12-18 February 2016 #795

Autopsy of a blockade

The most important lesson for Nepal from this crisis is to massage Big Brother’s ego and keep him happy.


After nearly five months of being blockaded informally, India’s siege of Nepal was formally lifted this week by its proxies. Only the very naive or the extremely ill-informed still believe that the Nepal-India border was being blockaded by a bamboo pole guarded by a few men smoking in a tent.

Why New Delhi did it, and what India stood to gain strategically from throttling a smaller neighbour is a mystery. Students of international relations will be debating this long into the future, and no doubt someone will write yet another tell-all bestseller relying on Indian spooks spilling the beans. For now, we can merely attempt to connect the dots.

Whichever side of the debate you are on, whether or not you believe the blockade was the handiwork of the New Delhi establishment, there is one undeniable fact: the siege caused a humanitarian crisis among Nepal’s 28 million people that compounded the suffering of more than 2 million earthquake survivors. After reporting in this paper from the field on the prolonged disaster caused by lack of medicines and the inability to deliver relief supplies due to the fuel shortage, we have gone so far as to call it a crime against humanity.

Short of declaring war on a neighbour and bombing it, a siege like this is the easiest and cheapest way for one country to wreck another. India has devastated Nepal’s economy, investors have pulled out, energy and infrastructure projects are indefinitely delayed, and development has been pushed back by at least a decade. One of the poorest and most badly governed countries in Asia is even poorer. Its gains in health and education over the past two decades have been eroded.

One of the most sobering aspects of the blockade has been the utter disinterest of the international community. Except for a few development agencies, ‘friendly countries’ were conspicuous by their eerie silence and a notable reluctance to speak out in the might-is-right world of realpolitik.

Willingly or unwillingly, the internationals suspended their disbelief and bought New Delhi’s line that this was all about the politics of the plains. That it wasn’t the whole truth could not have been lost on them, yet they decided to be persuaded by the fiction and keep mum. To be sure, the Nepali government was also responsible for bringing this crisis upon its own people, and doing little to resolve it earlier. Kathmandu still hasn't learnt to negotiate in good faith with the Madhesi parties and proactively offer them respect and representation.

Except for smugglers and organised criminals on both sides of the border, as Om Astha Rai points out, no one gained from the blockade. Everyone lost. Bilateral relations between India and Nepal will be poisoned by distrust for a long time to come, as will the ties between mountains and plains dwellers in Nepal. Madhesi activists who believed in the cause have been humiliated by the climbdown of their leaders, while the people in the plains were forced to endure great hardships and immeasurable suffering. The blockade spanned two governments in Nepal which are to blame for not doing enough to ease the suffering of the people, and for profiting from it by protecting black-marketeers.

The TMLP’s Mahanta Thakur admitted the other day that the blockade had to be called off without the main demands of the Madhesi Front being met. But he tried to put a brave face on it by adding that at least the people in the plains are now more aware of their rights and can’t be pushed around anymore. He’s probably right in that Madhesi leaders who lost in the 2013 elections will get more votes in the next election.

In Kathmandu, Prime Minister K P Oli held out for five months by playing the nationalism card even though public anger against his government was growing. The Indians must have thought that the blockade would bring Nepal’s government to wave the white flag, but underestimated the capacity of ordinary Nepalis to endure adversity and the manner in which the black market kept the country going. The blockade dragged on for far longer than it should have because the party most responsible for it wanted to save face and take credit for lifting it. New Delhi deftly pretended to twist the tails of Madhesi leaders to lift the blockade, while Madhesi leaders competed among themselves to be more radical.

It was also prolonged because the establishment in Kathmandu was profiteering so much from the smuggling, and could scapegoat India to divert attention from its own failure of governance. Even the Nepal Army tried to take credit for ending the blockade by saying it happened after Chief Rajendra Thapa’s visit to India.

For Nepal, there are clear lessons from this crisis:

  • When it comes to the crunch next time don’t expect the international community to rescue us;

  • There is no alternative to building self-reliance in energy and diversifying our trade;

  • Perhaps most important: it pays to massage Big Brother’s ego and keep him happy.

Read also:

What’s next with the blockade, Navin Jha

The blockade that benefitted no one except smugglers, Om Astha Rai

Morcha calls off border strike

In Dependence, Editorial

Flag waving, Editorial

Proxy war, Editorial

SOS, Editorial