On 18 September last year, India’s foreign secretary, S Jaishankar, landed in Kathmandu with an impossible mission. Less than 48 hours earlier, a constituent assembly had approved a new Nepali constitution that had been seven years in the making. India had played a crucial role in bringing that moment to pass, acting as an intermediary and a broker in numerous agreements as Nepal resolved a Maoist insurgency. Since 2006, Nepal had removed a centuries-old Hindu monarchy and declared itself a republic, and elected first one and then a second constituent assembly tasked with creating a new body of laws. Now, Jaishankar, as a special envoy of the Indian prime minister, was to persuade the leaders of Nepal’s three main political parties—the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist), and the Maoists—to postpone the promulgation of the constitution, which had already been announced for 20 September.
There was already unease over the new document in Nepal. In the preceding months, it had been been rushed through the constitutional assembly in haste, without resolving many of the contentions that had delayed it over the years. Since early August, protestors in the Madhes—Nepal’s southern plains, home to just over half of the country’s people and a vital link to neighbouring India for the landlocked country—had been opposing many of the constitution’s provisions.
They included Madhesis, who form a large share of the area’s population and have deep cultural bonds with adjoining Indian states, and Tharus, a minority indigenous community. Both these groups have historically been marginalised by the Nepali state, which is dominated by upper-caste men from the Himalayan foothills, and felt that the constitution’s demarcation of new federal provinces and its rules for representation in official bodies did not deliver on earlier promises of empowerment. (Nepal’s many other indigenous ethnic communities also spoke out against the document.) Several protests turned violent, and the Nepali government deployed security forces and imposed curfews. By the time Jaishankar arrived, over 45 people had already been killed. To defuse the crisis mounting right on India’s doorstep, the envoy urged Nepal’s leaders to pause and negotiate with the dissenters, and not to finalise the constitution without addressing their concerns. The completed document, he said, should cause “joy and celebration, not agitation and violence.”