Nepal’s agitating Madhesi community on Monday called off their nearly five-month long blockade at the Indo- Nepal border. This development has brought some relief to the country, suffering from severe shortages of fuel, medicine and other supplies due to the protests against the new Constitution. “Considering the current crisis facing the nation and the public necessity and aspirations, the ongoing protest programmes of a general strike, border blockade, government office shutdown have been called off for now,” said a statement issued after the meeting of United Democratic Madhesi Front leaders. However, the statement goes on to add that the agitation will continue till their demands are met. Nepal’s Madhesi community are opposed to the new Constitution that divides their ancestral homeland under the seven-province structure and has led an ongoing blockade of key border trade points with India. The agitating community is demanding the demarcation of provinces, fixing of electoral constituencies on the basis of population and proportional representation, and have launched a protest for months that has claimed at least 55 lives. In essence, the Constitution had sought to merge the plain areas with provinces that will reportedly include large tracts of the hills. Such a formulation, according to the Madhesi leadership, would have left them at the mercy of the hill populace. Although the Madhesi community has called off the blockade, there is a long way to go before both sides arrive at a resolution. Admittedly, it is a major setback for the current Madhesi leadership. One of the primary reasons behind its latest decision to call off the protests was down to sheer exhaustion among agitators. Besides losing over 50 people to clashes with security forces, many had found it difficult to make ends meet. Suffice to say, the economy in the Terai plains has suffered immensely due to the blockade. Moreover, there is a general sense of disillusionment with the current Madhesi leadership. Editorials across various Kathmandu-based newspapers have claimed that such disillusionment could propel younger and more radical leaders to the forefront.
Although Kathmandu can breathe easy for the time being, it would be advisable on its part to maintain a high level of political engagement with the agitating community. It was only last month that the Madhesi leadership rejected a constitutional amendment passed by the Nepalese Parliament to resolve the ongoing political crisis, calling it “incomplete”. The amendments, endorsed by a two-thirds majority Saturday, addresses two key demands – proportionate representation to the minority community largely of Indian-origin and seat allocation in the Parliament on the basis of population. Madhesi lawmakers, who had boycotted the voting process, said that the amendment was “incomplete”, as it fell short of addressing certain concerns. Key Madhesi demands, including a review of the delineation of provincial borders through a political committee and the redrawing of federal boundaries, remain unanswered. Unfortunately, reports indicate that Kathmandu will most likely reject the former demand. Where does India come in? The blockade had led to a strain in the bilateral ties, with Kathmandu accusing New Delhi of imposing an “unofficial blockade”. However, India maintains that it has imposed no such blockade, and the restrictions are a result of security concerns arising from the protests in the Terai region of Nepal bordering India.
Under these circumstances, it is imperative to note that the announcement to end the border blockade comes ahead of Prime Minister K P Oli’s trip to India on February 19. It will be Oli’s first overseas visit as the new Nepalese premier. New Delhi will most likely press for the quick resolution of Madhesi demands. However, one hopes that this time around New Delhi would show more restraint and subtlety while lobbying for the Madhesi community.