepal has finally stitched together after seven long years. More so, as China has welcomed the development, embraced Nepal with spokesperson Hong Lei sounding almost self righteous with, “as a friendly neighbour, China is happy to see that Nepal’s Constituent Assembly approved the new Constitution.”
New Delhi on the other rushed Foreign Secretary Jaishankar to Kathmandu to spell out the riot act to the political leaders, and to make it clear that the Constitution in its present form was not acceptable to India. He went just a day before the vote, and as he was told by most of the political leaders, “you should have come two weeks before when we might have been able to address your concerns.” Jaishankar returned with the ignominy of a failed diplomatic mission, and that too in full public view. It is not clear why New Delhi woke up to the issue so late in the day, and failed to act before the nth hour. This in fact has earned the government here considerable flak, even from those sections that basically support the intervention. Former diplomats are aghast at this “terrible diplomacy”as one of them put it, wondering what the government was thinking of in visibly trying to pressure a sovereign country into doing its bidding.
Three quick statements by the Ministry of External Affairs added to the sudden tensions between India and Nepal. The last issued on Tuesday stated, ‘we are deeply concerned about the incidents of violence resulting in death and injury in regions of Nepal bordering India following the promulgation of the Constitution yesterday.”
And, ‘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.”
Significantly, on Tuesday morning sources in Kathmandu insisted that India had imposed an economic blockade along the border. While there was no specific confirmation of this from New Delhi, the statement had significantly spoken of problems in the movements of trucks because of the violence at the borders. “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.” The Nepalese sources insisted that there was a deliberate blockade, pointing out that this will lead to severe problems for the people of Nepal.
The ostensible reason given by India for its ‘concerns’ centres around the Madhesi and Tharu ethnic groups, as the Constitution currently has not dealt with the thorny issue of delineation. But as sources in Kathmandu pointed out a Commission is being set up to talk to the two tribes, with a time frame, and to ensure that this is dealt with in the Constitution to the satisfaction of all. As the sources said, it is not a difficult or impossible task and ours is a “live document” as UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon has also observed now, that is open to amendments.The sources claimed, “it is work in progress” and necessary amendments will be made as and when agreed upon.
The UN Secretary General concerned about the outbreak of violence in Nepal amongst the affected sections has called for peace in a statement essentially supportive of the Constitution. The statement says, "The Secretary-General acknowledges the adoption of the new Constitution in Nepal. Noting that the Constitution is a living document, he urges all political leaders to act in the broad national interest and with continued flexibility and inclusivity.”
The anger in Nepal against India’s interventionist role, the sources said, is palpable. The Wall Street Journal notes, “India often plays a big brother role, one that is not often appreciated by many Nepalis.” Reports speak of India’s “interventionist mindset.”
However, in Kathmandu political sources claim that there are additional reasons for PM Modi’s visible anger are different from the above. The Madhesis issue, the sources said, can be dealt with and did not require an urgent visit by the Indian foreign secretary, and such strong reactions from New Delhi. The sources insisted that the reason was more fundamental, as there had been considerable pressure from the BJP and its affiliates in India to make Nepal a Hindu Rashtra. Sources that some political leaders in Nepal were supportive of this, but ultimately they went along with the majority view that the Constitution should declare Nepal a secular Republic with a strong federal character.
A few weeks ago BJP MP from Gorakhpur, that is close to the India-Nepal terai Mahant Adityanath wrote to Nepals’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala and constituent assembly chairperson Subhash Chandra Nemwaang, demanding that Nepal be declared a “Hindu rashtra” as it was under the monarchy. He also wanted a ban on cow slaughter, and religious conversion to be brought in by the Nepal government. Sources said that considerable pressure was being felt by political parties in Kathmandu from Indian organisations and individuals to turn the clock back to establishing a Hindu rashtra in the state.
In finalising the document, Nepal has asserted its sovereignty and given the Indian responses, kept New Delhi out of the loop altogether. The high handed diplomacy on display, sources said, has angered even the more traditional friends of India in the Himalayan nation with relations tenuous at best since Prime Minister Narendra Modi was not given permission by Nepal to hold public meetings at strategic points just before the Saarc meeting in Kathmandu last year. The Prime Minister had planned to address public meetings at Janakpur, the site of the historic Janaki temple; at Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha and very close to the border with India, and Muktinath, the Vishnu temple. The Nepal government first agreed, then following protests within stated that its representatives would be present as well, and finally called off the meetings altogether. In the assessment of Nepal’s political establishment, according to sources, these meetings were intended to project the Indian Prime Minister as the “tallest” leader in the region, with a reach stretching across the Himalayan borders.
Nepal nurtures a deep suspicion about Indian intent, with the current response by the Indian government feeding into this. The result of the intervention by India over the past few days, including by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval and more immediately by foreign secretary as the Special Envoy of the Indian Prime Minister can be summed up as follows:
1. Downslide in India-Nepal relations will escalate in the coming days;
2. Backlash of public opinion against India will be felt all over the hill regions of Nepal;
3. Violence in the terai belt might gather ground unless the Nepal government reaches out for talks and sets up the Commission it is planning to announce;
4. The wave of positive public support for China will strengthen relations between Kathmandu and Beijing even further;
5. Resistance to Indian ‘intervention’ will build
6. And at home, the RSS and its affiliates that were optimistic of prevailing upon Nepal to declare itself a Hindu Rashtra might turn their disappointment at the new fait accompli into assertive opposition.