New Delhi: Even as there are grave worries that violence in Terai signalled rising frustration in the Nepali plains, India is unlikely to raise a hue and cry over the killings of four Madhesi activists, and will likely break its silence this week with boilerplate diplomatic statements.
On Monday, March 6, police opened fire at members of the seven-member federal alliance, United Madhesi Democratic Front (UMDF), who were agitating at a public meeting of the East-West campaign of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxists Leninists (UML) in Saptari district. Four Madhesi protestors were killed in the police firing during clashes between the Terai parties and the UML activists.
During the two-day strike called by the Madhesi parties, life in Terai came to a standstill, as Madhesi Morcha activists ensured that markets and schools remained closed, burnt tyres and attacked the UML party office. The house of chief election commissioner Ayodhee Prasad Yadav was also vandalised. In the capital, the Madheshi parties gave notice to the government of being ready to leave the government
The United Nations, US embassy and UK high commission have already issued public statements, expressing concern at the violence and the deaths of the Madhesi activists, and have called on security forces to exercise maximum restraint. But, even three days since the violence – the most serious clashes in Terai since the end of the border ‘blockade’ in 2015 – India has remained conspicuously silent.
With the Nepali opposition continuing to play up the ‘foreign hand’ as backing the Madheshis, Indian officials have considered it “prudent” to remain mum rather than act as tinder in an already over-charged political landscape.
Therefore, when India’s new official spokesperson Gopal Baglay, a known hand in Nepal, gave India’s first response four days after the violence, it is largely on the same lines as that stated by other foreign governments this week.
“It is a matter of deep concern to us that lives have been lost. We have urged all parties, all concerned to exercise restraint. We will continue to remain engaged with all side,” he said on Thursday.
About the “constitutional process,” Baglay said that leaders in Nepal should hold discussions in a “peaceful manner, consultations with everyone concerned and in a way to reach and inclusive arrangement”. The word ‘inclusive’ has been an old catchword in Indian statements about Nepal’s political process.
“For us, peace, stability and progress of Nepal is of paramount importance and we will continue to make efforts together with parties in that regard,” he added.
India’s reserve is actually not surprising. New Delhi has been largely silent as the Nepal government pushed and pulled in different directions over the constitutional amendment Bill over the last three months. Even when it became clear that Nepal government’s priority had changed from passing the constitutional amendment Bill to holding local government polls, which led the Madheshi parties to cry foul, there was no public recrimination from India.
Then Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Swarup had commented last month that India was “supportive of initiatives of the Nepal government,” along with expressing hope that all sides continued to “engage” with each other for a successful conclusion.
India will resurrect this principle of ‘inclusive’ dialogue again when an official response is posted this week.
New Delhi does not want to go beyond routine diplomatic phrasing, as it does not see a need to put the Nepali Congress-Maoist government under extra pressure, even as it already has limited space to manoeuvre politically.
As a fall-out of the police shooting, the UDMF submitted a five-point memorandum to Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’ on Wednesday (March 8), which included an ultimatum of it being implemented within seven days. The four other points are: the postponement of the local elections scheduled for May 14; approval of the constitutional amendment; provincial jurisdiction of local bodies; and implementing the three-point agreement reached between the Madheshi alliance and NC-CPN (Maoist Centre) in August. In response, the Prachanda government announced an inquiry into the shooting by a committee led by a former Supreme Court judge.
Complicated political circumstances
While observers from New Delhi believe that the government does not face an immediate threat, the violence in Terai on Monday – and the continuing agitation – is a “very serious” complication in the current imbroglio.
There is disquiet that the mood on the streets in Terai is seething again, as radical elements find more favour, with the perception having gained ground that demands of the Madhesis were getting repeatedly “short changed”.
The Madhesi parties had joined hands with the coalition, hoping to have a more favourable dispensation than the previous K.P. Oli-led UML government to meet its demands.
The Nepal government had asked the Madhesis to support the local bodies election in May, with the assurance that the constitutional amendment would be passed before it. Nepal’s second constitutional amendment Bill relates to boundary delineation of provinces, official language, citizenship and representation in the upper house of parliament.
Most of the Madhesi parties already had to do expend some political capital in reconciling with the Prachanda government’s version of the Bill, as they had lingering concerns on certain provisions. Having reluctantly come on board, they then found that it was just a mirage.
The Madhesi parties had also been aggravated at the report of the Local Bodies Restructuring Commission, which had recommended that Madhesi-majority areas should have just 35% of the local bodies. This is a sore point, since as per government figures, Madhesis and Paharis each account for half of Nepal’s total population.
The proportion of local bodies for Madhesis is important, as the top elected officials of these rural and urban bodies will form the electoral college for the National Assembly, the upper house of parliament.
The Nepal cabinet added 21 more local bodies in the Madheshi-majority province 2, with an assurance of more additions later based on a political consensus. But this restructuring has run into legal hurdles, with a challenge submitted before Nepal Supreme Court.
With both the constitutional amendment and the local bodies issues currently obstructed, Indian observers have been worried at the rising levels of frustration in the plains, especially among the youth.
The Madhesi leaders’ space to strike any political deal are hedged in due to “anger” in the Terai. “Look at their main demands. Nothing is moving. If the moderate Terai leaders compromise, they will be completely marginalised,” said a former Indian government official who had witnessed the developments in the Himalayan nation in an official capacity.
On the other side, the principal opposition, UML, has hardly any motivation to soften their position. Oli believes that the party has found the winning formula of ‘hill nationalism’ to ride them to power at the Centre.
A possible option would be postpone the local elections, as the Madhesis had demanded. This would give some time to Dahal to quickly pass the constitutional amendment and put a cap on the volatile situation.
While the need for local elections is urgent, as they have not been held for 20 years, some quarters believe that the constitution will not “collapse” if the local elections are postponed but the federal elections are held on time by January 2018.
According to analysts, even Oli may not oppose the postponement of local polls as his sight is firmly set on the parliamentary elections. With elections to local bodies fought mainly on micro issues, the nationalism plank may not yield returns to the UML at this level.
At the same time, Oli has been determined to show that UML also has support in Terai, where it won over 36 seats in 2013. He has been rather contemptuous of the Madhesi parties – whose splintered existence has meant that they have not been able to get enough votes to taste electoral success. Madhesi parties got 13 seats in the 2013 parliamentary elections, down from 43 in 2008.
However, a move to postpone local elections could run into trouble within the ruling coalition, as Prachanda is supposed to give up his post as prime minister to Nepali Congress president Sher Bahadur Deuba after the polls as part of an understanding. A postponement of local elections could, therefore, put pressure on the strength of the coalition.
Further, the passage of the constitutional amendment through parliament would require Prachanda to forge new links. This could either be with Madhesi Janadhikar Forum-Loktantrik chair Bijaya Kumar Gachhadar and former foreign minister Kamal Thapa of the pro-monarchy Rashtriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) – even though the Maoist leader would require all his political acumen to get both of them to make a U-turn and let the constitutional amendment Bill sail through parliament.
With Thapa having recently emerged stronger after internal party elections, there is a view that the RPP, despite its Hindutva agenda, could be the best route, as per well-informed observers. On Wednesday, Thapa announced the postponement of the party’s political campaign due to the Saptari incident.
A day later, Dahal managed to bag RPP for the ruling coalition . Thapa is joining the government as deputy prime minister, with efforts being made to lure Gachchadar.