Foreign intervention over Nepal’s constitution, particularly from India, has overshadowed local concerns.
Many groups are not happy with Nepal’s new constitution—which was adopted in September—particularly with issues of political representation, citizenship rights and gender equality. Protests have been ongoing since August, claiming at least 48 lives, with roughly 30 million people seeing their daily livelihood affected.
To complicate matters, India—Nepal’s all-too-powerful neighbor and only viable trading partner—has unofficially stopped all supplies through major trade routes by veiling its disagreement with Nepal’s new constitution as “security concerns” for itself.
This unwarranted foreign interference has marred the spirit of discussion and debate in a nascent democracy like Nepal. India’s meddling has overshadowed actual concerns by effectively limiting the stances one can take on the matter. Media reporting on genuine concerns has been largely laced with preexisting prejudices and, sometimes, partisanship. This kind of agenda-based journalism has added to the existing polarization in Nepal.
The Women’s Rights Camp
The earliest opposition to the new constitution was over the limitations it placed on the right of women to pass on full Nepali citizenship to their children. This prevents children born to foreign fathers from vying for executive posts in the country—in much the same way that naturalized citizens are treated in other parts of the world.
Moreover, conferring naturalized citizenship is dependent on the state and is not a fundamental right, leaving room for discrimination in the future. In principle, this provision flies in the face of gender equality and the modern women’s rights movement, as it makes it difficult for single mothers and women with adopted children or a foreign spouse from passing on Nepali citizenship to their children. Today, only one in seven countries in the world has such seemingly discriminatory provisions for citizenship transfer. It is worth mentioning that citizenship transfer through the mother is an issue mostly in the Madhes region of Nepal, where cross-border marriages with India often take place.
In fact, the authors’ analysis of the Nepal Census 2011 data shows that almost 8.5% of married women between ages 18-49 in the Terai belt were born abroad—almost all of them in India. Although statistics on the matter are hard to find, it is reasonable to assume that a similarly large number of Nepali women would be married to Indian nationals and live in India. The reasoning that resulted in the citizenship provision seems to be that with an unconditional citizenship transfer through the mother, many current Indian citizens would come to Nepal to vie for executive posts. An outright Indian influence through a client government is the unfounded fear that shapes most of Nepal’s political discourse and fuels most of its sense of nationalism.
Nepali women, many of whom are either educated and/or residing abroad, are leading the women’s rights camp. In the face of recent ethnic violence and the Indian blockade of trade routes, a majority of this group has toned down the anti-constitution rhetoric. Their strategy seems to be devised around peaceful dissent against the state, and hence, the movement has become less vocal. More pressing concerns like ethnic federalism and the Indian blockade have taken center stage.
Yet such attention-seeking antics like burning the constitution by some vocal members have hurt the feelings of nationalists, who were sympathetic to the cause of women and were hopeful that the issue could be resolved.
Madhesi Activist Camp
The protesting minority camp (referred to as Madhesis) alleges, among other things, that the new constitution demarcates federal states in a way that forces the ethnic Madhesis to become minorities in all resulting states. This is a contentious issue because it conflates geography with ethnicity. Although 50% of Nepal’s population lives in the Madhes belt, roughly only one-third of them are ethnic Madhesis. Since not every Madhesi is a minority, the issue of proportional political representation is difficult one. There is also concern that non-Madhesi residents of this region will be opposed to demarcation demanded by Madhesis. Both sides—pro-constitution and the Madhesis—have some convincing arguments to their merit, which has resulted in the zero-sum-game nature of this conflict.
The reasoning behind the current demarcation seems to be a certain level of gerrymandering, coupled with the fear that a Madhesi-controlled state could hold the capital hostage anytime by blocking access to India. Since Madhesis are socio-culturally similar to Indians, the subconscious bias among “mainland” Nepalis is to lump them together with Indians. As a result of such thinking, giving Madhesis any kind of significant power would be akin to violating the sovereignty of the nation. The constitution reflects this outlook to some extent, as it limits political power at the Madhes heartland.
Many educated people, mostly Nepalis of Madhesi descent, are heading the discussion for this camp. The Madhesi Morcha—an alliance of Madesh-based political parties—is leading the efforts on the ground. Morcha’s proximity to the Indian political establishment has left many onlookers and analysts wondering if it is acting on India’s behalf. The group has often resorted to violence in the past few months, killing more than eight police officials in the process. The state, for its part, has killed more than 40 protesters in retaliation. This camp is quick to label anyone advocating restraint as elite, and is pivotal in polarizing the diverse stakeholders of the constitution into the binary of “pro-Madhes” versus “hilly elites.”
Some of the members of this camp—again mostly either living or educated abroad—have hurt nationalist sentiments by openly calling for Indian intervention. Lack of coordination and an appropriate strategy has resulted in the movement for rights for minorities being morphed into a debate for anti-Indian versus pro-Indian interference. Some intellectuals have drawn comparisons with the Tamil uprising in Sri Lanka and called it another failure of Indian foreign policy.
Anti-Indian Interference Camp
Most of Nepal’s trade lies with India. In fiscal year 2013-14, Nepal’s total export was worth $900 million, out of which $700 million was to India. Similarly, Nepal imported $6.7 billion worth of commodities, with $4.5 billion worth of commodities coming from India. Since the signing of the new constitution, India, in clear violation of several international laws and conventions, has stopped sending essential supplies to Nepal, citing security concerns. It has yet to officially call it a blockade.
This measure has created a large, vocal and passionate camp of nationalists in Nepal. The more vocal members among this group are quick to dismiss anyone who objects to the constitution as Indian puppets. The less vocal—the large majority—are hopeful that the dissenting parties can be appeased with amendments to the constitution so they go about their daily lives with access to basic necessities. The scar of resentment toward India, however, is sure to last for generations.
Riding the wave of anti-Indian sentiments, some politicians who had fallen out of grace with the public have become newly-instated defenders of the state. The anti-Indian camp—which now includes several influential political leaders—has called for Chinese interference, and as a result, Nepal has recently signed its first fuel treaty with China.
Most of the stories that come out in international media refer to the Indian blockade as Nepal’s fuel crisis. There is a distinctive difference in narratives told by Nepali media when compared to their international counterparts. Some reporters are not helping the cause by unabashedly siding with India. A report by Human Rights Watch has also seen some criticism, with some claiming that it is decidedly anti-state and does not do justice to all sides of the story.
Some political analysts have noted that a strained Indo-Nepal relationship has graver implications for India’s influence in the subcontinent. There has been long-standing suspicion against Indian motives in significant factions of political establishments in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan.
India, for its part, frequently points to the deaths of protesters in the riots to indicate the Nepali government’s incompetency in controlling its own situation and to justify New Delhi’s interference. The death of an Indian national in November during the protests only added fuel to the fire.
What India fails to see, however, is that incompetency is not enough grounds for foreign intervention. For instance, in August, ten protesters died in India’s own state of Gujarat, fighting for similar issues of representation and rights.
The general sense among Nepalis, partly fueled by an inferiority complex that inevitably comes from being the smaller nation, is that India is pulling its weight and preventing the true story from getting out there.
An exception is the coverage in the Chinese media, which has not pulled any punches when it comes to blaming the Indian blockade for Nepal’s fuel crisis from the beginning. China has also agreed to supply fuel to mitigate the shortage created by the blockage. Of course, the Chinese generosity comes with a tacit understanding that Nepal will be cooperative toward China when needed. Perhaps the most important issue for Beijing would be the issue of Tibetan refugees and favorable treatment of Chinese investments in Nepal.
Latest statistics from the Department of Industries show that China still lags behind India in terms of total investments in Nepal. China would certainly like to change this. The two major parties in Nepal’s current coalition government are communist—the Marxist-Leninists and the Maoists—thus, the current Chinese proclivity isn’t out of the ordinary.
Indian media outlets seem to be convinced that this was a deliberate ploy on China’s part. But there are reasons to believe that India still holds some arguably major cards in Nepal’s internal matters. The chief opposition party, the Nepali Congress, and the second-in-command of the Maoist side of the coalition government—who are both known to have strong ties to India—abandoned the government immediately after New Delhi expressed its discontent with the constitution. At least two of the several deputy prime ministers in the current government also have a reputation for being sympathetic to Indian influence.
Some political analysts have noted that a strained Indo-Nepal relationship has graver implications for India’s influence in the subcontinent. There has been long-standing suspicion against Indian motives in significant factions of political establishments in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Maldives and Bhutan. Such factions will likely use this stand-off as a license to minimize Indian influence in the region and develop closer ties to China.
Other analysts believe that India’s own obsession with China’s growing influence in the region has resulted in erratic diplomatic moves. By shifting the narrative to the influence tussle between India and China, international media have not only undermined Nepal’s sovereignty, but also overshadowed the legitimate concerns against its current constitution.
Hindu Nationalist Camp
Nepal has traditionally been a Hindu monarchy, and there have been voices that wanted the state to protect the Hindu national status. The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in India owes much of its popularity to its pandering of fundamentalist Hindus, and influencing Nepal to become a Hindu nation would earn the government an extra brownie point.
Thus, there have been those who believe the Hindu camp was buoyed by Indian support. But the constitution ultimately declared Nepal to be a secular state. Although there have been isolated voices which argue that the constitution does not go far enough in guaranteeing protection for all religions, the general consensus seems to be that Nepal is unequivocally secular. The Hindu nationalist camp, although vocal and sometimes violent during the constitution writing process, has since toned down its dissent and has fully accepted the result of the democratic process.
When emotions are involved, it gets increasingly difficult to disentangle facts from opinions. All of the abovementioned camps reflect that to some extent. Three months after what was supposed to be the latest “new beginning” for Nepal, people find themselves grappling with much of the same problems. It appears that the earthquake, for all its destruction, had at least imbued a sense of unity and common purpose among the people.
But the country continues to stumble from one crisis to another. The situation, which otherwise might have been solved through dialogue and peaceful dissent, has been exacerbated by India’s interference. By blocking access to much needed goods for over a hundred days, openly calling for Nepal to revise its newly formed constitution and taking sides in an internal conflict, India has polarized opinions inside Nepal, given legitimacy to the extremists in both the “hilly elite” camp and “Madhesis-as-Indians” camp, and drowned legitimate concerns. Hopefully the situation is not yet beyond diplomatic repair.
*[Authors’ note: This article does not encompass recent developments on the ground in Nepal. The sentiment among the various camps, however, has not changed. Recent attempts to resolve the crisis through dialogue have not been successful. On December 21, the Nepali government announced that it would amend the constitution.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.