As Tension Sweeps the Terai Plains, Nepal Tilts Toward China

Landlocked Nepal in the heart of Asia has two powerful neighbors – India and China. The country is also divided in two by geography – the mountainous region (apart from Mt. Everest, Nepal houses eight of the world’s 10 highest peaks) in the north and the fertile and humid plains (the Terai) in the south. This makes for a volatile mix.

Ever since a new constitution was unveiled on September 20, the Terai has been in turmoil. The people of the region – the Madhesis – are up in arms against what they perceive as discrimination. They have imposed an economic blockade, which means they allow no traffic on the trade routes with India. Trucks have lined up on both sides of the border and shortages – particularly of food and fuel – are beginning to be felt in the hilly region.

The Madhesis have been hit hardest by the strife. But almost every family is interconnected with neighboring Bihar in India through centuries of intermarriage and migration. “The fact that they have been able to sustain the agitation … speaks volumes about their accumulated resentment,” says Rakesh Sood, former Indian ambassador to Nepal.

The Madhesis are part of the migration from India; the other migrations were from Tibet, Northern Myanmar and China via Assam. Thus, they have informal trade channels with India.

The violence – with the Nepali police trying to break the blockade – has claimed more than 50 lives so far. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has condemned the killing of an Indian in police firing. He has taken up the matter with his Nepali counterpart K.P. Oli.

India has also complained to the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) about the violence. According to a HRW report titled “‘Like We Are Not Nepali’ — Protest and Police Crackdown in the Terai Region of Nepal,” the police action is directed against one community. The report quotes a witness as saying: “The police were shouting Tok Bihariharulai (shoot the Biharis).… These words clearly send a message of hate.” India has called upon its northern neighbor to take credible measures to prevent recurrence of incidents of violence, extra-judicial killings and ethnic discrimination in the country.

It was all so different a few months ago. After a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Nepal in April 2015, which killed more than 9,000 people and injured 23,000 others, Modi called up his Nepali counterpart and the chief ministers of adjacent Indian states Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. The Nepalese media and the world were appreciative of India’s efforts.

Today, things are different. The blockade has forced Nepal to turn to China for fuel supplies, breaking a monopoly of Indian Oil Corporation. The Chinese government has signed a deal with Nepal Oil Corporation for fuel. The first consignment of 9,000 liters was dispatched in early November. The South China Morning Post reports that Beijing has agreed to supply 1.3 million liters of fuel. It is not known whether this is a grant or the first step in a new trade arrangement.

The land route from China to Nepal has to navigate Himalayan passes which makes the long-term arrangement logistically difficult. But China, it is clear, has thrown its hat into the ring to strengthen its relationship with Nepal.

Supplies from China

“As a result of the unofficial blockade, Nepal has had to seek Chinese assistance to get petroleum from the Nepal-Tibet border,” says Nishchal N. Pandey, director of the Center for South Asian Studies. “Despite its rugged terrain, China has managed to make some supplies. At the moment, two roads are viable for operation in the Nepal-Tibet border. Since Nepal Oil Corporation and Petro China have already signed a deal for supply for 35% of Nepal’s annual needs, it is possible that the relations between Nepal and China in the energy sector will go a long way.”

The violence – with the Nepali police trying to break the blockade – has claimed more than 50 lives so far.

Today, India is Nepal’s biggest trade partner. Bilateral trade was $4.21 billion during Nepalese fiscal year 2010-11 (July 16-July 15), the latest figures available. Nepal’s import from India amounted to $3.62 billion and exports to India aggregated $599.7 million. In the first six months of fiscal 2011-12, Nepal’s trade with India was about $1.93 billion; Nepal’s exports to India were about $284.8 million and imports from India were $1.64 billion.

Still, the relationship between Nepal and India has also had its challenges. At present, the main point of contention is the new constitution which came into effect on 20 September. The country has had six constitutions so far – in 1948, 1951, 1959, 1962, 1990 and 2007. “When the constitution was finally passed, for some there was a sense of relief that the seven-year-long exercise was over,” says Sood. “But for the Madhesis, the Janajatis and the Tharus, who have traditionally been the disadvantaged groups, there was a sense of betrayal.”

Sood explains that the Indian policy of overtly backing the demands of the Madhesis led to an upsurge of Nepali nationalism. The 2015 Constitution is unique as it establishes Nepal as a “federal democratic republic” for the first time. He points out the lacunae the disadvantaged groups see in the new constitution.

The principal disagreement is over what the Madhesis see as gerrymandering. While they have accepted two Madhesi provinces, they object to certain Madhesi areas which they feel have been left out. The Madhesis believe the constitution also appears to discriminate against them in terms of proportional representation. “Terai constitutes 51% of the population of Nepal, but according to calculations, it would currently get only 62 out of a total of 165 seats,” notes Sood. The objective was to prevent marginalization of the sparsely-populated hilly regions. But it has had an unexpected fallout.

A Question of Citizenship

The other issue is citizenship. Madhesis often marry Indians from the northern districts of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and spouses of Nepali citizens become “naturalized Nepali citizens.” However, there is a provision regarding the children of such marriages. Children of a Nepali male marrying a foreigner are “Nepalis by descent,” whereas if a Nepali woman marries a foreigner, their children are “naturalized Nepalis” which bars them from important and powerful constitutional positions. This may appear to be nitpicking especially at a time of flux. “But as often happens when internal politics in Nepal gets polarized, India becomes a scapegoat,” says Sood.

China, it is clear, has thrown its hat into the ring.

“While the focus has been on the Madhesi agitation, the Janajati demands are no different,” adds Sood. “Unlike the Madhesis who shun arms, the Janajatis are used to fighting. A Janajati agitation could throw Nepal into a convulsion as they are geographically widespread.”

“The Madhesi and Tharu people had a lot of expectation from the new constitution, but it dashed their hopes by giving continuity to the exclusionary policy of the Nepal government,” says Hari Bansh Jha, executive director of the Centre for Economic and Technical Studies in Kathmandu.

“The constitution also overlooked the problem of statelessness in Terai, where 40% of the people have been denied citizenship,” says Jha. “Only eight districts in the Terai region have been given the status of a province. The remaining 14 districts are to be joined with the hill districts, with the sole purpose of converting the local people into a minority.” The Madhesi parties were involved in the constitution drafting process in the beginning, but had to quit the alliance later on as its point of view was not entertained.

“India-Nepal relations are going through the lowest ebb after India merely noted our new constitution which was prepared by an elected constituent assembly,” says Pandey. “India has chosen to take the side of a few parties of the Terai and alienated the rest of the Nepali population. It is a fundamental right of a landlocked nation to get unrestricted access to the sea at all times. India tends to have certain preferences inside Nepal’s polity and has historically intervened when it sees that its interests are not met. This has translated into regime change, government overthrows and gross political instability inside Nepal.”

“Immediately after the promulgation of the constitution, the ruling political parties including the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) celebrated Diwali, while the Madhesi political parties and Tharuhat Struggle Committee observed it as a black day,” says Jha.

According to S.D. Muni, professor emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and distinguished fellow, Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis, “India should have avoided the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu agenda to get mixed up with the rights of the marginalized groups,” says Muni. (The faith of 81.3% of the people of Nepal is Hinduism.) “Kathmandu’s rulers should also have avoided instigating anti-Indian nationalism to serve their narrow political goals of diverting the Madhesi issue. All the parties have to apply course correction.” Adds Pandey: “Anti-Indian feeling is at an all-time high in Nepal.”

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