The irony of prime minister-cum-RSS pracharak Narendra Modi’s fitful Nepal policy is that it is being rescued by none other than the most Left of Leftist politicians in the Himalayan republic, former prime minister Baburam Bhattarai.
A student of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the mid-1970s, Bhattarai was the prime motivator of the “people’s war” launched by his party, the United Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) in 1996, against Nepal’s monarchy. The civil war lasted for a decade. Then in 2006, at the height of the “jan andolan” agitation that swept Kathmandu and other parts of Nepal, India gave an ultimatum to Nepal’s last king, Gyanendra, to give up his throne. And so the Narayanhity Palace was thrown open to the people for the first time in two centuries, the Maoists came overground and the kingdom was transformed into a secular republic.
Eleven years later, Nepal is at the crossroads again. Only a week ago, on September 20, a vast majority of its 601 elected representatives passed a Constitution that is whimsical at best and discriminatory at its worst. It violates the fundamental principle of federalism (and goes back on its own promises) by denying the Terai, which comprises 51 per cent of Nepal's population (of which 22 per cent are Madhesi), a province it can call its own, the Madhes Pradesh.
It ignores the principles of linguistic and cultural diversity by riding roughshod over the indigenous peoples, the Janjatis. Its gender-unequal clauses reflect an entrenched patriarchy – the children of a Nepali male marrying a foreigner will get citizenship rights, but not those of a Nepali female.
As someone who covered – and participated -- in Nepal’s “jan andolan” moment in 2006, when progressive and liberal forces in India and Nepal joined hands to overthrow the monarchy and win the day, it is terribly disappointing to see some of those same comrades defend this outrageously twisted document. It seems that the hill elite in Kathmandu have ganged up across the political spectrum – prime minister Sushil Korala of the Nepali Congress, KP Oli of the moderately-left CPN-UML and Prachanda of the CPN-Maoist – to deny the dark-skinned Madhesis and Tharus the geographic majority they deserve in the Terai.
By gerrymandering the region that borders Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and reshaping existing provinces in a north-south direction instead of retaining their east-west character, it seems that as many as 12 districts out of the Terai’s 20 are at the risk of losing their Madhesi-Tharu majority.
As the Terai exploded in rage and violence at the injustice of it all and 40 people were killed in the space of a few weeks, legislators from Bihar went to meet Prime Minister Modi. The tension across the open border would not behove well for the Bihar polls, they said. Modi, who has spent more time on Nepal than any Indian prime minister in several decades, in the last 15 months, was equally displeased. So Modi phoned Koirala in late August, but to no avail. Then Koirala’s press advisor Prateek Pradhan wrote an editorial in the Nepali daily, Republica, criticising India’s stand on Nepal, as well as tearing into the Indian constitution.
As matters reached a head, spymaster and National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval, who has been “handling” Nepal at this time, was forced to cede ground to foreign secretary S Jaishankar. And so the PM sent Jaishankar to Nepal as his special envoy, to persuade the Nepali leadership that in the spirit of justice and fair play, they should take their own citizens, the Madhesis, on board.
But it was already too little, too late. As Ameet Dhakal, a Nepali journalist, says in scroll.in, Delhi played the role of a schoolyard bully, reprimanding Nepali leaders just two days before they passed the document.
According to Dhakal, “It wasn’t just that the message that Jaishankar brought was ill-timed and inappropriate; the brute way of its delivery was equally damning. Having read some of the Indian history books and been privy to some of Jaishankar’s meetings with our leaders, I can, confidently, say this: His stiff body language and the harsh tone matched the arrogance of British Viceroy, Lord Curzon.”
Unsurprisingly, Jaishankar’s failed visit has resulted in a ratcheting up of the tension. India insists that the discriminatory document be amended immediately to take into account the genuine and legitimate grievances of the Madhesis and the Tharus, arguing that the open border will otherwise become a hotbed of dissident activity.
Enter Maoist leader Bhattarai, who in the past has been both demonised and ridiculed by Delhi, which has called him an “apparatchik” and several other names. On Saturday afternoon, Bhattarai announced that he was quitting as a parliamentarian as well as his party, because he did not agree with the intrinsically anti-egalitarian character of the constitution.
Bhattarai’s act has in one fell swoop vindicated the Indian position, even though Bhattarai is in agreement with most of Nepal over the “informal blockade” that India has imposed, by refusing to send truckers carrying oil as well as food commodities across the many border points. Official sources in Delhi deny any truck with the truckers, saying they aren’t crossing the border because they don’t want to bear the brunt of any accidental violence.
But the fact remains that the unspoken embargo is fuelling anti-Indian rhetoric inside Nepal. Nepal’s Twitter feed is full of accusations against the "Big Brother", and hashtags like “BackoffIndia and #Hypocrisy are having a field day.
In April 2006, at the height of the “jan andolan” against the monarchy, good friend and editor of Himal magazine Kanak Mani Dixit was in jail, having been thrown there by none other than King Gyanendra. So the family smuggled him a mobile phone and the TV network for which I worked at the time took comments from Dixit every other hour. His voice was heard all over India as the voice who gave hope to the downcast and the dispirited and the disconsolate. It was the voice of freedom over oppression.
On September 25, Dixit tweeted : If it feels, smells, looks, sounds and tastes like a blockade, then it is a BLOCKADE. Nothing left to hide, India! #indiablockadesnepal
How things change in 11 years... But the truth is that if India insists on showing Nepal the mirror, it should look into it as well. Despite the PM’s personal involvement in Nepal, the ongoing crisis is really the result of India dropping the ball on its closest relationship. As the Nepali leadership descended upon India – Prachanda, Sher Bahadur Deuba, Bhattarai, all former prime ministers, and all of whom assured Delhi that the concerns of the Madhesis would be taken care of – the Indian establishment simply missed the signs.
Between Doval and Jaishankar, the Nepal relationship simply fell through the cracks.
Both men are in the US these days, flanking Prime Minister Modi as he meets CEOs in New York – 42 men and women last Thursday, worth $4.2 trillion together – and in Silicon Valley and then back again in New York, this time to meet US president Barack Obama.
Left in Delhi holding the baby and the bathwater on Nepal is external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj. Except that given the reported level of mistrust between her and the PM, she may as well go somewhere else too.