India should ignore criticism of its Nepal policy, continue what it’s doing
News analysis: India should ignore criticism of its Nepal policy, continue what it’s doing
But what should have been an occasion for universal celebration in Nepal has turned into a nightmare of violent agitation, for which the Nepali Congress, CPN(UML), and the Maoists must take the blame for ramming through a flawed document by the tyranny of majority and reneging on promises in writing to the marginalized, Madhesis, Janajatis and Dalits.
The result is a Terai in turmoil. Agitation and police/army response has claimed more than 40 lives.
Some 60,000 troops are deployed in the Terai, more than half the strength of the Nepal army, more than ever deployed against the insurgency.
This isn’t the first time Terai has seen massive protests, especially by Madhesis. Agitations in 2007 and 2008 led to a written agreement signed on February 28, 2008, which guaranteed an autonomous Madhes, representation in security forces and state organs proportionate to their population. There was no ambiguity in the commitment. I was witness to the discussions and the final draft.
This, and the gerrymandering of the boundaries of the seven states, to reduce Madhesis and Tharus to a minority in 12 of the 20 existing Terai districts, are at the centre of the anger in the plains. They see a traditionally dominating Bahun-Chhetri combine of the mid-hills and the Himal hills trying to ensure their dominance cloaked in constitutionalism. Everyone in Nepal knows about the vested interests of a
few leaders who won’t let go of their “pocket” constituencies in Jhapa, Sunsari, and Morang in east Terai, and Kanchanpur and Kailali in the west.
Although the present – and future – rulers are telling their people, and India, that these concerns will be met through amendments, the distrust on the other side is that the proportional principle will be railroaded in the fine print of laws, since the constitution and future laws enacted by parliament will be subject to majority voting based on the flawed system. The slightly-level playing field for smaller parties has been eroded with proportional representation in the mixed system reduced from 58% to 45%.
Criticisms of India’s policy, in Nepal and here, are misplaced. India should ignore the fulminations of armchair analysts, parachute pundits, and continue what it is doing: Point out to Nepal’s leaders that we’re concerned solely because instability in Nepal directly affects us across an open border. That an end to the violence must take place through a dialogue with the Madhesis, Janjatis and the Dalits. We should continue engaging with leaders on both sides, making our concerns clear, underlining that while we hold Nepali sovereignty paramount, we have legitimate concerns based on our unique relationship.
We could remind them that it was the same leaders behind whom India stood rock steady when they fought for democracy, sought support and got it in full measure. We haven’t, even in our cold statements pointing out our unhappiness at the shape the constitution has taken, hinted at asking Nepali leaders to agree with us as quid pro quo for our aid, the billion dollar credit, and other projects.
Nor are we interested in micro-managing the peace process. The canard about the ‘seven’ specific demands for amendments has been nailed – it was a list compiled by some Madhesis sent to Delhi, and reported as an Indian proposal by a scoop-hungry reporter.
This isn’t the time to give in to the ‘teach-Nepal-a-lesson’ hardliners. What is needed is a calibrated response, mindful of Nepal’s dignity but firm in our resolve to protect our national interest. We have leverages in plenty, but must use carrot and stick judiciously. We should strengthen voices in Nepal who stand for a truly inclusive constitution. The ‘China’ card will doubtless be played by those stubborn in the pursuit of their interests, and may test our diplomacy, but we should ignore the pinpricks of anti-Indian rhetoric that’s sure to come up in Kathmandu.
PM Sushil Koirala has cancelled his trip to New York and has gone to meet Madhesi leader Mahant Thakur. Former PM and Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai has admitted mistakes. Perhaps the agitation and India’s principled position are bearing fruit? We don’t know yet, but must stay the course.
(The writer was ambassador to Nepal between 2004 and 2008)
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