NEW DELHI: As relations between India and Nepal sour over the latter’s adoption of a new secular Constitution, an ‘unofficial’ blockade has been imposed at the Birgunj trade checkpoint with India, effectively cutting off vital supplies -- including petroleum products -- to Nepal.

Nepalese officials have said that the fuel crisis in Nepal is reaching a tipping point, as Indian customs officials stall cargo movement and the Indian Oil Corporation has stopped the supply of petroleum to the Nepal Oil Corporation.

"Continued obstruction at border customs points and the IOC halting supply of petroleum products have created an abnormal situation in fuel supply," Nepal’s home ministry said in a statement.

India maintains that it has imposed no such blockade, and the restrictions are a result of security concerns as Madhesis are protesting the new constitution in the Terai region of Nepal bordering India. “As was already said on 21 September 2015, our freight forwarders and transporters had voiced complaints about the difficulties they are facing in movement within Nepal and their security fears, due to the prevailing unrest,” India said.

Two points worth noting, however, is that the Madhesis have been protesting for months, but the blockade was put into place hours after India issued a strong statement in response to the promulgation of Nepal’s new constitution. Further, the blockade has also been imposed in eastern Nepal. “Janajatis who are also unhappy with the new constitution have already called off their strike following confrontations with local people. But more than 200 containers carrying clinkers, marbles and vegetables are stuck in Panitanki across the Mechi River and continue to wait clearance from Indian authorities,” Nepal Times reports in reference to the unofficial blockade in eastern Nepal.

Nepal has responded by calling an emergency meeting of government officials on Sunday, which concluded in asking international airlines to refuel their Kathmandu-bound aircrafts at origin airports. As officials estimate that Kathmandu’s stockpile of aviation fuel will last, at best, a week, international airlines have been asked to only refuel small amounts at Tribhuvan International Airport (TIA), if really needed.

According to Nepali Times, Nepal’s government has also decided to approach China to export aviation fuel. The government has also decided to implement an odd-even system for all types of vehicles -- barring those carrying essential goods, those used by security forces and those involved in monitoring. -- starting Sunday.

Also on Sunday, Nepalese deputy PM and home minister, Bamdev Gautam told dna in an interview that it is keeping its options open and will not bow to any pressure from India. It is true that India is a strong country and a big economy but to live we will have to make alternative arrangements. It is within our rights to have alternative arrangements… Nepal has never bowed down to anyone and will not bow even now. We will establish contact with China through land and with other countries through air to get the essential supplies,” Gautam said.

“Indian representatives say it is not Indian government’s policy but the Indian officials at the border have told us that they are doing it as per the instructions of their government. This blockade has been done in favour of Madhesi parties. About 29-30 years ago India had done blockade for several days when Rajiv Gandhi was the PM then Nepal showed that Nepal can never be bowed down due to blockade,” he added.

Sources in the Indian government, however, indicate that Nepal’s threat is posturing at best, pointing to the Himalayan country’s dependence on India.

The current scenario is a corollary of India’s reaction to Nepal’s new constitution. A few days before the constitution was formally adopted, New Delhi 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.

Three quick statements by the Ministry of External Affairs added to the sudden tensions between India and Nepal. The last issued 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.”

Reports of a blockade first emerged the next day.

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.