As unrest continues, Nepal's Madhesis are outsiders in their own country

by General Ashok K Mehta

An Indian youth, Ashish Ram of Raxaul, was killed by Nepali Police firing on Monday along the Madhesi-Teraibasi blockaded India-Nepal border when the police tried to clear the no man’s land across the Miteri bridge connecting Raxaul and Birganj during the fourth phase of elections in Bihar.

The first Indian casualty takes the cumulative death toll in the 40-day standoff to nearly 50, all the rest being Nepali Madhesis. There are reports that scores of Madhesis were wounded during the firings on Monday.

Nepalese activists gather on a bridge near the Nepal-India border at Birgunj, some 90 kms south of Kathmandu, on 2 November, 2015. AFP

Nepalese activists gather on a bridge near the Nepal-India border at Birgunj, some 90 kms south of Kathmandu. AFP

Nearly 60 percent of land-locked Nepal’s trade, especially petroleum products, passes through this one transit point among 25 others. While Nepal has accused India of closing the transit points, New Delhi says the so-called blockade is internal to Nepal resulting from the government not addressing the political grievances of the Madhesis which stem from a non-inclusive Constitution hastily promulgated on 20 September.

The Government of India’s spokesperson noted Monday, “Issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved by force. Causes underlying the present state of confrontation need to be addressed by the government of Nepal credibly and effectively." The Nepali Ambassador to India, Deep Upadhayay was summoned to South Block and issued a demarche over the killing of an Indian national.

In a rapidly escalating spat, the four-party United Madhesi Democratic Front peremptorily ended the dialogue with the government after Monday’s firing even as its leader of the talks team, Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa took off for Geneva to present his country’s case on the Indian ‘blockade’ to the UN Human Rights Council, marking a clear and unprecedented internationalisation of the border impasse.

Another first in this season of festivals is fuel-strapped Nepal receiving a consignment of 12 trucks bearing petroleum from China through Rasuwa Garhi trading point on the Nepal-China border. This is the first time China has provided petroleum products to Nepal as it did not do so during border closure on account of the Transit Treaty lapsing in 1989. Then, Nepalis saw it as an India-imposed blockade to reprimand Nepal for clandestinely importing weapons from China. Beijing has pledged to make up part of Nepal’s current shortfall in petrol, oil and lubricants.

India taking up the political cause of Madhesis very strongly is a relatively new development as until a few years ago – at least 2007/08 – the Teraibasis hardly figured on New Delhi’s radar. At that time, India dealt with the King and post-monarchy with a fractured and unstable political system struggling to write a Constitution.

It was the Maoist civil war that first empowered the Madhesis which led to their andolans in 2007, 2008 and 2009 which gave a boost to autonomy and federalism in power-sharing between Centre and states in the proposed constitution. Whereas not long ago there was only one Madhesi political party – Sadbhavana party – during the peak of Madhesi political power, the four-party United Democratic Madhesi Front had garnered 84 seats in the first Constituency Assembly becoming virtual kingmakers. Until last week, the President and Vice President were both Madhesi. No government could be formed without Madhesi representation. Consequently, they were promised that their political rights as equal Nepali citizens would be accommodated in the new Constitution. From four, the Madhesi parties splintered into 12, diluting their strength and power so much that by the second Constitution they were down to 60 legislators and divided and considerably weakening their political clout.

Further, the Madhesi and Tharu divide did not help. Bijaya Kumar Gachchhadar, the Tharu leader, can be described as very pragmatic and has nearly always managed to secure a top ministerial berth, the latest being that of Deputy Prime Minister. The problem with the new nationalist government in Nepal, currently a Marxist-Maoist Left Alliance government, is that it views the Madhesis as Indians first and then Nepalese. The events of the last 40 days viewed through the Nepali lens is that the Madhesis are Indian agents and that the current blockade is an Indian machination to teach Kathmandu a lesson for asserting its autonomy. When the constitutional row was brewing and India wanted certain amendments incorporated before its promulgation, Maoist leader Prachanda said: “We are friends of India, not its yes men."

The two constitutional amendments to meet the main Madhesi demands have been registered in the House and talks over remarking federal boundaries were also in progress when Monday’s firing suspended them. It seems that the KP Oli-led government is trying to stress out and stretch out the Madhesi agitation till it withers away. That’s the hope. Madhesi leaders visiting India say that the blockade cannot be sustained indefinitely as it is beginning to hurt the Madhesis themselves, especially the daily wage workers. “We too are facing distress – no medicines, no gas, high prices, children not going to school and fields unattended,” they say.

Madhesis are caught between the devil and the deep sea. Nepali nationalists see them as ‘rashtraghati’ (traitors). One Madhesi leader told me: ‘Goli pani khayo, gaali pani khayo’ (We have faced bullets as well as abuse). Madhesis want India to intervene and end the blockade. Although the Madhesis had boycotted the House, its legislators were asked to vote for Nepali Congress’s former Prime Minister, Sushil Koirala who stood for reelection against Oli. How he lost is another failure of Indian power. There is, therefore, good reason why Oli is not well-disposed to Madhesi political grievances.

Narendra Modi’s great charm offensive of last year in Nepal has all but faded away. Anti-India sentiment is at an unprecedented high. For Modi, winning the Bihar elections at the risk of losing Nepal is the priority. China will have the last laugh. More seriously, India-facilitated talks between the two parties is the answer.

(The author is a retired General of the Gorkha Rifles regiment of the Indian Army and has known Nepal since 1959.)


Updated Date: Nov 03, 2015 14:18 PM

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