9-15 October 2015 #779

Barking up the wrong tree

There isn’t much sympathy in the Madhes for the pain Kathmandu is enduring
Anurag Acharya

Photo: Anurag Acharya

When I met Sadbhavana Party leader Rajendra Mahato in Janakpur recently, he was a worried man. He had come down to a grieving town to attend the final rites of nine protesters killed by police a few days ago.

In what looked like a revenge killing, protesters had dragged an injured policeman out of an ambulance and lynched him. The area was under a curfew and the streets were deserted.

“Even if we call off the protests now, people will only turn against us, they won’t stop. But by letting this continue, we know more people will die,” Mahato said. When I asked him if there was a way the movement could be peaceful he said it was up to Kathmandu.

But insiders in the Madhesi Morcha were desperately looking for ways to counter what they say are the government’s “terror tactics” to discourage them from taking to the streets. Sure enough, the streets and highways had a heavy security presence.

Today, the tables have turned. Not a single protester has died in more than three weeks, not because the police have exercised restraint but because the protesters have effectively crippled the state while staying at an arm’s length from their reach.

Until a few weeks ago, the protesters regularly clashed with police in the highway between Birganj and Parwanipur as they tried to cut the supply line to Kathmandu. The road from Jaleshwar and Janakpur also witnessed regular clashes. But the protesters have now moved over to the ‘no man’s land’ between Indo-Nepal border, preventing the imports from entering Nepal as police watch helplessly.

Is the Indian government deliberately aiding these protests? Before jumping to any conclusion, we must first understand the mood on the Indian side of the border. People there have close kinship ties with people on the Nepal side. They share their anger and frustration against Kathmandu and have actively helped the protesters. With the high-stakes Bihar elections approaching, it is unlikely that BJP government will want to antagonise its voters by appearing unsympathetic to the movement. Call it unfair, but that is the hard geopolitical truth behind the border closure.

It is very tempting to conclude that we are in the mess because the Indians are angry at being snubbed during the final hours of constitutional drafting. We must reflect on history to understand this facet of Indian foreign policy in Nepal.

Almost two decades ago, Indians granted shelter to rebelling Maoist leaders at a time when political ties with the government in Kathmandu and with Royal Nepal Army which was fighting the insurgents were robust. The Maoist movement had spread down to the plains in western Nepal making India, which has its own Maoist insurgency, vulnerable to cross-border activities. India’s policy then was simply geared at keeping Nepal’s Maoists from establishing any contact with their Indian comrades.

When the Maoists came overground and their popularity in the Madhes dwindled, the Indians sided with the regional Madhesi forces to maintain their influence over the local population. Besides, China’s intentions kept New Delhi suspicious of Kathmandu. This threat perception means that  Indian foreign policy in Nepal has been geared at keeping the neighboring population across the open border happy, even at the cost of  chronic tension with Kathmandu.   

No amount of diplomatic overtures or undiplomatic threats will force the Indians to ease the border restrictions at least until the Bihar elections. New Delhi has apparently conveyed this message personally to most senior Nepali leaders.

This raises a serious question on the intention of those like the UML’s  KP Oli, who seems to be in a great hurry to become the next Prime Minister. Is he using ‘undeclared’ blockade as an excuse and playing the anti-India card to distract attention of the populace from the real issue? Have some leaders in the negotiation team deliberately hardened their position on forging agreement for an amendment to the constitution? Is the constitutional amendment being used as a bait to propel Oli to power? 

Perhaps, it is time for informed citizens, intellectuals and the national media of this country to confront the political leadership with these questions, rather than blaming India. We must not forget that the Madhesis are even worse affected by the blockade as Kathmandu.

The fact that several petroleum laden trucks crossed over from the Indian side on Wednesday as amendment proposal to the constitution was being tabled suggests, the leaders are capable of resolving the crisis if there is an intent.

Journalist and blogger Navin Jha says that the Kathmandu mainstream and social media are unfairly prejudiced about the protests. He told me on the phone: “Here in Madhes people blame the media for failing to speak out against police brutality that left dozens dead in the last two months. As a result, there isn’t much sympathy for the pain Kathmandu is enduring.”

Coming out of Indian sphere of influence may be a desirable foreign policy goal for Nepal, but we are not going to achieve that by antagonising half of our population.

Addressing the genuine concern raised by Tharus and the Madhesis on federal demarcation, correcting the biased citizenship clauses, and ensuring proportional representation and distribution of electoral constituencies through amendments is still the quickest way to win over the Madhesi and Tharus to this constitution and end the blockade.

Read Also

India-locked, Bihari K Shrestha

Proxy war, Editorial

North and south, Puru Shah

Blockade Blues, Bidushi Dhungel

Before it's too late, Puru Shah

It's not about the constitution, Om Astha Rai

Insult and injury, Santa Gaha Magar

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