Lost Ground

Where the Madhes crisis leaves Nepal-India relations

On his visit to Kathmandu in August 2014, Narendra Modi promised a bright new chapter in the India-Nepal relationship. Today, that relationship is at a historical low. {{name}}
01 January, 2016

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.”

Jaishankar returned to Delhi the following day, empty-handed, and Nepal’s new constitution was promulgated as planned. A subsequent statement from India’s ministry of external affairs said “we note the promulgation in Nepal today of a constitution,” but pointedly refrained from welcoming it. In Nepal’s Kathmandu-centred press, Jaishankar’s visit was predominantly described as unwarranted neighbourly interference—a recurrent and sensitive theme in the country’s media and politics when it comes to India. That perception hardened after the Indian Express reported that India had sent Nepal a list demanding seven amendments to the constitution. Indian officials denied the report, but the paper stood by its accuracy.

The Madhesi agitation intensified, and for over three months now, Nepal’s plains have been paralysed. Protestors have blockaded key border crossings, where queues of trucks waiting to head into Nepal now stretch many kilometres into India. With the chain of supply from India broken, Nepal is suffering a chronic shortage of essential goods, including fuel and medicines, causing incalculable loss to a population already struggling to recover from a series of disastrous earthquakes.

The Nepali government alleges that India is enforcing an undeclared blockade, and conspiring with Madhesi political parties to undermine Nepal’s sovereignty. In early November, Nepal’s recently elected prime minister, KP Oli, accused the neighbour of committing “an act more inhumane than war.” In response to public frustration, Oli’s government has stoked a xenophobic nationalism intertwined with anti-Indian sentiment—repeating a frequent habit among Nepali politicians of using their southern neighbour as a punching bag at times of domestic polarisation, though privately they often approach it for help. India insists the shortages are a result of the instability in the Madhes, which it is the Nepali government’s job to resolve. Under different circumstances, Indian and Nepali authorities might have collaborated in clearing any obstruction to supplies. As things stand, India is maintaining its distance. Through all of this, the Nepal-India relationship has sunk to a new low.

India cannot be faulted for maintaining, as it consistently has, that Nepal must work towards a broad national consensus, and accommodate the aspirations of disadvantaged groups under the new constitution. India has a great and unavoidable interest in a stable and inclusive political climate in a neighbouring country with which it shares an extraordinary relationship and an open border. But in trying to drive these points home, the timing and strategy behind some of India’s diplomacy has been unfortunate, stoking anti-India sentiment in Nepal and undermining hopes of a fresh dawn in India’s regional policy. The Nepal crisis has become a test of the Narendra Modi government’s approach to India’s neighbours. Even as the crisis continues, India needs to take stock of its handling of it, and what repercussions it could have going forward.

By the time Jaishankar arrived in Kathmandu, it was too late to reasonably expect the Nepali government to change course. Just days before, on 14 September, when negotiations on approving the constitution in the constituent assembly were already very far advanced, India’s foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, issued a statement to Kathmandu, in which she conveyed concern about the violence in the Madhes and urged “continuing flexibility on the part of all the political forces” in resolving outstanding grievances through dialogue. She also commended “the recent progress achieved by the Constituent Assembly in the Constitution-drafting process wherein several contentious issues have been resolved.” This latter part might have been meant as polite encouragement for negotiation and compromise, but, in retrospect, it left plenty of room for misinterpretation. In Kathmandu, many in favour of pushing the constitution through read Swaraj’s comments as Indian approval of the document in its latest form.

Jaishankar’s highly public effort to correct this illusion, then, was vulnerable to charges of backtracking. That effort, and the increased pressure that a visit by someone of Jaishankar’s official standing implied, could have been more effective had they come before Nepali positions on the constitution had solidified as far as they had—a process the Indian diplomatic corps would have followed at every step in the preceding months.

Signs of the waning efficacy of India’s modes of communication came at least as early as at a summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation in Kathmandu in late 2014, when a section of the Nepali media reacted negatively to Modi expressing hope for a pluralistic future Nepal. In the months that followed, Delhi played host to a diversity of Nepali politicians, who were all advised to work towards a constitution backed by national consensus. But they failed to understand the import of this message, and did little to change their approach. It could not have helped that some of those same politicians also met leaders of the Sangh Parivar, who reportedly expressed a desire to keep Nepal a Hindu state.

Evidently, those conversations were taken to heart. The new constitution declares Nepal to be “secular,” but also enshrines respect for “pre-historic traditions and religious and cultural freedoms”—which many read as a euphemism for maintaining Hinduism’s traditional primacy. The constitution also retains the cow as Nepal’s national animal. Going by my recent conversations with several Nepali politicians, these were gestures intended, confusedly, to make India happy.

Beyond Kathmandu and Delhi, too, India could have played its hand better. In November, the two countries looked set for confrontation at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva. The Nepali foreign minister, Kamal Thapa, made no secret of his intent to use the meeting to criticise India for the alleged blockade. In response, India pre-emptively stated that it was “concerned” over instances of “violence, extra-judicial killing and ethnic discrimination” in Nepal since the crisis began. This was the first time India positioned itself against Nepal in an international forum, which again opened the door to accusations of Indian interference in a neighbour’s domestic affairs. Instead of acting pre-emptively, the more diplomatic option would have been to wait for Thapa to move first, and then put out a reasoned response.

Now, particularly outside the Madhes, the image of India in Nepal today is very different from what the Indian government under Modi intended it to be. When he took power, the prime minister made it clear that his foreign policy would look to put the “neighourhood first.” The gesture of inviting all the SAARC leaders for his swearing-in was a step in that direction, as were visits to Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and China within his first year in office. His trip to Nepal in August 2014 was particularly well received there. Before the constituent assembly, he spoke of the new body of laws becoming a “bouquet in which every section of Nepali society saw itself and its aspirations reflected.” He promised a new chapter in India-Nepal relations, pledging to boost trade and infrastructural aid, and stating, to allay old fears, “we have not come here to interfere in your internal matters but we want to help you to develop.” Four months later, back in Nepal for the SAARC summit, he presented a regional vision of interconnectedness and mutual development, and promised greater sensitivity to the concerns of smaller neighbours.

A good deal of that groundwork has now been undone, as has the goodwill from India’s swift aid following last year’s earthquakes. Nepal’s existing economic connections to India—besides the open border, it also has a currency pegged to the Indian rupee—can make it a strong test case in the benefits of a concerted Indian focus on regional development. Resolving the Madhes protests and repairing India-Nepal ties should be a priority if the Modi government is to push ahead with its promises. The current impasse risks affecting regional perceptions, too, and in the long run could reinforce the image of India as an overbearing neighbour.

After months of stasis and fruitless communication—two visits to Delhi by Kamal Thapa, and another by four major Madhesi leaders, yielded no immediate progress—in late December there was finally some headway. Rather belatedly, the Oli government signalled that it would accept two earlier proposals to amend the constitution, aimed at addressing Madhesi grievances by adjusting electoral borders and revising rules on minority representation. Madhesi leaders, though, said that these alone will not satisfy their demands. The protests continued, as did the shortages. Oli’s hope that the protests would fizzle out as winter set in has proven to be misplaced, and his reluctance to open broader negotiations could lead to further domestic unrest and fracture his ruling coalition. Meanwhile, there is a risk of the current Madhesi leadership losing control of increasingly frustrated protestors. Any fragmentation would make it that much more difficult to negotiate a comprehensive resolution, which means time is of the essence, for Nepal and India both, in preventing the crisis from escalating further.

For India, the challenge is to rebuild lost trust. As a start, it could undertake some much-needed public diplomacy to emphasise its willingness to be an intermediary in meaningful negotiations between the Nepali government and Madhesi leaders, and perhaps even take the initiative in arranging a suitable forum. That would go a long way in resolving the stand-off over the future of Nepal, and in reinforcing India’s claim to a central role in an interdependent South Asia.