How Nepal can defuse the crisis
The only solution for PM Oli is to open serious talks with the Madhesi leaders and amend the Constitution.
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The death of an Indian in Nepal may - or may not - finally spur Nepal's hill elite, led by Prime Minister KP Oli, to take a long, hard look at the burning issues in his own Terai. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strongly taken up the matter with Oli and asked for an inquiry, while the ministry of external affairs issued a sharply-worded statement.
"Issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved by force. Causes underlying the present state of confrontation need to be addressed by the government of Nepal credibly and effectively," it said.
According to the Nepal home ministry, the Indian man, Ashish Ram, died when he was throwing a petrol bomb and the Nepal Armed Police fired a warning shot.
But that doesn't explain why the bullet wound is on the side of his head. According to witnesses, the man was visiting a relative in Birgunj and was returning home to Raxaul, across the border in Bihar.
This death seems part of a pattern that has been seen in Nepal's Terai these past 80 days, which is how long the Terai agitation has been on and where 52 people have been killed, most of them from bullet wounds in the head or chest or elsewhere above the waist. Considering police forces all over the world are supposed to shoot below the knees, to maim and halt the opponent, the intention here seems to be something else.
In Birgunj on Monday, this reporter and photographer-colleague Ranjan Rahi were the only Indian journalists to have witnessed several bouts of stone-throwing between the police and unarmed protesters demanding a "Madhes Pradesh," or a province for the people of Indian origin who have lived in the Terai for at least a couple of hundred years. The tragedy is that the journalists covering the story are also split along political lines.
The so-called Madhesi journalists, with names like Yadav and Jha, believe that the Kathmandu elite from the "pahar" do not want to give the Madhes equal and fundamental rights like those enjoyed by the fairer-skinned, ethnically different Nepalis in the hills. Sadly, Kathmandu newspapers have been treating the agitation as if the Madhesi protesters were spoilt children indulging in dangerous tantrums.
The unspoken thread is that India has taken the side of the Madhes agitation. Madhesis believe that India should do much more, because it is the biggest power in the region and what use is power if you don't use it. While the Kathmandu elite is enormously resentful of India exercising its muscle and believes it is hampering the movement of essential goods, including oil and natural gas, across the Raxaul-Birgunj border. India vigorously denies the charge.
The presence of a line of trucks, several kilometres long, stretching all the way from Raxaul, the border town on the Indian side, up to Sugauli, some 30km away, is ironical because it is at Sugauli in 1816 that the East India Company gave the rulers of Nepal the "independence" to rule their country. But Nepal was never completely independent of the British until the British left the subcontinent in 1947. Subsequently in 1950, Nepal and India signed a treaty in which both citizens were allowed the right to work in each other's country. An open border, running along the 1,800km-length of the Terai, confirmed the special relationship.
So when the agitation entered the 80th day on Sunday, November 1, and Madhesi leaders like Upendra Yadav, Rajendra Mahato, Mahant Thakur and Mahen-dra Yadav were in Janakpur, further east in the Terai, meeting to decide how to take forward their agitation, the Nepal police broke into the tents of the Madhesi protesters camped on the India-Nepal border at Birgunj and started raining blows on them.
Satyadev, a tea-seller and an "andolankari", an agitationist, still trembling from the beating when we met him in the evening, said the police abused him, broke his teapot and took his Rs 700 away from him.
Asked why Manoj Kumar, a small-time businessman, was supporting the Madhes agitation, he said: "Before we are businessmen, we are citizens. We support this agitation because we want the Madhes to be equal to the Pahar."
The roots behind this agitation go back to as long ago as you want, most recently last month, when the Constitution passed by the Parliament did not allow representation based on population but on geography. Meaning, Nepal's constituencies in the Madhes have different standards from those in the Pahar. Elected representatives in the Madhes are elected on the basis of much larger populations, say one lakh people to one constituency, while in the Pahar it is about 5,000 people. This has given rise to enormously skewed representation in the new Parliament.
Moreover, the so-called Pahar has also changed the character of the Madhesi constituencies it has demarcated in the Terai, by joining several hill districts. Madhesis say the Pahar wants to destroy the "roti-beti" character of the Madhes, in which Indian women from across-the-open-border in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh will now be treated as "foreigners" for up to 5 years if they are married to men in the Madhes.
To his credit, Modi has pressed the Kathmandu elite since he came to power last year to iron out these fundamental issues of identity and citizenship. A failure to do so has resulted in the agitation in the Terai.
The only solution staring at Nepal in the face is for Prime Minister Oli and his deputy, Kamal Thapa, to open serious talks with the Madhesi leaders and amend the Constitution. Any further delay will have serious consequences not only for all of Nepal and India, but for all of South Asia.