Two elephants trample the grass in Nepal

Murari Sharma

Hundreds of Nepalis protested against the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 12 November in front of the iconic British parliament, when he visited there. They shouted slogans against Modi and India, triggered by the allegedly unofficial Indian economic blockade of Nepal, after the new constitution of Nepal was promulgated on 20 September 2015. This mirrors the growing tension between Nepal and India, helping neither country.

The new constitution — which came after the Maoist insurgency that took 15,000 lives, abolition of monarchy, election of the Constituent Assembly for the second time, and devastating earthquakes in April and May this year — should have been a matter of happiness and celebration across the country. But unfortunately, that has not been the case.

On the contrary, a section of the population in the plains — known as Terai — have been protesting against the statute which they find not inclusive enough and does not meet their demand for one or two exclusive provinces for the Terai people. To force the government to amend the new charter, they have also picketing at a few Nepal-India border points, around which they are strongly represented.

They have mainly picketed Raxaul and a few other places, while most other border points remain free of obstruction. Yet India has reduced to trickle the movement of trucks from both sides  especially carrying petroleum products and medicines, at all border points, citing insecurity in Nepal.

Consequently, life in Nepal become extremely onerous. Hospitals have run out of medicine. Miles long lines for cooking gas, petrol and diesel have become a common sight in Kathmandu and other towns. Shortage of fuel has forced schools, colleges and factories to close and development activities to stop.

This has fomented anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal. Anti-India protests have become common in towns and in social media. Two Nepali deputy prime ministers have publicly blamed India for its unofficial blockade and the prime minister has joined the chorus, though less explicitly. The London protest was only its spill-over.

India has blamed Nepali politicians and the protests on the Nepal side for the obstruction and asked the government of Nepal to resolve the political crisis to ensure the normal flow of goods through the border points.

The situation has become so bad in Nepal that the United Nations has warned of a humanitarian crisis. The blockade has not only dampened the Nepali festivals, but also impeded the reconstruction of the earthquake devastated homes and infrastructures and normal development activities.

Kathmandu’s effort to resolve the crisis has not met with much success. Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa secured assurances from New Delhi to divert supplies from unobstructed border points, which were not followed through. Frustrated by this, Nepal has approached China for help and sought open supply lines from other countries as well.

Beijing has offered 1.3 million liter fuel in grant, signed a memorandum to supply one-third of Nepal’s fuel demand, and expedited the opening of the two roads that were blocked by the earthquakes. Suppliers from other countries have also shown interest. However, time and transportation cost are not on Nepal’s side. Opening new supply lines takes time. Transportation cost of imports from China and other countries is going to be much higher than from India.

This is not the first time India has imposed economic blockade. In the late 1960s, it had imposed it when Nepal removed the Indian check points from Nepal-China border. The second time, it used this tool when Nepal imported some weapons from China, against the treaty of 1950 between the two countries.

Such blockades recur because of the conflict between the strategic and economic interests of India and China in Nepal. India wants to bring Nepal into its security fold and monopolize the use of Nepal’s abundant water resources. China wants to break India’s stranglehold in Nepal, especially after Nepal opted for a federal structure and abolished the monarchy.

Although Nepal remains largely in the Indian orbit, India perceives that a stronger voice and vote of Terai people of Indian origin in Kathmandu will further strengthen its hand and repulse Chinese inroads. Therefore, it has provided tacit support to the protesting groups in Terai.

China sees it as detrimental to its interests for the same reason, fearing that ethnic federalism that Terai people are demanding may encourage it across Nepal, including on the borders of its volatile Tibet region. Therefore, China wants to help Nepal ride over this fuel crisis.

It is a fight between two elephants, and it is trampling the grass in Nepal.

That is not to suggest that the demands of the protesting groups are not genuine. Most of them are, and Kathmandu needs to address them as promptly and fairly as possible.  If it can address its internal problems swiftly, it will give less room for foreign powers to meddle in its internal affairs.

Although the public ire is directed against India now, people will soon begin to hold the government to account and the continued shortages of essential commodities will not win public favor. So Kathmandu needs to address the internal political problem quickly and promote its cause by striking a balance between its bigger neighbors’ vital interest.

It will be a mistake for Modi to antagonize Nepal — like Maldives, Sri Lanka and Pakistan — and push it into the Chinese embrace, when he needs regional support to win  a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. He should have understood it without the protests in London and Kathmandu.

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