India’s Nepal Policy Needs Caution, Not Grandstanding

India has reacted strongly to Nepal’s new constitution. In India’s official statements issued on the subject, the promulgation of the new Constitution has just been “noted”, not welcomed. Concern has been expressed over the disturbed situation in the Terai region that borders India. Nepal has been urged to resolve differences “through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation” so as to “enable broad-based ownership and acceptance”. India’s ambassador in Kathmandu spoke to Nepal’s Prime Minister about the difficulties being faced by India’s “freight companies and transporters” in “movements within Nepal” due to prevailing unrest. This may, if allowed to persist, result in essential supplies from India to Nepal getting disrupted.

The statements and the underlying warning on the issue of supplies have brought a sudden low in the bilateral relationship which had received a boost after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to Nepal in 2014.

In some ways, the situation is reminiscent of 1989, when King Birendra’s decision to import anti-aircraft guns from China and refuse to reform the Panchayat system in the face of the democratic movement precipitated tensions in India-Nepal bilateral relations. At the same time, the India-Nepal trade treaty lapsed and the Rajiv Gandhi government closed down the special entry points for trade and transit – resulting in the severe shortage of essential supplies in Nepal.

India’s objections

India has its reasons to be upset with the way Nepali leaders have gone about the constitution-making process. Three of them are obvious and openly stated. First, the constitution as promulgated is not inclusive. It ignores the aspirations and sensitivities of the Madhesis, the janjatis (tribal groups), dalits and women. This is contrary to the spirit of the Jan Andolan-II that created a vision of New Nepal and against the assurances given by the late Girija Prasad Koirala as Prime Minister in 2007 during the Madhes agitation. Janjatis and women had also been repeatedly assured that their concerns would be accommodated. Then, the manner in which the promulgation was effected is clearly in conflict with the principle of consensus adopted in Nepal’s interim Constitution. The leaders of the major political parties belonging to the dominant hill social groups have ignored the wishes of the marginalised groups in the new constitution. The marginalised groups are accordingly agitating against the bulldozing of the constitutional process. The use of force by the government to suppress the agitation has resulted in the loss of more than 40 lives, with many more injured. Life has come to a standstill in nearly 20 of the 22 Terai districts of Nepal. There are also agitations in Kathmandu which have been joined by monarchists, Hindutva forces and extremist Maoist splinter groups.

The second reason for India’s reaction is that the violence in the Terai region can spill over into the bordering Indian areas. Particulalrly sensitive in this respect is Bihar, which is in the midst of a crucial electoral process. The ruling BJP has very high stakes in the Bihar elections and fears that violence and instability in the Nepal Terai will help its opponents led by Nitish Kumar, Lalu Prasad and the Congress party. It is feared in New Delhi that if the conflict between the Kathmandu authorities and the marginalised groups, particularly the Terai people, is not resolved amicably soon, the persisting turbulence will continue to adversely affect India’s bordering region.

The third and most important factor behind New Delhi’s displeasure arises from the Modi government’s feeling of being ignored in the constitutional process. India had been encouraging Nepali leaders to draft an inclusive and democratic constitution. In his address to the Constituent Assembly in August 2014, Modi had hoped that Nepal’s new constitution would be like a bouquet of flowers representing the different shades of Nepal’s communities, regions and opinions – and reflecting a broad national consensus. His address had been universally acclaimed in Nepal. He underlined the same theme during his second visit to Kathmadu during the SAARC summit in November last year. He has also done his best to lift Indo-Nepal relations by trying to fulfil pending Indian promises and committing India’s support and help in Nepal’s development. During the earthquake in Nepal, India went out of its way in extending all possible support. The Nepali leaders, have, however, been unresponsive to Indian concerns regarding the constitutional process.

Modi ignored

Some prominent Nepali leaders like Sher Bahadur Deuba of the Nepali Congress, Madhav Nepal of the Communist Party of Nepal–United Marxist Leninist (UML) and Prachanda of the United Communist Party of Nepal – Maoists, were invited for consultations to New Delhi to make them appreciate India’s concerns. All of them endorsed these concerns and assured India that marginalised groups would be accommodated. But there were no signs of this being done as the process started moving towards conclusion.

Barely a week before the promulgation of the constitution, External Affairs minister Sushma Swaraj in a statement on September 14, 2015, recalled “the encouraging voices… from Nepalese leaders” that “the Constitution will carry along all regions and sections”. She expressed India’s concern “over the ongoing protests and strife in several parts of Nepal” and urged “continuing flexibility on the part of all the political forces so that all outstanding issues are addressed through dialogue and widest possible agreement, in an atmosphere free from violence”.

Not only did this not make any difference to the situation in Nepal and the direction of the constitution making process, but instead India was blamed for inciting violence in the Terai and interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala’s press adviser wrote an article in a Nepali newspaper asking India to desist from such interference.

Finally, the Nepal Constituent Assembly adopted the constitution on September 17, by voting for its remaining clauses but without any accommodation towards the demands of the marginalised groups and India’s appeals. This led Prime Minister Modi to send a special envoy, Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar to see if any last minute effort could be made to redress the situation, but in vain. Therefore, the Indian establishment has felt frustrated and dismayed.

Where India went wrong

The Modi government’s frustration with Nepal’s constitutional process seems to have been fuelled further by two other factors that have not been publicly and officially expressed.

One is that sections of the ruling party, particularly the Hindutva forces were keen to make Nepal a Hindu state and possibly create space for the future reinstatement of the monarchy. Considerable effort and material support had been extended to Nepali monarchists and Hindutva forces to mobilise support and raise their voices in this regard by the concerned political sections of the ruling party. Nepal’s new constitution has only accommodated them to the extent of making the cow a national animal, discouraging cow slaughter and adding a definition of “secularism” that covers respect and protection of all religion, including Hinduism. Second, India feels that the Nepal’s major parties have been more accommodative in the constitutional process towards the lobbying efforts of China and the European Union on issues of religion and federalism than to India’s concerns.

Notwithstanding the attitude of the dominant social groups which have driven the process of Nepali constitution making, New Delhi ought to have bee cautious and cool in its reactions. It should have welcomed Nepal’s first Republican and democratic constitution worked out by popularly elected representatives. This was the promise made by India way back in 1951, when the anarchical Rana system was being transformed, initiating a process of democratisation. India should also realise that the fragmented Terai leadership was unable to throw its proportionate weight in the constitutional process. Many of the Madhesi, janajati and women members of the Constituent Assembly have also voted for the new constitution – though under the pressure of their political bosses.

The new constitution has sharply polarised Nepal along ethnic and regional lines. This polarisation will keep Nepal unstable and turbulent, which is not at all in India’s long term interests. To jump into such a polarisation by taking sides is neither a prudent policy or effective diplomacy. India’s effort should have been to nudge both sides of the polarised debate through quiet and sustained diplomacy so that an amicable resolution was found. Instead, India’s policy unfolded in three different stages within the broad parameters of Prime Minister Modi’s Constituent Assembly address in Nepal last year. These stages have moved from being (i) “hands off”, to (ii) “having a Constitution is better than no constitution at all” and finally (iii) insistence on specific issues.

India could not sensitise itself adequately to understand the internal dynamics of posturing and power-sharing within and between Nepali political parties, so as to move them in the desired direction. This failure has now landed India in the company of monarchists, Hindu fanatics and left extremists (break away radical Maoists) within the Nepali political spectrum. Some of these disruptionist forces are joining marginalised groups in burning copies of the new constitution and creating turmoil in Nepal. They are exploiting the situation to their advantage at the cost of India. There is need for India to approach the issues involved coolly and carefully so as to get justice for the marginalised groups – rather than reinforcing the already existing forces of anti-Indian pseudo-nationalism in Nepal.

S.D. Muni is Professor Emeritus, JNU. A Distinguished Fellow, IDSA he is a Former Special Envoy and Ambassador of India