When Nepal was struck by a major earthquake in April this year, there was hope that the scale of the disaster and the urgent task of rehabilitation and reconstruction would persuade its squabbling political parties to reach an early consensus on the long-stalled process of finalising and adopting a new constitution. Impatience among its people and frustration within the international community had sharpened in the aftermath of the earthquake. However, instead of making a genuine effort to forge a broadbased consensus, the major political parties, representing the old high-caste-and-hill elite, saw this as an opportunity to push a flawed constitution through the Constituent Assembly, even reversing some of the already settled features of the interim constitution of 2007 and the 16-point agreement reached among the parties, including the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum on June 9 this year. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, which had all along espoused an inclusive political and social agenda as well as a federal structure that would reflect Nepal’s ethnic, linguistic and cultural diversity, did a neat about-turn. A deeply entrenched and feudal mindset trumped egalitarian ideology. This is now sought to be hidden behind abusive anti-Indian rhetoric. It should have come as no surprise that the blatantly discriminatory features of the constitution should spark widespread opposition and protest. The often brutal and repressive measures visited upon hapless demonstrators have already resulted in over 40 deaths. A vicious cycle of confrontation and violence appears to be taking hold. Instead of dealing with this dangerous situation through an early and sincere dialogue with its own aggrieved citizens, the Nepal government and some of its political leaders are again indulging in ultra-nationalist and anti-India rhetoric, alienating the one friend and well-wisher they have, and one that only recently extended much-needed relief to the people of Nepal who were ravaged by the earthquake.
Nepal’s polity has failed to keep pace with the multiple and far-reaching transitions that have been taking place in the country over the past two decades and more. One, despite the efforts of its traditional hill-based elite, the democratisation process that commenced in the early 1990s and is still ongoing has spread political awareness and led to the assertion of identities and aspirations of the many ethnic and culturally diverse groups that comprise Nepal. The monochromal hill identity imposed upon its diverse people and upheld by a feudal monarchy could no longer be sustained in the more plural politics that is the reality of contemporary Nepal. The acceptance of the principle of federation was an acknowledgement of this plurality, but the new constitution has robbed it of its substance. As long as almost half the country’s population feels it has been shortchanged and subjected to institutionalised discrimination, political stability will continue to elude Nepal.
Two, there is a generational transition in Nepal that the country’s politics continues to neglect. Nepal has a demographic profile that is even younger than India’s. More than 50 per cent of its population is below 25 years of age. There is also a high net migrant rate of 61 per 1,000 of the population, reflecting the limited job opportunities available in the country. It is estimated that six to eight million Nepali nationals live and work in cities across India alone. Unlike in the past, the new generation of Nepalis are literate, have been exposed to external influences and, like India’s own youth, are aspirational and forward-looking. This includes bright young women who continue to chafe under the feudal patriarchal attitudes that still define the political elite. Consider the provisions relating to citizenship in the constitution: Children of a Nepali male marrying a foreigner will enjoy citizenship rights, but not those of a Nepali woman marrying a foreigner. The constitution perpetuates old prejudices and mindsets, instead of helping to create a political and social environment able to generate the opportunities its younger generation deserves. It is this generation that can transform Nepal’s prospects and make it one of South Asia’s most affluent countries.
Three, there is a significant change in Nepal’s external environment that its political dispensation has failed to leverage to the country’s advantage. Nepal, until recently, was a relatively isolated country, its high mountains to the north and thick forests to the south engendering a sense of mistrust, even hostility, to outsiders. Prithvi Narayan Shah, the famous king who united Nepal, is reputed to have described his country as a “yam between two rocks”, the two rocks being India and China. That sense of vulnerability, and of being under siege, still drives much of Nepal’s political behaviour. But Nepal’s proximity to the two fastest-growing and continental-size economies of the world should be seen as an asset few developing countries enjoy. India, in particular, represents a huge opportunity, rather than a threat, should its leaders begin to see their southern neighbour in a different light. One frequently hears how Nepal has suffered from having an open border with India, but whenever movement across this border has been disrupted, as one hears is becoming the case again due to violence in the Terai, it is the people of Nepal who suffer. It is the open border that allowed a large number of Nepali citizens to escape violence and economic deprivation during the decade of Maoist insurgency and seek shelter in India. The tourism and hotel industries in Nepal benefit from the several thousand Indians who travel there for leisure or pilgrimage. This dense network of relations between the two countries does not square with the yam complex, which still colours our neighbour’s perception of India.
India is right to be concerned about the spillover effect of political instability and violence across the border in Nepal. But the current crisis also exposes a continuing weakness in India’s neighbourhood policy: An attention deficit that is only episodically shaken when a crisis erupts. It also appears that there may have been mixed political messages conveyed to the Nepali side, which may have underestimated India’s reaction. Both these aspects need to be addressed in order to avoid similar crises in the future.
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The writer, a former foreign secretary, was India’s ambassador to Nepal, 2002-04.