After months of agitation, Nepal witnessed a big political breakthrough on Sunday. The Nepalese government, led by KP Sharma Oli, finally decided to make amendments to the new Constitution to accommodate Madhesi demands. Such a breakthrough could pave the way for the return of normalcy in the Himalayan nation. More importantly, it could result in the lifting of an economic blockade on goods from India imposed by Madhesi protestors. Due to the agitations and the subsequent blockade, the entire country has been reeling under severe hardships due to the lack of essential supplies, especially fuel and cooking gas. What is worse, these shortages have come soon after a devastating earthquake. It is clear that the recent promulgation of a new Constitution has been the cause of much ethnic and civil strife in the nation. More than fifty people have been killed thus far in police firing or ethnic clashes. The primary source of conflict has arisen from Madhesis and Tharus inhabiting the Terai plains in Nepal, a region that is contiguous to India. Suffice to say, the agitation in the Terai plains touched a nerve on Sunday, when a 16-year-old boy was shot and killed in police firing. The Madhesi community has accused Nepal’s lawmakers of backtracking on its promise to create “fully autonomous” federal state in the plains. The Constitution has sought to merge the plain areas with provinces that will reportedly include large tracts of the hills. Such a formulation, according to the Madhesis, will leave them at the mercy of the hill population. To the uninitiated, the Madhesis constitute a significant chunk of Nepal’s population. Moreover, the Madhesis share close ethnic ties with Bihar. No wonder New Delhi welcomed the big political breakthrough in Nepal. “We are confident that a return to normalcy in Nepal would create a more secure and predictable climate for unhindered commerce between our two countries,” said India’s External Affairs Ministry in a recent press release. Until the agitation had reached crisis point, Oli refused to clear the amendments. In fact, he had even refused to acknowledge that there was a problem, believing it to be completely created by India.
In response to the economic blockade in the past, the KP Oli government had bought some fuel from China. For a certain period, the oil trade between China National United Oil Corporation and Nepal Oil Corporation had allowed the erstwhile Himalayan kingdom to diversify its sources for essential commodities. Before the unofficial blockade, India was a key supplier of essential commodities flowing into Nepal. With elections in Parliament to key constitutional positions resolved—including its Prime Minister, President, and Vice President—mainstream political parties must address the Madhes problem with greater urgency. “The parties seem close to an agreement on a few demands, especially those relating to delineating electoral constituencies according to population and providing for proportional and inclusive representation. The major unresolved dispute remains that of delineation of boundaries of provinces. If there is enough political will, this should not be too difficult to resolve either,” according to a recent editorial in Kathmandu Post, a leading Nepalese daily. Therefore, it is heartening to note that Kathmandu is willing to even address the issue of provinces’ demarcation that they had earlier said would not be touched. But in the last talks between the agitators and the government, Madhesi leaders rejected any compromise solution that did not take the demarcation issue into consideration.
Beside fears of violence in the Terai plains spilling over into India, New Delhi is confronted by other geostrategic challenges posed by Beijing. According to certain strategic experts, certain segments of the Communist leadership have furthered China’s agenda in the promulgation of the Constitution, which largely keeps the Madhesis politically under-represented. These experts go on to suggest that Beijing deems the Madhesis to be stooges of the Indian establishment. Irrespective of Beijing-led propaganda, India must ensure that China remains in check. New Delhi must ensure that by diplomacy the Madhesi people get their due, as do the Tharus, and also the common Nepalese. New Delhi’s inability to cajole the Madhesis into lifting the blockade was a failure. Diplomacy means ensuring all get their due in consonance with India’s national interests. A final resolution must arrive soon for Nepal so that the country can rework its Constitution and hasten the process of post-earthquake reconstruction work.