assessments

Oct 6, 2015 | 09:15 GMT

7 mins read

India Tries to Shape Nepal's New Constitution

(AFP PHOTO/Diptendu DUTTA)
Forecast Highlights

  • India will not withdraw its support of the largely Hindu Madhesi protesters in southern Nepal, and the current economic blockade of exports to northern parts of Nepal will continue.
  • Anti-Indian sentiment among northern Nepalese political factions will probably intensify.
  • Attempts by Nepalese leaders to appease Madhesi political demands will likely push the country back into political chaos, and the new constitution probably will trigger the kind of political instability it was designed to contain.

Last month, the Nepalese parliament adopted a new constitution after nearly a decade of discord that widened the political rifts that divide the country. But with the adoption of the constitution, protests have erupted among Nepal's southern Madhesi community, presenting India with an opportunity. Since the beginning of the Nepalese civil war (1996-2006), New Delhi has sought to keep Nepalese instability from spilling across the border. India is uncomfortable with direct intervention, but, with a government now formally in place in Kathmandu, India has moved decisively to ensure that the Himalayan state remains firmly under India's influence rather than China's. India's recent engagement with Nepal's constitutional process — the latest in a series of more assertive policy moves throughout South Asia — will test New Delhi's ability to shape events in its immediate periphery.

India's Ties to Nepal

India's relationship with Nepal is predicated on its ties with the predominantly Hindu Madhesi group, which lives in Nepal's southern plains region known as the Terai, and on its support for the Hindu former monarchy, which was ousted in 2008. The Madhesi, who have strong links to India, make up a substantial portion of Nepal's Terai region where slightly more than half of Nepal's 28 million people live, yet they are concentrated in an area that constitutes around 17 percent of its terrain. Traditionally, the Madhesi have appealed to India to protect their interests.

Nepal relies heavily on subsidized food, supplies and fuel from India. And its geography alternates between the fertile, densely populated Terai region, hilly uplands and the imposing topography of the Himalayan Mountains. The capital, Kathmandu, is located in a valley surrounded by mountains. Essentially, Nepal is composed of historically distinct population centers that are poorly connected, making transport routes complex and expensive. The Maoist insurgency in the early 2000s impeded infrastructure development, and the land-locked country remains heavily dependent on Indian ports and goods. April's earthquake has closed many of the country's land links to China, increasing Nepal's already heavy economic dependence on India.

Protests and Blockades

The celebrations that took place in Kathmandu on Sept. 20, when the constitution was ratified, contrasted with protests throughout the Terai region. The constitution calls for a federal model in which 60 percent of lawmakers would be elected directly; the rest would be elected in proportion to the population of seven yet-to-be created federal states. The Madhesi claim that the constitution dilutes their authority in favor of minorities. The decision to form a secular country after centuries of having Hinduism as the state religion has also angered Hindu conservatives who argue that the religion of more than 80 percent of the population should be enshrined in the constitution.

In what it calls a response to the protests, India has slowed the movement of food and fuel. However, critics in Nepal accuse New Delhi of trying to shape Nepalese politics through economic pressure — as it did to Bhutan during its elections in 2013. New Delhi says unrest in the Terai region is blocking the northward movement of supply trucks, and it has appealed to Kathmandu to consider the demands of the Madhesi to stop protests. This would allow fuel canisters, food and other supplies to reach those northern populations especially hard-hit by the recent earthquake that cannot import goods from China. India has also intervened on behalf of the Madhesi in suggesting several changes to the new constitution, including shifting to full proportional representation in parliament and in other political bodies. Many of India's other suggestions focus on controversial clauses that hurt the Madhesi, including citizenship restrictions for people born in Nepal of foreign fathers, many of which are Indian, and restrictions, based on definitions of Nepalese descent, on who is eligible for leadership positions such as prime minister, president and vice president.

New Delhi has denied giving Nepalese leaders its list of amendments, as many outside the Madhesi have claimed. Still, beyond the Terai, the mood within Nepal has become strongly anti-Indian. India's proposed changes to the constitution would give the Madhesi more authority within Nepalese affairs and more inroads into the Nepalese government. This is why many Nepalese ethnic and religious minorities oppose these proposals so strongly. Many Nepalese — especially the minority Newal/Nepal people of the Kathmandu region, who ruled the interior until the conquests of the Indian-origin Gurkha and Rana dynasties beginning in the 17th century — do not view the Madhesi as being truly Nepalese and resist their attempts to dominate the political system.

India's New Boldness in the Region

The blockade of goods northward certainly benefits India, and India could very well be encouraging it. However, India's officially maintains that it is the protests that are blocking the supplies, not the Indian government. According to New Delhi, the only way to end the protests, and thus restart the flow of goods, is to concede to Madhesi demands for constitutional change.

India's active role in the dispute illustrates its broader regional strategy. Since South Asian governments opened to Chinese investment and political outreach at the beginning of the decade, New Delhi has made a concerted effort to regain its footing in the region (excluding Pakistan). Economic pressure on Bhutan ahead of 2013 elections returned power to a pro-Indian, pro-monarchy party, and Indo-Bangladeshi ties improved dramatically after India supported the disputed Awami League in Dhaka. The island nations of Sri Lanka and the Maldives have proved to be more difficult to bring in line, largely because of Chinese investment, but a Tamil population open to cooperation with Sinhalese elements in Sri Lanka was able to oust President Mahindra Rajapaksa in January, ushering in a period of closer Indo-Sri Lankan cooperation. India hopes to bring Nepal within its sphere of influence, even as Chinese road and rail investment has picked up in recent years and as China continues developing military installations in southern Tibet and in the disputed Indo-Chinese border regions.

Particularly concerning to New Delhi is Nepal's assemblage of Maoist rebels, whom India has long accused China of arming and supporting. Nepal's proximity to northeastern India has made it a convenient refuge and training and arming ground for Maoist Naxal rebels that have long hindered development in much of India. Similar to its current cooperation with Bangladesh, New Delhi wants a strong foothold in Nepal to help contain its own problems with militants. Militancy is likely to become an issue again as Maoist and communist factions turn to insurgent attacks in response to India's strong-arming.

India's current policies toward Nepal are risky. Unlike Bhutan, which enjoys relative political and social cohesion, Nepal is more difficult to manage — particularly because China, despite its limited infrastructural connection to Nepal, has a long history of supporting competing political factions there and wants to curb Indian influence. By investing so much to support the Madhesi population, New Delhi has essentially alienated the rest of the Nepalese population and political establishment. And its tactics risk plunging Nepal into political chaos once again as the various minority groups are unlikely to abide by a constitution that diminishes minority representation and protections.

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