The constitution you are writing,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told Nepal’s parliament last year in August, in a speech hailed as a landmark for the relationship between the two countries, “will be remembered in golden letters in the history of the world”. He said that “It marks the journey of a people from war to the path of the Buddha”. His prophecy has proved spectacularly wrong. Fuel rationing and inflation, brought about by what Nepal says is an Indian trade blockade, has fuelled anger against India across the Kathmandu valley. Nepal’s deputy prime minister held talks on Monday with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to protest the blockade. PM Modi, in turn, has protested against the killing of an Indian citizen in police action to clear protesters from a border-crossing. Talks between the government and opposition groups representing Nepal’s plains, with deep links of kinship and culture across the border in India, have collapsed, threatening an escalation of violence.
Nepal’s constitution, it is true, gives the citizens of its plains, tied to India by kinship and culture, real reason for concern. The constitution used a geographical area-plus-population formula to allocate seats in the new parliament, designed to enhance representation for thinly populated regions in the hills. This, in the plains, is seen as a step towards disenfranchisement. There are concerns, too, about a constitutional provision barring naturalised citizens born of Nepali mothers and foreign fathers from high office. Madhesis, Tharus and Janajatis also fear that the constitution isn’t explicit in its promise of community-based job reservation. These debates, though, must be resolved by Nepal’s peoples. India, after all, grapples with similar issues. For example, a vote in Kerala counts for more than a vote in Uttar Pradesh — and job reservation remains a fraught issue.
Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Oli has demonstrated a fine grasp of South Asian political opportunism, using the showdown to bolster his own credentials at the cost of fuelling ethnic tensions that could tear his country apart. This, however, is something his opponents in Nepal need to address through democratic means. It may be true, as New Delhi claims, that truck-owners are simply unwilling to transport cargo through the troubled Terai plains. However, it ought to be working with Kathmandu to ensure safe transit, not standing on the sidelines. India is, in essence, advocating on behalf of the plains by holding a gun to the rest of Nepal’s head. In the process, it is engendering resentments that will abide long after this crisis passes.