The Constituent Assembly of Nepal delivered a new Constitution on 20 September this year, the eighth Constitution since 1948. It comes after seven years of heartburns, intransigence and delays, primarily owing to the Maoists. If the birth pangs are any indicator, the endurance of this Constitution is debatable. Half of Nepal is unhappy and in the throes of violence. The Terai — or the plains of Nepal, home to nearly 50% of the population — has witnessed more than 40 killings.
The Constitution has provoked the Terai (plains)-Pahari (hill) divide to new levels. The consequent instability is impacting India and, not in the least, China. The two countries share 1,751 kilometres and 1,414 kilometres of boundary with Nepal, respectively. Not only the people of Nepal are split over the Constitution on demographic lines, the document has divided the country into pro-India and pro-China segments.
The Chinese took unprecedented interest in influencing the framing of the document. In August, even as the Constituent Assembly was debating the new Constitution, very senior ministers from China including Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Nepal. The other dignitaries, who visited in the same period, were Vice-Minister Chen Fengxiang and Assistant Minister Dou Enyong. The Chinese weight on Constitution making in Nepal became very evident in March, when the Maoist leader Prachanda was invited by China. Prachanda was reportedly asked by the Chinese authorities to back the Constitution. On 26 September, the former Prime Minister of Nepal, and one of the founders of the Maoist party UCPN (Maoist), Baburam Bhattarai resigned over his concern for Madhesis. He not only quit Parliament but also resigned from the primary membership of the party. Bhattarai was, however, chased out in Janakpur by a Madhesi crowd when he refused to burn a copy of the Constitution.
Bhattarai’s resignation can have several motives and interpretations. In the Chinese scheme of geopolitical strategy, it is not uncommon to leverage on a target country through various unsuspecting machinations. The Maoists and the CPN(UML) are two distinct and unabashed Chinese leverages in Nepal. The 1962 India-China War served as a fillip to the communists and anti-India forces in Nepal, who began opposing the presence of the Indian Military Liaison Group (IMLG). The IMLG was eventually withdrawn in 1970.
An Indian university dominated by leftists and supporters of the Maoists played no mean role. This university serves as the bridge between the Maoists in India and Nepal. Together, these forces ensured that the historical binding force of Nepal’s nationhood, i.e., Hindu moorings, was done away with,
It is rather confounding that the Maoists, who were comprehensively defeated and relegated to the third place in the Constituent Assembly elections in 2013, should have found such a disproportionate voice towards the end of the Constitution making process. All through they held the CA hostage with their intransigence over “unanimity”.
Some subterranean leverages were also created and activated by China to ensure the promulgation of the Constitution, despite deep reservations of not only India, but also the President of Nepal. These leverages extended to the Nepali Congress as well. There have been reports to suggest that large sums of Chinese money, ostensibly meant for rehabilitation and relief of earthquake victims were diverted to political parties and personalities. Morally, in the formulation of a sacred document like the Constitution, the members of the Constituent Assembly should be allowed to vote as per the conscience, but tragically, political parties resorted to “whips”. Such was the level of intimidation and inducement that out of 598 members, 507 voted “for”, and 65 abstained. The 25 members of the pro-Hindu Rashtra party, the Rashtriya Prajatantrik Party voted “against” and most Madhesh based parties boycotted.
India’s immediate reach-out to Nepal during the earthquake in April this year was lauded the world over for its promptness and scale. Nepal Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had said: “We are really blessed to have a neighbour like India.” The Maoists, however, resented India’s popularity and launched a vicious defamation campaign at the behest of China. In those days, a photograph in which Prachanda was seen addressing a rally in the backdrop a banner, “Indian Relief a Threat to Nepal”, went viral. This was at a time when the tragedy in Nepal had cost 9,000 lives. Prachanda indeed is inured to such tragedies. After all, he perpetrated a decade long insurgency in Nepal, which claimed 16,000 lives.
The Maoist leadership, it may be mentioned, was protesting against the proposed federal structure and was championing the cause of dividing Nepal in deference to various ethnicities or janjatis, i.e. Rai, Magar, Limbu, Newars, Gurungs, etc. This had the backing of some Western countries, particularly Scandinavian, impelled by the agenda of religious conversion. These countries, with the conversion agenda, have been sympathetic and supportive to the Maoists in Asia. It is engendered by the simple reason that the societal and religious unsettling process unleashed by the Maoists, creates a favourable environment for religious conversions. The phenomenon impacts India as well. Both China and the Western world were, therefore against the continuation of Hindu status of Nepal, constitutionally. Nevertheless, China, as India, was against too many federal units in Nepal, as it felt that it would lead to destabilisation and impact adversely on the security environment in Tibet.
Further, to further tighten its stranglehold on Nepal’s polity, China has been on an overdrive, espousing the candidature of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist) chief, K.P. Oli for Prime Minister.
India did send its envoy, S. Jaishankar to Nepal, to prevail on it for the postponement of promulgation of the Constitution till the Madhesis and the Tharus, who constitute 70% of the Terai population, came onboard and the document had broad-based ownership. It was too late. The vote in the Constituent Assembly by then had been cast, and the major political parties were determined in their intention, override Indian concerns. Also, last minute efforts in this regard by the Indian ambassador in Nepal, Ranjit Rae were spurned.
It is no secret, therefore, that on the chessboard of geopolitics, the first round has gone to China. Complicit in this geopolitical victory of China are the Chinese leverages in India as well. It began during the period of the last UPA dispensation, which had outsourced India’s Nepal policy to the leftists. An Indian university dominated by leftists and supporters of the Maoists played no mean role. This university serves as the bridge between the Maoists in India and Nepal. Together, these forces ensured that the historical binding force of Nepal’s nationhood, i.e., Hindu moorings, was done away with, even in the absence of a whimper of demand to that effect. This was one of the first things done by the Maoist regime on assumption of power in Nepal. In the same vein, the new Constitution of Nepal has declared Nepal a “secular” state. After much protest and pressure, it has made a small concession in this regard, in that it later included “preservation of dharma sanskriti (religion and culture that has been in existence for generations)”. Those opposing the abandonment of Nepal’s “Hindu” status are convinced that the term “secularism” in the preamble has been introduced at the behest of China, the Communists and the Church. Some argue that this move has an inherent anti-India bias or even disdain for India.
The Chinese weight on Constitution making in Nepal became evident in March, when the Maoist leader Prachanda was invited by China. Prachanda was reportedly asked by the Chinese authorities to back the Constitution… The defeated Maoists found a disproportionate voice towards the end of the Constitution making process.
Compared to China, India has far greater security stakes in the type of federal structure in Nepal. Nepal’s border with China is forbidding due to altitude and in-hospitability. On the other hand, the India-Nepal boundary has been a nagging concern for India, serving as a facilitator for terrorists, smugglers, human traffickers and elements inimical to India. Even the Maoist leaders of Nepal in their decade-long insurgency slipped in and out of India at will, notwithstanding Prachanda’s hostility towards India. In his underground avatar, he had said in an interview, that he was convinced that one day he will have to fight the Indian Army. Yet, in deference to Nepal’s sensitivities — and given the religious, social and cultural bonds — the contemplation of militarising the border has been a revolting proposition for India.
It is a geopolitical truism, by virtue of India’s long border, majorly in the plains, the densest demography of Nepal — almost 50% of the population — impacts India. Dense populations pose a variety of security challenges and their destabilisation can cause nightmares to neighbouring countries, as did the East Pakistan crisis. It is, therefore, of critical interest to India that fewer provinces of Nepal have geographical, demographic and security interface. Nepal’s Constitution-makers have but done the opposite. The seven provinces have been carved out to cause India’s marginalisation in its interface with Nepal and at the same time ensuring advantage to China. The delineation rewards the hill people and perpetuates their domination of politics in the country. Out of the 165 seats in Parliament, the hill and mountain people would have monopoly over 100, while the Terai would be represented by only 65 seats despite having 50% of the population. Only one province, comprising eight districts, has been constituted into a province. The rest 14 districts have been joined with the hill districts, which, in effect, reduce them to a minority.
Although the President, the Vice President and Deputy Prime Minister are from Terai, they had no say in the drafting process. Cleverly, the Constitution was hijacked by the Koirala-Oli-Prachanda combine.
It is also a geopolitical truism that India, due to its geographical interface with Terai, holds the lifeline to a land-locked Nepal. China, with all its infrastructure growth in Tibet, cannot supplant this lifeline on any enduring basis. The Madhesis in Nepal have economically crippled Terai and consequently rest of the country. Nepal, as a substitute, has urged China to open two trade routes, i.e., Barbise-Tatopani-Khasa and Nuwakot-Rasuaghadi-Kerung. These have been out of operation since the earthquake.
The disruption in the lifeline is not on account of India, but because of a blockade by a segment of the Nepalese people of Terai. For Nepal’s dispensation, it is no gain blaming India. It is also no gain whipping up “anti-India” sentiments. In the past, this discourse has been mischievously used by pro-China forces in Kathmandu and Delhi to put India on the defensive. The bluff this time must be called. In the worst case scenario, even if 50% of Nepal’s population gets anti-India, the remaining half will still be with India. It would still be a reckonable percentage to negate Chinese machinations in Nepal.
Nepal is at an epoch-making juncture. India cannot allow a new Nepal to dilute its sub-continental moorings and fall prey to Chinese machinations. Our sanctimonious religious and social connect to Nepal has to be reclaimed from China-inspired anti-India forces in Nepal. Indian security interests cannot be sacrificed for the sake of a Constitution prepared through less than transparent, if not subverted, process.
Col R.S.N. Singh (Retd) is a South Asia specialist