After months of a chill in Indo-Nepal relationship, there is new sign of things warming up and India's loosening of the vise on Nepal. The Prime Minister of Nepal signed several treaties with India in his latest visit to Delhi early February, but only after his country had agreed to amend the recently adopted Nepalese Constitution that apparently had caused the Indian resentment, and put Nepal in the wrong end of the stick.
Nepal's Constitution was the product of years of debate to reconcile the various positions of more than 100 ethnic groups claiming rights, and some even demanding their own provinces under the new federal structure. Satisfying everyone was a daunting task for a country that had installed democracy after years of monarchy and fighting a terrorist war with the Maoists. The good result was that the Constitution was backed by more than 90 percent of the elected Constituent Assembly. The Constitution paved the way for a federal structure with seven states.
The new Constitution, although generally hailed by most Nepalese upset a few groups, notably the Madhesis who live on the Indian border in the Terai. The Madhesis and a few other indigenous people feel that that the new Constitution fails to address demands of marginalised communities and supports status-quo of the ruling groups. They protested over the federal delineation of new states as proposed in the Constitution, fearing existing demarcation could affect their political representation.
The Madhesis also contend the new citizenship provision as it does not allow naturalised citizens to qualify for political offices such as prime minister, president, or ministers. The Madhesis strongly resented this disqualification and went on a rampage, demanding amendment to the Constitution. They blocked road traffic from India to Nepal, and stopped all commerce with a blockade that lasted five months.
Curiously, the signing of the agreement by the Nepalese Prime Minister coincided with the end of five-month old road blockades, only after the Nepalese government agreed to amend the Constitution. The Nepalese Prime Minister followed this through with a visit to Delhi to cement this agreement with more treaties with India, but not before great damage had already been done to the Nepalese economy and Indo-Nepalese relationship.
The road blockade brought enormous economic difficulties for Nepal, as traffic from India carrying goods was stopped at the border, starving the land locked country of essential supplies in Kathmandu and other places. Within a week of the blockade started by the disgruntled Madhesis, Nepali economy came to its knees. The Nepali customs at the major border areas failed to generate any revenue, and long queues of consumers formed in front of petrol and LPG stations across the nation. Public and private transport systems went haywire, and food stores ran out of stock.
Most Nepalese believe that the blockade had support from India, as the resentful Madhesis were of Indian descent and they had cross-border relationship with India. The new Constitution did not accord them a special status. The Madhesis wanted an amendment to the Constitution. India's open support for Madhesis makes many Nepalese believe that the blockade by the Madhesis had backing from India.
The event put Nepal in a quandary. Historically, Nepal had steered its course in international politics carefully, choosing cautiously its relationship with other countries so as not to annoy India. As close neighbours, India and Nepal share a unique relationship of friendship and cooperation characterised by open borders and deep-rooted people–to–people contacts of kinship and culture. There has been a long tradition of free movement of people across the borders. This forms the bedrock of the special relations that exist between India and Nepal. Under the provisions of the India–Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950, the Nepalese citizens have enjoyed unparalleled advantages in India. India played a very important role acting as host for the understanding reached between the seven party alliance and the Maoists in 2005.
Despite decades of friendship and apparently benign Indian treatment, the Nepalese always suffered from a dependency complex. There was a sense of resentment of Indian domination in Nepalese politics and economy in the mind of many Nepalese. The blockade newly created the negative image on Nepalese, who perceive India as a hegemonic neighbour wanting to dominate and micromanage the affairs of its small neighbour through overt and covert blockades. The blockade sent anti-Indian waves soaring high in many parts of Nepal, because the blockade arrived at a time when the nation had just adopted its new Constitution. The Nepalese felt that the blockade lasted because Indian establishment was busy supporting the agitating Madhesi parties who were rejecting the new Constitution.
It is ironic that this anti-Indian sentiment would surface in Nepal within a year of Prime Minister Modi's visit to Nepal, the first foreign country he travelled to after assumption of office. Modi, who was the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Nepal in the last 17 years, pleased Nepal by declaring that India had no intention interfere in the internal affairs of Nepal, nor dictate it on any subject. He urged the Nepalese to complete their Constitution. Yet, the greater irony is that the blockade was a consequence to adoption of the Constitution that India did not look upon favourably.
There is a lesson to be learnt from this latest fracas involving smaller countries of South Asia and their big neighbour. It is not possible to ignore India and its interests even when an issue is completely internal to the country, not even after loud rhetoric of non-interference from India's leaders. India will look after its own interests first and then its neighbour's. Sri Lanka could not have ended its two decades of civil war if India had not stopped support to the separatist Tamil rebels. Bangladesh faced a similar situation with rebel groups in the Hill Tracts in the eighties and nineties that faded only after the rebels stopped getting shelter in India.
But unlike Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, Nepal is in a unique relationship with India. India has always viewed Nepal as a part of its larger security envelope in relation to China. Similarly, Nepal has viewed India as its only access to outside world, a fact that was once more demonstrated by the five-month land blockade. Some observers see Nepal as not landlocked but “India-landlocked.” On three sides, Nepal borders India, while another neighbour, China, is separated by the Himalayas, including Mount Everest itself. However much Nepal may want to get out of Indian influence in its politics, with its geographic situation and large bi-national presence in both countries, it will never be able to ignore the presence of India's oversize impact on its economy and politics. This is a reality Nepal will have to live with. As for the other neighbours, ignoring or snubbing India will be at their own peril.
The writer is a political commentator and analyst.