As a low populated country that is landlocked, and virtually sandwiched, between India (on the three sides) and China, both of them being a huge nation, it is geo-politically necessary for Nepal to maintain good relations with both of them. About a decade ago Nepal transitioned into a democracy after suffering from Maoist war from 1996 to 2006. India played a key role in helping the Nepalese establishment and Maoist reach a 12-point agreement to end this. Until recently, Nepal was working on a make-shift Constitution before it drafted a new Constitution on 20 September 2015.
On the Indian side, it is understood that India and Nepal have special relations in that the two nations share a unique trust factor – no visa is required for Indian and Nepalese migration to corresponding countries, Indian Army recruits Nepalese people for the Gorkha regiments, no untoward legal restrictions exist for Nepalese to work in India, Nepalese officers work as Indian bureaucrats in India. A vast section of Nepalese economy is dependent on tourism – Pashupatinath temple is a pilgrimage site for Hindus all over the world, a bus transport service exist between India and Nepal. Although there are many issues such as trafficking of Nepali girls into India, right-wing Indian political parties trying to restrict the influx of Muslims into Indian border, uncalled interference of India in Nepal’s political matters also mar this age-old relations.
Aftermath of the devastating 2015 earthquake in Nepal lead India to announce an aid of $1 billion as cash and materials. India was also the first to respond to the calamity (an Indian Air Force plane reached the site within an hour (not sure)). While the people of Nepal were still struggling to recover from the earthquake, its political leaders took a step which caused a discomfort to Indian government – the Constituent Assembly drafted a Constitution, after delaying it for 5 years because of political reasons. India’s only point of contention towards this is the non-fulfilment of the demands of the Madhesi people (an Indian-origin community largely inhabiting the plain terai region in the south and comprising 52% of the population -a clear majority!) over inappropriate representation of the community in the Constituent Assembly in the Constitution. Madhesi political parties also demand for delineation of the provinces in keeping with the demographic composition of their community, and permanent citizenship for their family members. There has been a growing consensus in Madhesi community (and the Indian government) that the political establishment, which comprises primarily of the people of the north hilly region, is trying to marginalize them. This has resulted in violent protest by the Madhesi political parties leading to the blockade of the Nepal-India border causing more humanitarian crisis in the Himalayan nation still recovering from the earthquakes. Nepal lost its essential supply of oil and medicines from India-the prices of fire-wood, oil, medicines and other household commodities sky-rocketed. It was a common scene to find people waiting in long queues to obtain these. What is more of greater concern for India is the growing anger and frustration among the common Nepali people and political parties that belong to the non-Madhesi community towards the Indian government that accuse the latter of backing the blockade and supporting the Madhesi protests – India has completely denied these claims and reiterated its commitment to helping bring political stability to Nepal. A pre-dominant phrase in India’s Nepal foreign policy is the role of India as an Elder Brother, and not a big brother. But Nepal accuses India of interfering in its internal affairs and acting as a pressing handing instead of a helping hand.
Now, why is India, as has been the perception now, interfering in Nepal? I think the first and foremost reason is the geopolitical strategic advantage India gets by helping Nepal and drawing the government in its favour. Nepal is largely dependent on others in this hour of crisis. If not India, then definitely China will be the next option for Nepal. And India does not want Chinese influence to increase in Nepal, for obvious reasons of regional security and India’s own security. A consequence of this may be Chinese military establishment on Nepali soil under the pretext of Nepal’s national security and regional stability. And what Nepal needs at this hour is more than just an old friend – a helping hand. Secondly, by not adhering to the demands of the Madhesi, the entire southern stretch of Nepal-India border is at the risk of increased instability which will affect bordering Indian states of UP and Bihar Thirdly, India may, after all, want to have its say in the Nepali Constitution as it helped Nepal transition to a democracy, and played a role in ending the Maoist war.
The recent visit of Nepal PM K.P. Oli, which ended on 24 February, has definitely reduced the growing tension between the two countries. (The word “China” was not even uttered in the talks.) His primary purpose, as he categorically stated in the bilateral meeting, was to end the misunderstanding between the two countries. As of now, the blockade has been lifted and the flow of commodities has resumed. Although, the Nepali establishment has agreed to consider the demands of the Madhesi political parties, back home at Nepal, the Madhesi threaten to restart the protest and the blockade. I think, although it is not practically possible for Nepal to listen and give in to the demands of over 100 ethnic groups that live there, what it must not definitely do is marginalise the Madhesi which constitute 52% of the population. By ignoring them, Nepal will miss an opportunity to bring to use the human resource that they may provide. A political consensus must reach between the parties to bring stability to the nation. What India must do is to win back the hearts of Nepali junta, and really act like an “Elder Brother”.