11 - 17 December 2015 #786

When the blockade ends

This is neither the first nor could it be the last, we must start seeking alternatives
Om Astha Rai

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj stirred a debate this week over her Nepal remarks in India’s Upper House. Her comments were widely criticised for being misleading.

To those who missed her speech, you can watch it in the online version of this column on the Nepali Times website.

The operative paragraph was: “The interim constitution ensured naturalised citizenship to Indian women married to Nepali men, but this provision is missing in the new constitution.”

The truth is that the new constitution has retained the provision about naturalised citizenship through matrimony. Why did Swaraj have to propagate that falsehood? Did she deliberately distort the truth to justify the Madhesi protests which in turn is used to justify the Indian blockade of our borders to pressure Kathmandu on the constitution?

These are important questions, but what is even more crucial is: why does she – or the Madhesi people – believe that Indian women married to Nepali men will be deprived of naturalised citizenship under the new constitution?

This misunderstanding appears to have stemmed from the alteration of just one word: ‘existing’ to ‘federal’. The interim constitution stipulated that foreign women married to Nepali men can apply for naturalised Nepali citizenship as per ‘existing’ laws.

The same line has been repeated in the new constitution, but ‘existing’ has been replaced with ‘federal’. Will this minor alteration have big implications? Not really. Laws in a federal Nepal will be known as ‘federal’ laws.

But leaders of the Madhesi parties have misinterpreted this change and been able to convince many in the Indian establishment that this is discrimination and reduces the Madhesi people to second-class citizenship. Swaraj seems to have bought that.

Madhesis want deletion of the word ‘federal’ and more clarity in the clause of naturalised citizenship through matrimony. They believe ‘federal’ is a semantic ploy and they are not ready to trust the state that this word will never be used to pass discriminatory laws against them in future.

Why do only Madhesis want clarity in the citizenship clause? Why do non-Madhesis not see it as a ploy? These questions are important to make sense of the Madhes unrest.

It is true that the state has in the past doubted the Madhesi people’s allegiance to Nepal, and Madhesis are suspicious of the state. Their perception of constitutional clauses is guided by this very distrust of the state. So building trust between Kathmandu and Madhes is probably more important than tweaking the statute.

Leaders of the big parties must show that they truly believe in diversity and inclusion. They must go beyond the constitution to prove it. But this is sadly where the problem lies. For example, Prime Minister KP Oli, an upper-caste Hill Brahmin, has appointed 10 advisers so far. None of them is a Madhesi, Janajati or Dalit.

There are now signs that the blockade will be lifted. The whole exercise has been damaging not just for Nepal, but it has backfired on India as well. New Delhi is looking for a face-saving device to lift the siege quietly. Top Madhesi leaders in the Indian capital this week were asked to consider a four-point proposal floated by Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Thapa so that border obstructions can be removed and India can justify ending the blockade.

The Madhesi leaders are not happy, fearing a backlash back home. But they have got the message that redrawing federal boundaries right away is not possible. So even if it rejects the deal, it will alter the form of its agitation and stay off the border. The first amendment to the constitution, agreed upon by the major parties last week, will also serve as a face- saver for the Madhesi Front to scale down its agitation.

But this doesn’t mean the crisis will end, it will just be postponed. In three months when the term of an all-party committee to be formed for redrawing federal boundaries ends, the issue is bound to come up again.

The main parties must therefore show flexibility in demarcation of the two proposed Tarai provinces. All five disputed districts cannot be gifted to Madhesis, but dividing one or two of them in a way that Madhesi people will not be under-represented is necessary.

It is also important to mend the trust deficit between Madhesi and non-Madhesi Nepalis. The main hill-dominated parties must try to convince Madhesis that they now live in an inclusive and multi-cultural society. Ensuring proportional representation of Madhesis, Janajatis, Dalits, Muslims and women in all party committees could be the starting point.

When the blockade ends, Nepal also must embark on a journey towards reducing dependency on fuel and diversifying imports. We all ridiculed Prime Minister Oli’s unrealistic dreams, but those should be our longterm goals.

The ongoing blockade is not the first, and there may be more in future. We have to be better prepared next time.


Read also:

Mopping up, Editorial

Bending the truth, Om Astha Rai

Nepal in Rajya Sabha, Om Astha Rai

Shortage Raj, Foreign Hand

Flag waving, Editorial

In Dependence, Editorial

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