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Madhesi protest: Fresh agitations see Nepal on brink of crisis again ahead of local elections

Amid renewed tensions across the border in Nepal over the Madhesi issue, the country's home minister Bimalendra Nidhi called Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday, to brief him on the latest political developments. The ruling coalition's inability to amend certain clauses of the Republican Constitution remains as one of the major concerns.

A short statement released by the ministry of external affairs after said that Modi had assured Nidhi that 'India is committed to strengthening its ties with Nepal and supports the government's efforts for socio-economic development of the neighbouring state.'

The agitating Madhesis had rejected Nepal Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal's proposal to participate in the local polls on Thursday, launching a fresh round of agitations a day after they withdrew support from his government.

 Madhesi protest: Fresh agitations see Nepal on brink of crisis again ahead of local elections

Representational image. Reuters

While India is extending its full support to Dahal's government, it has not pushed for the amendments publicly. It is certain that Modi has conveyed India's concern about fulfilling what it sees as legitimate demands of the Indian-origin population living in the Terai region of Nepal.

It seems that India has learnt from its past mistakes as nothing that was spoken behind closed doors was made public. This is in stark contrast former Nepal prime minister KP Oli's tenure, when New Delhi had aggressively championed the Madhesi cause. It is now being much more discreet.

Though Modi, and external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, raised these important issues during their conversation with Nidhi, they are no longer shouting from the roof top. Oli, once a friend of India, had shifted his allegiance to China for support during the Madhesi blockade last year. In that regards, it seems that New Delhi is now more circumspect.

The take away for the Nepalese media from the meeting, however, was different. The message to the people of Nepal was that the Indian leader has assured Kathmandu that there would be a thorough investigation into the alleged death of a Nepalese national by India's Sashastra Seema Bal earlier this month.

Tempers across Nepal had flared at the death of the civilian. The Indian embassy had initially denied that its force was responsible for the death of the young Nepali. However, to douse the anti-India sentiments, which could easily have spread across the valley, and used by the opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Marxist Leninist) and its leader Oli, India had asked for the post-mortem report to aid in investigations. Modi told the visiting home minister that the guilty would be punished. This was played out across Nepal and has hopefully convinced the opposition that India is doing the right thing.

The simmering tension in Nepal is slowly but surely re-surfacing. The United Madhesi Front has withdrawn its support to the government after Dahal was unable to keep his promise to bring in the promised Constitutional amendments. They are demanding that the amendments are done before the local body elections in May.

The withdrawal does not affect Dahal's Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist-Centre), which has the support of the Nepali Congress, the Rastriya Prajatantra Party and other some smaller outfits. What riled the Madhesis was Dahal's refusal to contact them even after they issued an ultimatum. Four Madhesi protesters were killed in police firing a few days ago, leading to growing anger against Kathmandu in the Terai region.

The fact remains that the promised Constitutional amendment, which had helped catapult Dahal to power, with New Delhi's backing, has not happened. Dahal came into office with the promise to the Madhesi parties that their concerns about the new Republican Constitution – announced in September 2015 – will be addressed.

A Constitutional amendment has to be passed with a two-third majority, which is not possible because of stiff resistance from several political opponents. The focus of major parties had been on holding local elections rather than on the amending the Constitution. Nepal is to complete the holding of three-tier election by January 2018.

The problem however, is, as one former India ambassador to Kathmandu (who did not wish to be identified), said: "The politicians are too engrossed in their own game of musical chairs to bother about the country. Nepal is in a mess and unless political parties stop jockeying for position and pause to think of the country, nothing will change.''

India wants Dahal to resolve the issue of the Constitutional rights of the Madhesis quickly. The issue has already been dragged on and as the anger and frustration is building up, Nepal could once more be plunged into a cycle of needless violence.

"It has been our consistent view that the political leaders in Nepal, address the Constitutional issues through dialogue and consultations with participation of every section of its society. India will continue to support efforts for peace, progress and stability in Nepal," MEA spokesman Gopal Bagley said, at his weekly briefing on Thursday.

So far, the chances of Nepal's fractious political parties coming together to work out an agreement appear bogged down over each party’s position on the amendment. India has been pushing for these very amendments to give the Madhesis – Indian origin settlers in the Terai plains – an opportunity to remain as equal citizens in the new Republic.

One of the reasons that the last government, headed by Oli, was unable to continue was because of its tough stand on the amendments. Oli had blamed India for his troubles. The Madhesi parties had organised a blockade, which led to untold misery in the valley. New Delhi naturally supported the blockade, and Oli as naturally turned to Nepal's other powerful neighbour, China.

The India-China rivalry is now reflected in Nepal. New Delhi does not want China to spread itself out in its fragile eastern border. The fact that China and Nepal are holding military exercises is also making many in India uneasy.

The shadow of China looms large in the neighbourhood and adds to New Delhi's concern. But the cultural, religious and people-to-people contacts between India and Nepal are so much stronger that even if a government tries, it cannot sever those traditional links.

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Updated Date: Mar 18, 2017 11:42:43 IST