Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Indian designs

This article appeared in Republica on September 30, 2015.

The promulgation of Nepal's Constitution-2072 should have brought joy in the face of all Nepalis as it marks the end of a wrenching political transition. Instead, the statute spawned strife and unrest. Life in Tarai has been crippled for more than 50 days with never ending strikes. Even after repeated calls for dialogue by the Big Three, Madheshi leaders have been inflexible in their stance and have continued with agitations.
However, signs of the end of stalemate are appearing as representatives of the Big Three are holding backchannel dialogue with disgruntled forces and have agreed to amend the constitution to address their demands. But Madheshi leaders have now started saying that the constitution has to be rewritten all over.

No constitution can ever be perfect or able to address all demands. Nepal's new constitution is no different. But it is a document of compromise and has tried to address the grievances of all groups. Although their demands are unclear, it appears that Madheshis have been seeking changes in federal delineation, citizenship policy and electoral constituency on the basis of population. However, a careful reading of the constitution shows that these demands have been more or less addressed.

The discourse of federalism was established in Nepal after the Madhesh Uprising in 2007. Since the new constitution has enshrined federalism, Madheshis should have been happy with the victory of their agenda. In fact, they now even have an ethnic province although the constitution didn't envision ethnicity-based provinces. Province 2 is an economically strong province with multiple industries, arable land, and custom offices. Moreover, top leaders of Big Three have assured that there can be changes in state delineation as per the recommendations of the Federal Commission to be established soon.

Even if propagandists have excoriated citizenship policy in the new constitution, it is not discriminatory. Citizenship will be granted to a person whose father 'or' mother is a Nepali citizen. Madheshi leaders have been saying that the constitution forbids citizenship to a person whose father is a foreigner. But the statute has the provision of granting naturalized citizenship to such a person (Article 11, Clause 5). Whereas the demand of immediate citizenship to a foreign man marrying a Nepali woman is concerned, it cannot be fulfilled. Such a person has to spend a stipulated period in the country before becoming eligible for citizenship, as per the federal law.

Citizenship policy had to be made a bit rigid because around 400,000 Indians have already taken advantage of the lax provisions in the Interim Constitution and received Nepali citizenship. Now the Madheshi leaders are demanding that freshly arrived naturalized citizens too should be eligible to hold seats of power. India has backed Madhesh agitation on this agenda in its bid to make Nepal another Fiji.

Madheshi leaders' accusation that the reduction of electoral constituencies is a ploy of hill elites to decrease their representation holds no water. This reduction will be applied in hill areas as well and with the amendment in the constitution, constituencies based on population and geography will be arranged.

Besides this constitutional address of Madheshi demands, the government has fulfilled immediate demands of Madheshi forces as well. The demands of compensation to the dead and wounded and withdrawal of the army to the barracks have been fulfilled. As they know that all their demands have been addressed in one or the other way, Madheshi leaders now have started saying that the government should honor past agreements. It appears that their ultimate aim is to have Madheshis who will be loyal to India in key positions. India is learnt to have pressured top leaders to continue with Ram Baran Yadav as the President or have another Madheshi as the future President.

That is why Madheshis don't want any solution to the crisis. By asking to honor past agreements and rewrite the constitution, their motive is to reiterate the old single province (one Madhesh, one Pradesh) demand in Tarai. Their Indian masters seem to have instructed them to prolong the strife to have this demand fulfilled. India has taken keen interest in Madhesh agitation as a long-term strategy of gobbling up Tarai.

At the behest of Madheshi leaders, it has imposed economic blockade in Nepal despite Madheshi leaders' claims to the contrary. Rather than warmly welcoming the promulgation of constitution like other countries, it merely 'noted' the promulgation and in its four press releases asked Nepali leaders to take agitating Madheshis into confidence. It, however, didn't deem it necessary to encourage Madheshi leaders to drop their rigid stance and sit for talks.

It is an open secret that India's Nepal policy is guided by its intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). A big section of South Block mandarins and R&AW spooks have always viewed Tarai as Indian territory. RSN Singh, one of R&AW's think tanks, in his book The Unmaking of Nepal claims that "Indian migrants, the present day Madhesis cleared the area [in the Tarai] and made it hospitable." Once the area became livable, hill people started to come down to settle in big numbers.

In this sense, Madheshis perceive themselves to be the real sons of the soil (bhumiputra) while Pahadis are migrants. Given this feeling, "They argue that there is not a single good reason for them to be part of Nepal" and "[i]nvoking history, they make a strong argument that, legally, they were part of India." This should clearly explain Madheshi leaders' current obstinate position with impossible demands and India's support for their cause. Another R&AW spook RK Yadav in his book Mission RAW has mentioned Indira Gandhi's intention of merging Tarai with India after her success in annexing Sikkim.

It was believed that Narendra Modi, professing to love Nepal with his heart, would counter R&AW (dominated by Congress-I loyal officers)'s strategy and leave Nepal be. His address to the Constituent Assembly last August seemed to have given such hope. The Big Four might have been encouraged to ink the 16-point deal and go ahead with constitution process after Modi's positive gesture.

Even if R&AW was unhappy with this development, Hindu nationalist Modi summoned top leader Prachanda to Delhi immediately after the deal and told him that India would not object to the statute if 'secularism' finds no place in the constitution. Prachanda then started talking about religious freedom instead of secularism. But the term ultimately found its place in the constitution with a rider that the secular state will protect ancient religion (read: Hinduism).

This snubbing of his suggestion must have riled Modi. In fact, Modi's special envoy S Jaishankar is learnt to have minced no words in telling Prachanda that he was "ungrateful", hinting at Prachanda taking shelter in Noida, India during armed conflict. This blunt comment had Prachanda reeling with rage and he lashed out against India in Tudikhel speech.

Even if Modi projects himself as a tough leader with independent thinking, he is still in thrall to Hindu nationalist organization Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) where he cut his teeth at the beginning of his political career. RSS envisions an undivided India (Akhanda Bharat) in which all South Asia is part of India. That is why Modi called all seven leaders of the region to his prime ministerial swearing-in. Some Hindu groups with blessings from the RSS have been distributing pamphlets across Nepal with statements that Madhesh agitation should be a stepping stone to restore Nepal as a Hindu kingdom and Nepal is part of Akhanda Bharat. It spells disaster for Nepal that R&AW and RSS have joined hands.

India's meddling notwithstanding, the Big Three too shoulder the blame. Had they stuck to their six-province model or fulfilled Tharus' demands, the agitations would not have taken an ugly turn. Now the situation has escalated to such a level that it is difficult to control things. Still, dialogue is the best way forward. Both sides should come clean and resume dialogue.

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