India’s reaction to the promulgation of Nepal’s first constitution from a constituent assembly fell between sulking and sermonising, contained in three stern official statements. New Delhi is unhappy that assurances given to it about accommodating the legitimate concerns of the Madhesis and Tharus in the Terai lowlands contiguous to the border states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have remained unfulfilled despite the last minute public prodding which, not surprisingly, was interpreted by Nepal as gross interference in its internal affairs.
The violence and protests, mainly in the Terai, resulting in the killing of 43 persons, have fouled relations between the hills and plains (as well as between New Delhi and Kathmandu), prompting a Madhesi activist to say, “We suffered first at the hands of the Ranas, then Rajas and now the hill Brahmins and Chhetris.”
India-Nepal relations only recently shot to new heights thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to Nepal, his seminal speech in parliament underlining Nepal ’s sovereignty, even telling Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, “You were never colonised and were free even before we were.”
Modi’s words and gestures captured the hearts of the Nepalis, transforming bilateral relations. India has played a stellar role in shaping all the landmark political changes in Nepal, ranging from ending Rana autocracy and absolute monarchy to ushering in multiparty democracy to terminating the civil war and mainstreaming the Maoists.
It seems India took its eye off Kathmandu after the earthquake earlier this year, when to its surprise the four major parties—Nepali Congress, CPN (UML), UCPN-Maoist and Madhesi People’s Rights Forum (Democratic), known as the Big Four —signed the 16-point agreement to end the differences over constitution writing. One of the reasons galvanising the process was CPN (UML) chairman K.P. Oli's desire to lead a new Left alliance government.
Bijay Gachchhadar, MPRF (Democratic) leader, in despair, remarked that Madhesis and Tharus had been given a raw deal: “Our head and legs have been amputated, ” he said, referring to the warped demarcation of provincial boundaries in the Terai. The ownership of federalism and autonomy rests with the Madhesis who were promised a two-state Madhes, instead of their demand of One Madhes, One Pradesh. Even though the Terai, with one-third land area and 51 per cent population, is the granary and strategic underbelly of Nepal, it has been shortchanged.
A truly united and unified Nepal will become a reality only when the historically discriminated and politically disadvantaged Madhesis and Tharus of the Terai lying at the periphery are integrated with the centre. A joint statement acknowledging India ’ s concerns would have been in order.
Nepali leaders and people must be congratulated for the new constitution and standing up to Delhi. But they must not cut their nose to spite their face. While Nepali nationalism should not dress up as anti-Indianism, New Delhi, too, must play it cool. The author is a frequent traveller to Nepal and has known the country since 1959.
A NEW BEGINNING
* The constitution that came into effect in Nepal on September 20, 2015 replaces the interim constitution of 2007. Previous constitutions of Nepal were enacted in 1948, 1951, 1959, 1962 and 1990.
* The constitution enacted has not brought about the unity that it wanted. Violence was reported in Nepal’ s southern plains, among the Madhesi people who live there. Even the Tharus have objected to the new provincial boundaries.
* There were attempts by some groups to establish Nepal as a Hindu nation.