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India’s Nepal Policy Needs Caution, Not Grandstanding

India’s Nepal Policy Needs Caution, Not Grandstanding


September 27, 2015 at 3:32 am 3 comments

Making friends, influencing Nepal

Making friends, influencing Nepal

A copy of Nepalese constitution lies on a table inside the Parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal.

A copy of Nepalese constitution lies on a table inside the Parliament in Kathmandu, Nepal.

The promulgation of Nepal’s Constitution has been followed by triumphalism on one side and agitation on the other. India’s present challenge is to recover lost political ground so that New Delhi can play the role of trusted interlocutor without resorting to micro-management.

Last Sunday, on September 20, Nepal promulgated its new Constitution. However, instead of being an occasion for celebration in which all Nepali citizens could participate, there is a tinge of triumphalism on one side and, on the other, a growing agitation masking a sentiment of betrayal. More than one-tenth of the Constituent Assembly (CA) members boycotted the final proceedings. And, as often happens when Nepal’s domestic politics is polarised and descends into a slugfest, Indian policies have become a convenient punching bag and Nepali nationalism reduces to anti-Indianism.

The current exercise kicked off in 2008 with the election of a Constituent Assembly (CA) with a two-year mandate to draft a new Constitution for a federal, democratic and republican Nepal. Even after the CA awarded itself four extensions, the task remained unfinished. The Supreme Court intervened to put an end to the repeated extensions in 2012 and, after a year, a new CA was elected in November 2013 for a four-year term though it gave itself a deadline of January 2015 to complete the Constitution which too was not observed.

The tragic earthquake in April, which claimed 9,000 lives and caused widespread damage estimated at $7 billion, became a wake-up call for the political leadership and the government, which had come in for all-round criticism for its inept crisis management. This galvanised the main political parties — the Nepali Congress (NC), the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [CPN(UML)] and the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist [UCPN-Maoist) led by Prachanda — to push through a Constitution, by a two-thirds majority, if consensus was not possible. A 16-point agreement covering some of the major issues was announced in June.

Differences over federalism

At this point, the big three parties had the benefit of having Bijay Gachedar, leader of a Madhesi-Tharu party, on board as a signatory. This agreement foresaw the creation of eight provinces, with boundaries to be determined by an expert committee within six months. However, it was shot down by a Supreme Court single-judge bench on the grounds that the CA was responsible for defining the federal structure and this could not be delegated.

The big three then came out with a six-province proposal. Mr. Gachedar dissociated himself from it and as protests mounted, the three hurriedly made it a seven-province federal structure. Agitations turned increasingly violent in the Terai region and have claimed more than 40 casualties in the last month.

Though a small country, Nepal has more than a hundred ethnic groups. However, it has always been ruled by the Bahun-Chettri (Brahmin-Kshatriya) hill elite which, together with other hill upper castes, accounts for less than 30 per cent of the population. The leadership of the three major political parties, as well as that of the smaller pro-monarchy groups, belongs to this group. On the other hand, the Janajatis (hill tribes), Tharus (plains tribes), Dalits and Madhesis have traditionally been the oppressed groups.

Till 1950, a Madhesi needed a special permit to enter Kathmandu valley and citizenship was a major issue, which was finally addressed in the 1990s, with over three million citizenship certificates issued, though some concerns remained. These groups had periodically agitated for greater representation in power-sharing but always within the unitary framework of the monarchical system. When the decade-long Maoist insurgency ended in 2006, new demands grew for the abolition of monarchy and for a federal republic. NC and UML were always lukewarm to the idea and the federalism banner was largely carried forward by the Maoists (Janjatis were part of their cadres) and the Madhesis.

Madhesis have a kinship with their counterparts across the open border in India, particularly in northern Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (UP), often described as roti beti ka rishta (sharing food and matrimonial ties). During the Panchayat era, the 1963 administrative restructuring raised the number of districts from 32 to 75. In the bargain, Terai districts, which were earlier geographically restricted to the plains, now included areas north of the Siwalik Hills. Pahadi population in the Terai consequently went up from 6 per cent in 1952 to 36 per cent in 2001. Today, out of the 20 Terai districts bordering India, Madhesis enjoy a majority in less than half. Indian political leadership has been sensitive to their circumstances and has taken up their cause with the Kathmandu rulers. This has worked sometimes but has often also created tensions in the bilateral relationship which have demanded sensitive handling.

When the Constitution-drafting exercise began in 2008, the CA’s first decision was to abolish the 250-year-old monarchy while laying down principles for creating a democratic, secular, federal republic, often called a new Nepal. Over these years, Maoist and Madhesi forces have weakened. A section of the Maoist leadership was co-opted into the system and Prachanda is today rumoured to be a billionaire in dollar terms.

While the Maoists had emerged as the single-largest party in 2008 with 240 seats and the three Madhesi parties accounted for 84 seats, the outcome in 2013 elections turned out very differently. Maoists were down to 80 seats and the Madhesi parties which had splintered from three into a dozen, could only manage 40 seats. On the other hand, among the two old parties, NC moved up from 115 seats in 2008 to 196 and the UML from 108 to 175 seats, together accounting for nearly two-thirds of the CA (strength is 601) in 2013. Maoists lost ground because of rumours of corruption, poor governance and factionalism; Madhesis because of ego clashes, caste differences among Brahmins, Thakurs, Yadavs and Kurmis, and political fracturing which weakened the Madhes movement.

Differences over delineation of the provinces were narrowed down to five districts on the India-Nepal border — Jhapa, Morang and Sunsari in the east and Kanchanpur and Kailali in the west. Other contentious issues pertained to the delineation of electoral constituencies; inclusion in state structures on basis of ‘proportionality’; and the two categories of citizenship, by descent and by naturalisation — applicable to the foreign spouse of a Nepali national, a key Madhesi concern — and the debarring of the latter from certain government positions.

Some of these were not too difficult to settle but unfortunately, there was no serious effort to reach out and open a dialogue. None of the leaders of the big three parties and their Madhesi MPs took the initiative of going to the restive districts. Instead, all eyes were fixed on the sharing of spoils, for within the next few weeks, Nepal will get a new President, Vice-President, Prime Minister, Speaker and Cabinet. Some deals have been struck, with K.P. Oli (UML) emerging as the likely next PM. Other contenders are in the fray for different positions but this jockeying too is limited to those belonging to the Bahun-Chettri elite.

India’s failed moves

To be fair, Indian policy on this issue has been consistent. In November 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Kathmandu for the SAARC summit, it was clear that positions were hardening. PM Modi had said in a media interaction that outstanding differences should be resolved through dialogue and widespread consultation so that it could create the basis of a united, peaceful, stable and prosperous Nepal. A section of the Nepali media had reacted adversely terming it ‘unwarranted advice’. This was a sign of the changing winds and certainly, after Bijay Gachedar backed away from the 16-point agreement in June, the writing was clear on the wall.

Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar’s visit to Kathmandu last week, after the CA had completed formal voting on the Constitution, was too late and could hardly have been expected to yield a favourable outcome. Instead, it has been a spur to Nepali nationalism which, more often than not, carries strains of anti-Indianism. Official Indian statements ‘noting’ the promulgation of the new Constitution and expressing ‘deep concern’ over the incidents of violence are unlikely to fall on receptive ears and are at variance with the ‘welcoming’ statements from other major capitals. Kathmandu is abuzz with rumours that India is miffed and might resort to strong-arm tactics as in 1989-90, fuelling further anti-Indian sentiment.

Any policy, however consistent and well-crafted, yields results only if implemented properly. The time to use Indian influence by working with our friends was during the first half of the year. What was needed was to sensitise the leaders of the ‘big three’ parties to the risks of brinkmanship and get the agitating groups to unify so that a coherent stand could emerge. Instead, we played host to an assortment of Nepali leaders who would tell us what we wanted to hear, while going back to Kathmandu and doing precisely what they wanted to do.

For too long, this has been the tricky part of India-Nepal relations. With too many interlocutors, India’s message often loses clarity and impact. While the long-term objective should be to address the changing political narrative in Nepal, our present challenge is to recover lost political ground so that we can play the role of the trusted and irreplaceable interlocutor between the two sides, but without resorting to micro-management. Since 1950, Nepal has experimented with various Constitutions. It has had two interim Constitutions (1951 and 2007) and three formal Constitutions (1959, 1962 and 1990). Many thoughtful Nepalis realise that the 2015 Constitution is not perfect but if it has to stand the test of time, all sides have to climb down from their stated positions. However, the first move has to come from the leadership of the three major parties, the NC, the CPN (UML) and UCPN (Maoist).

(Rakesh Sood, the Prime Minister’s Special Envoy for Disarmament and Non-Proliferation till May 2014, is a former Ambassador to Nepal. E-mail:

September 27, 2015 at 3:26 am 1 comment

Federalism: Nepal’s final frontier

Federalism: Nepal’s final frontier

Nepal’s transition to a pluralist democracy faces a final challenge — failure of the three major parties to accommodate the legitimate demands of Janajati and Madhesi groups for true federalism.Greater consensus and not the imposition of an artificial deadline can help overcome it.

The long-awaited promulgation of a new Constitution within the next few days in Nepal was expected to be the culmination of its transition to a pluralist democracy. The institutionalisation of the gains of Nepal’s remarkable peace process should have been a time for celebration, heralding an era of harmony and progress. The Constitution is meant to reaffirm both the social purpose and the political commitments embedded in the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement and the 2007 interim Constitution, establishing Nepal as a federal democratic republic.

Instead, a revolt is gathering momentum across Nepal. The Terai has been on fire. Protests have shut it down for over the past three weeks. Forty persons and policemen have been killed in the ensuing violence. The present calamity is man-made, unlike the earthquake five months ago. The violence this time is because of a disregard for the interests of the Janajati and Madhesi peoples of Nepal, consisting of several disadvantaged and subaltern social groups, including the Tharus, who are amongst its most marginalised communities.

These groups believe the promise of a democratic restructuring of the state stands subverted. The six-State federation model initially put on the table in early August by the ruling coalition, and supported by the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) [UCPN-M], as also the later version that added a Province, reflect political parsimony and gerrymandering that would effectively disenfranchise the Janajati and Madhesi communities.

Repression not the solution

Repression cannot be the right response to political disaffection. This can only increase alienation and cause irreparable long-term damage to Nepal’s national cohesion. The plan to ride out the protests by a display of force might, instead, lead to a bigger movement, as happened at the time of the Jana Andolan of 2006 and the Madhesi agitation of 2007.

The Jana Andolan unseated the monarchy. The Madhesi agitation persuaded the late Girijababu (Girija Prasad Koirala, the then Prime Minister) to guarantee a federation in Nepal, and delimit the Constituent Assembly (CA) seats in the Terai and the mid-hills, proportionate to the population. In early 2008, he enabled an eight-point agreement accepting the Madhesi people’s call for “an autonomous Madhes and other people’s desire for a federal structure with autonomous regions.”

The social and political contracts he helped create must not be cast away. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala must respect the legacy of Girijababu, at whose feet he learnt his politics, and embrace an inclusive discourse. If not, Nepal might again face troubled times, and the half-hearted republicans and closet monarchists, together with other regressive elements, might drag Nepali politics irrevocably backwards.

In pushing ahead with voting on a contested Constitution, the ruling coalition in Nepal might be on the verge of squandering the gains of their electoral victory of November 2013. Excluding the 26 nominated seats in the 601 seat Assembly, the Nepali Congress (NC) won 196 seats, followed by the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) [(CPN (UML)] which won 175, together constituting a comfortable majority. The victors should not fall victim to a sense of triumphalism. They won not because the Janajati and Madhesi voters rejected their own empowerment, but because the Maoist and Madhesi leaders did not deliver on their promises.

The Cabinet’s cosmetic invitation to the Tharu and Madhesi leaders for a dialogue, without the commitment to compromise, was like using the wick of a candle to light an electric bulb. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke with Mr. Koirala on August 25, he called for restraint, an end to violence, and restoration of social harmony. He reiterated that Nepal’s political leadership should resolve all outstanding issues through dialogue between all political parties through a process of consultation involving all the parties. This was not done.

Democracy in Nepal has had fitful progress. The overthrow of the Rana oligarchy in 1951, following King Tribhuvan’s dramatic evacuation to Delhi and triumphal return, did not immediately result in popular rule. The Interim Government of Nepal Act of 1951 limited the Cabinet’s authority. First King Tribhuvan, and from 1955 his son and successor, King Mahendra, continued to control the key levers of government, making the country’s politics palace-centric.

The lining up of political leaders at the Narayanhiti Palace — for attention and office — undermined their standing. Monarchy played musical chairs with the Cabinet, with 10 of them constituted and sacked in eight years, until a new Constitution was adopted in 1959. NC’s impressive victory was rewarded with a dismissal the following year, with the Prime Minister jailed, political parties outlawed, and multiparty democracy replaced by a party-less Panchayat regime that lasted 30 years.

The first large-scale people’s democratic movement in Nepal, known as Jana Andolan-I, brought down this regime. King Birendra quickly adjusted to the new contingency. A new Constitution was promulgated the following year; parliamentary elections held in 1991, 1994, and 1999; and local-level elections in 1992 and 1997. Democratic consolidation was prevented by palace-inspired intrigues, and from 1996, by the added challenge of the Maoist insurgency.

After King Birendra’s patricidal killing in 2001, his successor, King Gyanendra, dispensed with democratic accountability and concentrated executive authority in his hands. Based on the twin demands of democracy and social justice, a second wave of the people’s movement erupted in April 2006 that swept out the monarchy from the Nepali political system.

The demand for an inclusive democracy was not simply superimposed on Nepal’s emerging democratic edifice as a distemper that could be dusted off — the inheritance of Jana Andolan-II and the Madhesi movement of 2006-07 embedded this idea in the very foundations of the new republic.

At the very first meeting of the CA, on May 28, 2008, all members present, excluding four from Rashtriya Prajatantrik Party-Nepal, declared Nepal to be a federal democratic republic. With their common adversary — the monarchy — gone, the clashing interests of the major parties came to fore. They expended much of their energy in the making and unmaking of governments. This caused political fragmentation, especially within UCPN-M, which split into two, and the Madhesi parties, which multiplied in four years from three major parties into thirteen. CA members were not involved in the shaping of constitutional debate. The social capital accumulated by civil society in 2006-07 was largely frittered away. Compromises and consensus-making became impossible.

Differences on the nature and form of federalism cut to the heart of Nepal’s political predicament. The first CA’s Committee of State Restructuring recommendation of 14 Provinces was considered profligate. An independent High Level State Restructuring Recommendation Commission then recommended 10 Provinces. Divergence on the number, names, boundary delineation, and division of powers between Centre and Provinces continued to hold up progress.

No return to a unitary order

Despite the marginalisation of forces favouring inclusive federalism in the 2013 elections, attempts to revert to what journalist C.K. Lal describes as “the old unitary and exclusionary order” will not be politically sustainable in the long run. The lesson from the present agitation is that unless the new Constitution is equitable, and encapsulates the values emanating from the womb of the people’s movements, Nepal’s quest for democratic governance might again run aground.

First and foremost, the Nepal Army, a force of the last resort, must be pulled out from the Terai districts. Nepal’s Human Rights Commission has asked government to do so, while urging the United Democratic Madhesi Front (UDMF) to keep their agitation peaceful. In a stunning indictment of the police, the Commission noted that protesters who died or were injured had been shot in the head, chest and stomach, proving the “excessive use of force,” and violation of humanitarian norms.

The triumvirate with a combined majority in CA that can ramrod the draft Constitution through — the NC, the CPN (UML), and the UCPN-M — must eschew the temptation to promulgate a Constitution that is widely unacceptable.

Between the completion of the clause-by-clause voting and the adoption of the Constitution as a whole, they must revisit the process and seek the broadest measure of consensus. For a Constitution that has taken over seven years to negotiate, imposing an artificial deadline is incomprehensible.

The oldest and the newest Constitutions in South Asia, those of India and Bhutan, had the signatures of each and every member of their Constituent Assembly and the National Assembly, respectively. It will be a pity for Nepal to promulgate a Constitution that does not bear the signatures of all or nearly all of its CA members.

The differences affect just five of the 75 districts of Nepal, which is already assured of a federation. The effort now should be to reduce the remaining differences on the number and boundaries of the States to the barest minimum and remit the remaining issues to a commission.

Nepalis have a proven capacity for eschewing brinkmanship and showing flexibility. They have faced situations more difficult than the one that confronts Nepal today. They helped their country move from a state of insurgency and civil war to the quest for an inclusive democratic order. Visionary leadership can again overcome the clash of interests between the ruling Bahun-Chhetri elite and the Janajatis, Dalits and Madhesis. It is time for Nepal’s political leaders to show this can be done. The quest for a new Constitution has reached the last lap of a long marathon. This is not the time to stumble and fall.

(Jayant Prasad is a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal. Currently, he is advisor, Delhi Policy Group and visiting fellow at the Research and Information System for Developing Countries.)

September 27, 2015 at 3:24 am Leave a comment

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

News analysis: India should ignore criticism of its Nepal policy, continue what it's doing
Nepalese policemen face protesters dissatisfied with the country’s new constitution, on Sunday. (AP photo)
Nepal promulgated its latest constitution, seventh in its stumbling march towards “sampoorna loktantra” on September 20. Nine years after people power ousted an entrenched monarchy and brought an armed insurgency into mainstream politics, eight years after an interim constitution, two elections to a constituent assembly, followed by seven years of frustrating debates where politicians reverted to their addiction to squabbling. It took a devastating earthquake to force a sense of urgency to complete the exercise, which would form the bedrock of Nepal’s democracy.

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)


September 27, 2015 at 3:12 am Leave a comment

Constitutional error

Constitutional error

nepal, nepal constitution, nepal news, nepal new constitution, india nepal, india nepal ties, world news, india news, asia news, nepal constitution newsNepalese people gather to celebrate the adoption of the country’s new constitution, outside the constituent assembly hall in Kathmandu, Nepal, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. (Source: AP photo)

When Nepal was struck by a major earthquake in April this year, there was hope that the scale of the disaster and the urgent task of rehabilitation and reconstruction would persuade its squabbling political parties to reach an early consensus on the long-stalled process of finalising and adopting a new constitution. Impatience among its people and frustration within the international community had sharpened in the aftermath of the earthquake. However, instead of making a genuine effort to forge a broadbased consensus, the major political parties, representing the old high-caste-and-hill elite, saw this as an opportunity to push a flawed constitution through the Constituent Assembly, even reversing some of the already settled features of the interim constitution of 2007 and the 16-point agreement reached among the parties, including the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum on June 9 this year. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which had all along espoused an inclusive political and social agenda as well as a federal structure that would reflect Nepal’s ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, did a neat about-turn. A deeply entrenched and feudal mindset trumped egalitarian ideology. This is now sought to be hidden behind abusive anti-Indian rhetoric. It should have come as no surprise that the blatantly discriminatory features of the constitution should spark widespread opposition and protest. The often brutal and repressive measures visited upon hapless demonstrators have already resulted in over 40 deaths. A vicious cycle of confrontation and violence appears to be taking hold. Instead of dealing with this dangerous situation through an early and sincere dialogue with its own aggrieved citizens, the Nepal government and some of its political leaders are again indulging in ultra-nationalist and anti-India rhetoric, alienating the one friend and well-wisher they have, and one that only recently extended much-needed relief to the people of Nepal who were ravaged by the earthquake.

Nepal’s polity has failed to keep pace with the multiple and far-reaching transitions that have been taking place in the country over the past two decades and more. One, despite the efforts of its traditional hill-based elite, the democratisation process that commenced in the early 1990s and is still ongoing has spread political awareness and led to the assertion of identities and aspirations of the many ethnic and culturally diverse groups that comprise Nepal. The monochromal hill identity imposed upon its diverse people and upheld by a feudal monarchy could no longer be sustained in the more plural politics that is the reality of contemporary Nepal. The acceptance of the principle of federation was an acknowledgement of this plurality, but the new constitution has robbed it of its substance. As long as almost half the country’s population feels it has been shortchanged and subjected to institutionalised discrimination, political stability will continue to elude Nepal.

Two, there is a generational transition in Nepal that the country’s politics continues to neglect. Nepal has a demographic profile that is even younger than India’s. More than 50 per cent of its population is below 25 years of age. There is also a high net migrant rate of 61 per 1,000 of the population, reflecting the limited job opportunities available in the country. It is estimated that six to eight million Nepali nationals live and work in cities across India alone. Unlike in the past, the new generation of Nepalis are literate, have been exposed to external influences and, like India’s own youth, are aspirational and forward-looking. This includes bright young women who continue to chafe under the feudal patriarchal attitudes that still define the political elite. Consider the provisions relating to citizenship in the constitution: Children of a Nepali male marrying a foreigner will enjoy citizenship rights, but not those of a Nepali woman marrying a foreigner. The constitution perpetuates old prejudices and mindsets, instead of helping to create a political and social environment able to generate the opportunities its younger generation deserves. It is this generation that can transform Nepal’s prospects and make it one of South Asia’s most affluent countries.

Three, there is a significant change in Nepal’s external environment that its political dispensation has failed to leverage to the country’s advantage. Nepal, until recently, was a relatively isolated country, its high mountains to the north and thick forests to the south engendering a sense of mistrust, even hostility, to outsiders. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the famous king who united Nepal, is reputed to have described his country as a “yam between two rocks”, the two rocks being India and China. That sense of vulnerability, and of being under siege, still drives much of Nepal’s political behaviour. But Nepal’s proximity to the two fastest-growing and continental-size economies of the world should be seen as an asset few developing countries enjoy. India, in particular, represents a huge opportunity, rather than a threat, should its leaders begin to see their southern neighbour in a different light. One frequently hears how Nepal has suffered from having an open border with India, but whenever movement across this border has been disrupted, as one hears is becoming the case again due to violence in the Terai, it is the people of Nepal who suffer. It is the open border that allowed a large number of Nepali citizens to escape violence and economic deprivation during the decade of Maoist insurgency and seek shelter in India. The tourism and hotel industries in Nepal benefit from the several thousand Indians who travel there for leisure or pilgrimage. This dense network of relations between the two countries does not square with the yam complex, which still colours our neighbour’s perception of India.

India is right to be concerned about the spillover effect of political instability and violence across the border in Nepal. But the current crisis also exposes a continuing weakness in India’s neighbourhood policy: An attention deficit that is only episodically shaken when a crisis erupts. It also appears that there may have been mixed political messages conveyed to the Nepali side, which may have underestimated India’s reaction. Both these aspects need to be addressed in order to avoid similar crises in the future.

The writer, a former foreign secretary, was India’s ambassador to Nepal, 2002-04.

September 27, 2015 at 3:09 am Leave a comment

Blood of Yadukuha’s martyrs

Blood of Yadukuha’s martyrs


Mahottari is at the bottom of the list of districts in terms Human Development Index. Neighboring Dhanusha is a better performer, though barely so. In any case, averages hide a lot of disparities. Despite its lower status, Mahottari boasts of small towns like Bardibas, Gaushala and Matihani that may not measure up to district capital Jaleshwar, but are bazaars of distinction in their own right. However, Janakpur has overshadowed every other settlement in the district. Even Yadukuha, a sprawling settlement bang at the center of Dhanusha barely gets attention in political, social, cultural, religious or commercial discourse these days.

It takes over an hour to cover a distance of barely 16 kilometers through the earthen road that connects Yadukuha to the district headquarters. Few government officials or NGO-entrepreneurs grace the place with their visit. Donors and INGOs prefer settlements along the highway or villages near the airport during their field visits. It is such a pity because Yadukuha is not just a place but also the name of an ideal that has somehow begun to lose its potency.

For an entire generation of students in the 1970s, Yadukuha was a codeword for fierce resistance, ceaseless struggle and spirit of sacrifice. There were several reasons behind its popularity. The village is known as Shahid Nagar (Martyr Town) for warriors that laid down their lives for the cause of democracy, socialism and nationality.

During the first parliamentary elections in the country, BP Koirala had proposed to field a Yadav from this constituency. The chosen one declined on the ground that such a selection smacked of communalism. It was a Yadav-dominated constituency and the idealist politico wanted to ensure the victory of his idol Saroj Koirala to prove that the support base of Nepali Congress went beyond exigencies of caste calculations. No NC leader showed the moral and political strength to respond in a similar manner and field a Kurmi or a Koeri from Sindhuli or Okhaldhunga.

Saroj Koirala won hands down; mesmerized the Parliament with his political skills; inspired a whole generation of youngsters in the region into joining oppositional politics after the royal-military coup of 1960; and went into self-exile to keep the lamp of democratic struggle burning. He was murdered on Indian soil, allegedly on the orders of the then Anchaladhis (Zonal Commissioner) by Nepali security personnel in mufti. Whether Indian officials were complicit in the crime or not is still unknown.

In the early 1970s, security personnel killed two school students—known jointly as Kameshwar-Kusheshwar now—for their political beliefs. After Durganand Jha, these two teens became martyrs to the cause of democracy in the long-drawn fight against Panchayat for freedom. Few remember their names anymore, but they sacrificed their lives for the freedom of every Nepali. Public memory is phenomenally short, but forgetting the martyrdom of Kameshwar-Kusheswar borders on national ungratefulness.

During the People’s Movement of 1990, three rural women and two men from Yadukuha once again embraced death and succeeded in firing the imagination of every freedom-loving Nepali in the country and abroad. The People’s Movement had begun to lose momentum—the blood of martyrs from Yadukuha rekindled embers of liberty that finally spread like wildfire and consumed the autocratic Panchayat system. Perhaps there is some truth in the Christian dictum that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. The cathedral that was built in 1990 was called a multiparty democracy.

At the height of the Maoist insurgency, 11 policemen lost their lives in the vicinity of Yadukuha. Their sacrifice too did not go in vain. It created tremendous pressure upon political parties, the Maoists, the international community and the civil society to look for a peaceful settlement to the decade-long armed conflict. These security personnel were killed on line of duty and are worthy of respect for exemplary devotion to their profession.

There must be something in the earth, water, and air of Yadukuha that makes it produce persons of extraordinary courage, conviction and commitment to democracy and social justice. The state and society, however, has been less than generous in acknowledging the contributions of this village to the national life. The reason may lie in the socio-cultural degeneration brought about by the “I, me, my” ideology. Rather than martyrdom, “martyr syndrome” and “martyr complex” are prevailing ideas of our times.

A martyr is a person who is put to death, or endures great suffering on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause. A martyr to the cause of democracy, human rights, or social justice is a later addition. The idea of martyrdom is not natural to Hinduism where an act of sacrifice implies balidan—donation of someone else’s life, be that of a goat, a rooster, a buffalo, a pig, a duck, or any such living being. Human sacrifice (narbali) has passed into history. Breaking of coconut is perhaps a symbolic ritual that memorializes the archaic practice. In South Asia, valiant Sikhs borrowed the idea of martyrdom from Islam and took it to great heights. The trend got further fillip during anti-British struggles. The idea of struggle and sacrifice for liberty, equality and fraternity came to Nepal via India.

Terminology may be different, but martyr syndrome is a manipulative tactic that must have been around for ages. Some people use their self-sacrifice, real or imagined, to manipulate people around them. They expect a reward, often far in excess of their suffering, as they want to milk the misery of their past for present and future personal benefits. Politicos who keep harping about their time in jail, exile or underground and expect to be nominated to some office of profit are dime a dozen in Kathmandu. The UML is particularly rich in cadres with martyr syndrome.

Martyr complex, sometimes associated with the term victim complex, is a strange sort of psychological state that makes a person choose a life of suffering, prosecution and possible death. Their goals may or may not be clear, but such people willingly endure hardships of all kinds. The Maoist leadership has skillfully identified, trained and manipulated the burning desire of being a martyr for his/her own among a section of disillusioned youngsters.

The martyrs of the past have enriched us all—they died to ensure a better life for generations to come. Struggles of the future, however, would have to be peaceful for more impact. The hadith (narrative) said to have originated from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that “the ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr” will then become even more relevant. The ideas that martyrs held dear would nevertheless continue to inspire people for generations to come.


December 1, 2010 at 11:01 pm 3 comments

Infrastructure Of Violence

Infrastructure Of Violence

Measured with the ‘graveyard of dynasties’ yardstick, Simraungarh is settlement of historic import. Legends have it that Nanyadev, an itinerant warrior of Chalukya Dynasty, founded the Karnat House of Mithila with Simraungarh as its capital in the 11th century. Later, Muslim army from Bengal repeatedly ransacked the region between 1211-1226 but failed to annex it.

Shumshuddin Iliyas, formerly a vassal of Ghiyasuddin Tughlaq, declared himself independent of his overlord and sometime in 1345-46 finally conquered the entire Tirhut region, including the Karnat kingdom. Meanwhile, Harisimhadeva had already disappeared with his deities, queens, courtiers and concubines up into the mountains in the north in 1323 or so. Some of his descendents are believed to have ruled Kathmandu valley as Malla kings for four centuries when they finally fell one by one to the Gorkhali forces in late-18th century.

All that remains of nearly 400 years of imperial glory around present-day Simraungarh are a few earthen mounds, charcoal grains of rice said to have been burnt by invaders and huge ponds with the royal associations. Nearby Ranibas Bazaar does have a historic temple, but it was built by one of the consorts of Rana usurper Jangbahadur. Floodwaters of Bagmati and Lalbakaiya rivers have consumed even the ruins of the Karnat capital.

Some imperial legacies, however, are harder to shake off. The Gadhimai temple of Mother Goddess in nearby Bariyapur is reputedly the biggest sacrificial site in the world. Every five years, thousands of water buffaloes, pigs, goats, cows, chickens and pigeons are ritually killed to appease the celestial mother. Lawlessness is the defining feature of the blood-soaked earth of Bara district—woe betides the person who has the temerity of challenging any law-breaker in these parts. Withering away of the state is almost complete, but the resulting realm is that of bandit capitalism rather than a communist utopia.


The road from Kalaiya (the headquarters of the district administration) to Simraungarh passes through rice fields, mango orchards, fishponds and ramshackle hutments. Here and there, newly built concrete houses stand out as living monuments to remittance economy. However, there are few livestock to be seen on the way. That perhaps explains why teashops in Pathalaiya and Simra run out of milk by early afternoon—the supply is too low to fulfil even local demand. Wonder where Jitpur traders get all those goats and buffaloes to feed the ever-increasing requirement Kathmandu eateries for animal flesh? They probably buy their supplies from across the border in the vicinity of Ghorasahan Bazaar.

Relative absence of street dogs in these parts is even more striking. Locals believe that sanctified oxen, wild foxes and stray dogs were all hunted down by ration suppliers of Seema Sashatra Bal (SSB), the security force that stand guard on the Indian side of the 10-yard strip. Taste of some of their soldiers, particularly from the northeast, is believed to border on what is abhorrent to local Hindus and Muslims alike.

Canals crisscross the landscape, but beds of channels are either muddy or dry. The flow in them is dependent upon the decision of Indian authorities that control its main feeder according to the provisions of the Gandak Treaty. Alternative arrangements could have been made to keep these canals functional, but the priority of the government seems to be upon connectivity. Irrigation channels are in a state of disrepair, but their embankments that serve as rural roads are kept in passable condition. So what if the agriculture languishes? The trade must flourish.

A major chunk of commercial transactions, however, falls into the grey area. Illegal logging and timber trade is rampant. Cultivation of hemp and poppy is sometimes reported. Unauthorized import of raw materials for the Pathalaiya-Parwanipur commercial belt through earthen tracks connecting Indian border is a rule rather than the exception. All such activities have created organized gangs of adventurous entrepreneurs who operate with the connivance, if not outright cooperation, of law enforcement agencies.

A combination of religious fundamentalism, coercive apparatus of the state, easy means of cheap intoxication and instant gratification, and the ever-present encounter with disease and death without much hope for survival can transform even the most docile of population into militants.

In Simraungarh bazaar, shops are full of goods that most people do not need or cannot afford but essentials and agricultural inputs are perennially in short supply. The list of prominent landmarks of the settlement includes a multi-tiered pagoda style temple, a freshly whitewashed police post, a few arrack shops, cinema halls that screen Hindi movies, and the clinic of a quack that promises to treat almost all ailments. A combination of religious fundamentalism, coercive apparatus of the state, easy means of cheap intoxication and instant gratification, and the ever-present encounter with disease and death without much hope for survival can transform even the most docile of population into militants.

The prevailing ideology of individualism that emphasizes the creation of self-absorbed, self-indulgent and defiantly selfish consumers has resulted in disintegration of ties that bound people with each other. Decline of social norms is partly responsible for the lawlessness. However, the main culprit behind the statelessness is perhaps the increasing illegitimacy of the government. In that respect, Bara is like most other districts of Madhes and Pahad in Nepal.


Reflecting upon relationship between power and violence, political theorist Hannah Arendt once offered a powerful refutation to the dictum of Mao Tse-tung that power flowed out of the barrel of the gun. “Violence can always destroy power; out of the barrel of the gun grows the most effective command, resulting in most instant and perfect obedience,” conceded the theorist before proposing the clincher, “What can never grow out of it is power.” This is a lesson of history that the leader of the ruling coalition as well as the main opposition party seem to have missed in its entirety, groomed as most of them have been under the ideological shadow of the Great Helmsman.

A brief overview of Nepal’s own experiences is enough to show that the political influence of the Maoists grew exponentially during the period when CPN-UML and Nepali Congress took turns to shoulder the burden of governments led by stalwarts of Panchayat regime. Reversal in public opinion de-legitimized democratic order, empowered Maoists, and armed insurgency found widespread acceptability. But just as Arendt had argued, revolution was possible but not necessary when the power of the state under the direct control of an anachronistic monarchy had completely disintegrated. Nothing has yet emerged to fill the vacuum as the government attempts to rule purely on the strength of its coercive apparatus. Power is not a substitute of legitimate authority.

From the vantage point of an almost autonomous village deep in the countryside, antics of ministers in the anti-Maoist cabinet in distant Kathmandu look like bravado of puppet heroes fighting phantoms upon cardboard stages erected for them by those who control their reigns from somewhere else. Meanwhile, Maoists continue to gain economic and political strength.

It is not just the rural folks, even mill-owners of Simra and Kalaiya privately admit that allowing armed groups to grow to counter Maoists was a strategic mistake. With Maoists, the payer knows what to expect from the payee. That is hardly the case with either corrupt security officers or ideologically free armed-operators. No wonder, Maoists’ fund-raising capacity has increased without any extra effort on their part. Such an attitude, however, attracts more adventurers into politics of violence and makes existing challengers of Maoist hegemony even more brutal toward their victims. The gain for everyone is temporary while the social loss is enormous.

Nothing less than a prompt political settlement at the centre can stop the slide of the periphery into spiral of violence leading to complete anarchy, which would then engulf even those who began it all—the Maoists.


November 7, 2010 at 5:09 pm Leave a comment

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