Aftermath of the 2015 blockade in Nepal
The 2015 Madhes blockade has changed the matrix of politics in this region of Nepal
It was the second ODI match in the series between India and New Zealand and things had almost come to a standstill in a restaurant in Nepalgunj. With Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Dinesh Karthik on the pitch during the last half-hour of the match and India chasing a target of 230, waiters stood in a huddle rooting for India’s best finisher and DK with their eyes fixed on the big LED TV screen. Minutes later, applause followed.
The moment one sets foot in this border town in Nepal’s Terai region, there is an immediate realisation that it looks a little too much like any other Indian town in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. The delicacies being offered on the roadside are the same—samosas, gulab jamun, pakode and gol gappe. The town is located in Nepal’s Terai region across the border from Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district and has a large population of people of Indian origin living in the area. Known as Madhesis or Desis, the inhabitants of the Terai region share a bond with India which they fondly describe as “roti-beti ka sambandh” (a relationship based on marriage alliances and trade of food supplies). The term ‘Madhesi’ is used to refer to Nepali citizens belonging to a variety of castes who share cultural similarities with India. Most of their ancestors came to Nepal from the neighbouring Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. However, it is this cultural proximity that Madhesis share with Nepal’s southern neighbour that has turned them into suspects in the eyes of the upper caste Pahari elites and has led to historical marginalisation of the community.
In 2006, the year Nepal started the process of drafting the Constitution, the growing resentment amidst Madhesis gave way to a movement. The group was opposed to the new Constitution because they felt it did nothing to take their interests into consideration or to address the “bhedbhav” (discrimination) faced by them at the hands of hill-based communities. Their representation in the Nepali civil services was non-existent and those who had been recruited to the army performed the tasks of cooking, washing and maintaining weapons. The Nepali government had also made it difficult for their Indian spouses to acquire citizenship in the Himalayan country. The community, which was primarily engaged in business so far, wanted a slice of white collar jobs for their children and took to the streets to make their voice heard. The struggle has been going on with flickering intensity since 2006 and has become a thorny issue in the Indo-Nepal relationship because New Delhi has been accused of providing support to Madhesi leaders, interfering in an internal crisis and making it difficult for the Nepali government to quell the protest.
The 2015 economic blockade imposed on land-locked Nepal by protesting Madhesis widened the chasm between India and Nepal. The blockade affected the Pahari community the most. Vital supplies of oil and food coming from India were blocked and Nepal accused India of orchestrating the ‘nakabandi’ in connivance with Madhesis. Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli used that opportunity to roll out the red carpet for China.
The handling of the blockade was termed by observers as a major foreign policy failure for India as it increased China’s footprint in Nepal. But in the Terai, the development was viewed with indifference, not because it didn’t matter but because there was a sense of faith among Madhesis that there is nothing China can do to wean them away from India. “As it is, we often face ‘go back to India’ jabs from Paharis, if we move closer to the Chinese, where are we going to go?” blurts out Mohammad Ishtiaq Rai in a matter-of-fact tone. Dressed in neat formals, Rai is a young politician with an average build and a face that rarely reflects his emotions. However, while sliding a trivia into our conversation, he lets his guard down just once and beams with pride befitting a teenager—Rai announces that at the age of 31, he was the youngest Cabinet minister in Jhalanath Khanal’s government in 2011. He is a Madhesi contesting the Assembly elections in Nepalgunj on a ticket from the Federal Socialist Forum of Nepal (FSFN). With elections just a few weeks away, his days are buzzing with activity and so is his phone during our conversation. Among the many issues dominating the electoral narrative in the region, including the issue of the constitutional amendment and the discrimination faced by Madhesis, there is the issue of Himalayan nationalism and the rising rhetoric against India.
In the aftermath of the 2015 blockade, Paharis’ and Madhesis’ attitude towards India have changed in different ways. To begin with, Paharis in the region were not anti-India before the blockade, despite the fact that their sentiment towards New Delhi was governed more by Kathmandu’s outlook towards India. The imposition of the blockade on the land-locked Himalayan nation has turned the country into an antagonist.
Exploiting the old fault lines
Rai feels that the anti-India rhetoric is a foolproof way to divide people for electoral gains and has everything to do with the recently-forged pre-poll alliance between the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist-Leninist (CPN-UML) and the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist Centre (CPN-MC), which many believe has been done with Beijing’s blessings. “The anti-India sentiment is being fanned by the political parties in the hills and the media in order to make it easier for the Communists to secure a victory,” he declares. The strategy seems to be working pretty well. The issues have polarised people on the age-old fault lines of identity—Madhesi and Pahari—and the tension is palpable.
Nepalgunj has about 66 percent Madhesis and 34 percent Paharis. Along the highway that winds its way through the town from the nearby Ranjha airport, Suneel Gupta, a Madhesi who owns a furniture shop, declares with finality, “My wife’s hometown is in Lakhimpur Kheri. My mother is from Lucknow. Every Madhesi living in this area has relatives across the border. Pahadon ki rajneeti yahaan nahin chalti hai. (The politics followed in the hills cannot work here).” Many others agree with Gupta, including Siraj Khan, a senior journalist who currently works with the Kathmandu-based Gorkha Patrika and has been reporting from the region for the last three decades. According to him, what transpires between New Delhi and Kathmandu may not hold true for the Terai region.
Aftermath of 2015 blockade
In the aftermath of the 2015 blockade, Paharis’ and Madhesis’ attitude towards India have changed in different ways. To begin with, Paharis in the region were not anti-India before the blockade, despite the fact that their sentiment towards New Delhi was governed more by Kathmandu’s outlook towards India. The imposition of the blockade on the land-locked Himalayan nation has turned the country into an antagonist. Ram Bahadur Rana, a stationery shop owner in Nepalgunj, acquires a bitter expression the moment one mentions the 2015 blockade. “Do you know the cost we had to pay for what your government did? For days, we did not have access to medicines, basic food supplies and oil. Prices of vegetables hit the roof. We had to pay Rs 200-300 for a litre of petrol,” he complains. The Indian government blamed the Madhesis for the blockade and claimed that it had nothing to do with it.
Madhesis nurse a feeeling now that their cause did not get adequate support from New Delhi. The idea, however, is refuted by Khan who stresses the fragility of public memory. “All’s forgotten now,” he asserts with a smile. It could be, but now there is a new issue at hand. With China pouring in investment into the Himalayan country, there is a feeling that India did not do enough to develop Madhes. Nandlal Baish, president of the Nepalgunj Chamber of Trade and Commerce, voices the apprehension as politely as possible: “The bond that Nepal and India share is great but our cultural similarities should be used to bring the two countries closer, so close that there is no space left for China to occupy.” While acknowledging the contribution of Baba Ramdev, who set up a factory in Nepal to manufacture Ayurvedic medicines, Baish says that the region only exports raw materials and imports finished goods. “One of the major trade-related problems is that we are not able to manufacture goods over here. Our trade deficit with India is large. We import much more than we export. We have a good production of potatoes in the region. Instead of exporting potatoes, we can make chips out of them and sell them to other countries. That would be more profitable,” he notes, adding that this is an area where India could pitch in with funds.
Professor Ravinder Karna, who teaches chemistry at a local college, says that all his children are engaged in white collar jobs in various cities of India. “There is so much scope for India to invest here. If a big hospital opens up or a mall comes up, it will be good for the region. Our children can then stay here with us and earn,” he quips. The town is poor and no one minds investment coming in from anywhere, be it China or India. The Gorkha Patrika journalist, however, stresses that even if China chooses to turn its gaze to the Terai region, the cultural closeness between India and Madhes is so strong that it will take the former years to make a dent.
Madhesi Muslims vis-a-vis India
During our conversation, Rai slips in an Indian buzzword that has been creating ripples across the border in Nepal’s Madhes—an assertive Hindu nationalist government at the centre in New Delhi. A large percentage of Nepalgunj’s Madhesi population is Muslim and they have been watching with anxiety the growing violence against the minority community in Uttar Pradesh and elsewhere. And that has led to some bitterness among the community, despite the fact that in Nepal there is no friction between Hindus and Muslims.
The divide has been exacerbated by allegations that there has been a proliferation of mosques and madrassas along the Indo-Nepal border which have become nurseries to radicalise the Muslim community. “Just a few days ago, there was an exclusive news clip on Sudarshan News of a mosque in Banke district that it was claimed was being used as a training ground for terrorists. The news had a great impact here because everyone watches Indian TV channels. It miffed the common masses because people know about the ‘activities’ of the mosque. It shelters underprivileged children and runs a madrassa,” Khan chuckles. He claims the Madhes movement is losing momentum as Muslims want to distance themselves from it.
Redefining foreign policy
Rai says that if India has to preserve its goodwill in the Terai region then it must stop atrocities against Muslims and end an asymmetrical relationship with its tiny neighbour. “At the time India attained independence, it was agreed that the treaties signed under the British rule would be dismissed. However, Jawaharlal Nehru had said at the time that it would not apply to Nepal and recognised the need to maintain special ties with Nepal considering it a vital part of the Indian security zone. Today, there is a need for India to approach Nepal with bonhomie and not use its strategic location only to strengthen its security interests,” says the FSFN politician.
At the Nepalgunj Chamber of Trade and Commerce, a couple of Paharis present in Baish’s office reiterate what Rai says, only in a harsher tone. Pointing out that 2015 wasn’t the first time India imposed a blockade on Nepal to make it toe the line, Basant Lamichhane, a senior member of the organisation, says that India had cut off all supplies to the nation in 1989 when the Rajiv Gandhi-led government imposed an economic blockade on Nepal because of a dispute over transit treaties and its unease over Kathmandu’s growing closeness with China. “India is not ready to accept Nepal as an independent nation. Nepal has always regarded India as an elder brother. But India has never reverted with the same bonhomie.” Unmindful of Nepal’s special ties with India that includes an open border and free access to its huge market, Basant says, “Today, India’s markets are controlled more by China. Isn’t your country seeking investments from bigger countries like Russia and the United States? Why can’t Nepal do the same?”
The leadership of the Madhes region vents a sense of betrayal over the manner in which the movement has lost its influence with the shift in India’s priorities and the coming together of the left parties in Kathmandu. Many wonder whether its manifest dissipation as a political force will augur well for nascent Nepalese democracy or even India.