Violence — possibly to apply pressure — commenced in the Nepal Terai in the run-up to the proclamation of the Constitution in September, and some 40 people were killed in police action. After the proclamation, political turmoil has not ceased for a day. Ironically, the country’s new basic law is meant to be secular, democratic and republican, but its launch has angered approximately half the country. For about three months, the angry protesters have blockaded Birgunj — through which some 70 per cent of goods from India enter — and other crossing points for Indian trucks carrying petroleum products, medicines, and other essentials, and created something of a crisis situation, in the process spoiling India-Nepal relations.
Kathmandu recklessly accused New Delhi at the UN of wilfully imposing a blockade in order to have its way since India (unlike China and Pakistan) was muted in welcoming the Constitution as it contained a ticking time-bomb by leaving the Terai region disaffected. This can lead to a spill-over in India. On Monday an Indian youth was killed in police firing on demonstrators in a bid to lift the obstructions to truck movement in Birgunj. Prime Minister Modi condemned the incident, urging his Nepal counterpart K.P. Oli to expedite discussions to end the protests.
The Madhesis, who live in the south and have cultural and linguistic links with India are embittered. They nurse the grievance that the way constituencies have been formed and provinces created, they (and the Tharus and the Janjatis) will have a lesser representation in elected bodies. In the period of the Interim Constitution, informal assurances were offered to the people in the Terai on these issues but have not been adhered to. Perhaps revisiting these ideas in a spirit of accommodation from Kathmandu’s side may offer openings. It is a pity that the Nepal police resorted to firing in Birgunj when discussions are on with the Madhesis in Kathmandu. This can raise a question mark on Kathmandu’s intentions. It is time India actively urged the Terai people to calm down.
While what is currently happening is Nepal’s internal matter, this country cannot but be concerned if attacks on protesters has its repercussions in the border regions of India and also has an adverse impact on India-Nepal relations. The Modi government should explore all ways to persuade the Terai protesters to enter negotiations earnestly if Kathmandu exhibits earnestness. Nepal may tide over current problems over supplies by signing a fuel supply agreement with China, but relations with China are no substitute for normal ties with India which are all-embracing.
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