Nepal gets its new constitution, but here’s why it has got India worried
India has reasons to be perturbed about the volatile situation in Nepal, a country with which India shares an open and contiguous 1751-km-long border. India’s biggest concern is that Madhesis are up in arms against the secular and democratic constitution that Nepal has put into effect on 20 September.
Incidentally, Madhes is a Terai region of southern Nepal that shares its borders with Bihar, the polls-bound eastern Indian state. Any political turbulence and violence in Nepal will inevitably have a direct adverse impact on poll-bound Bihar. This was the primary reason for Indian foreign secretary S Jaishankar dashing to Kathmandu a couple of days ago.
The main crux of the problem from the Indian viewpoint is that the Madhesis have reacted violently to their country’s new constitution which had been in the making for last seven years. Madhesis, along with the Tharus, form the bulk of population of Terai. The Terai region constitutes one-fifth of Nepal’s landmass, but accounts for over half of the nation’s population. The Madhesis have been fighting for equal representation in the country’s political structure and the new constitution, according to them, has failed to meet their aspirations.Nepal’s new constitution promises to identify seven provinces of the country for administrative purposes, an exercise which it says will be completed in a year. Madhesis feel that they have been shortchanged and it perhaps explains the latest orgy of violence gripping Nepal.
Jaishankar’pithy statement released on 19 September soon after his Nepal visit is made in this context.
“India has been strongly supportive of constitution making in Nepal. We would like its completion to be an occasion for joy and satisfaction, not agitation and violence. We hope that Nepal’s political leaders will display the necessary flexibility and maturity at this crucial time to ensure a durable and resilient Constitution that has broad-based acceptance,” it says.
And this is what the statement issued by the Ministry of External Affairs said:
“We are concerned that the situation in several parts of the country bordering India continues to be violent. Our Ambassador in Kathmandu has spoken to the Prime Minister of Nepal in this regard. We urge that issues on which there are differences should be resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and institutionalized in a manner that would enable broad-based ownership and acceptance. This would lay the foundation of harmony, progress and development in Nepal.”
The new constitution of Nepal defines Nepal as a secular country, despite widespread protests for it to be declared a Hindu state. Many Nepalis, particularly the Madhesis, have been angered by a clause in the new constitution which talks of “religious and cultural freedom, with the protection of religion and culture practiced since ancient times”.
The new constitution has made proselytising illegal, reflecting fears of growing numbers of low-caste and other marginalized groups converting to Christianity. Protesters also argue that the constitution discriminates against women in terms of granting citizenship which, incidentally, is the first in Asia to specifically protect the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities.
Given the protests so far, India is keeping its fingers crossed. The next few weeks are going to be crucial.