As the Indian led economic blockade stretches into its fourth month and into the winter season, Nepal is struggling to operate as a country. As stated by UNICEF’s executive director Anthony Lake, “The risk of hypothermia and malnutrition, and the shortfall in life-saving medicines and vaccines, could be a potentially deadly combination for children this winter” in reference to the effects of the blockade within Nepal. Combine this shortage with the scarcity of proper housing available since the deadly earthquake, and you have a recipe for uncontrolled chaos and a devastating death toll. This begs the question of not only how such a horrific situation developed, but also why it hasn’t been stopped.
Nepal, a country desperate for morally conscience leaders and a constitution to bring it to a new era, has been in political mayhem for nearly a decade. In mid-September of 2015, a formal constitution was finally put forward and passed by 507 out of the 601 members of the Constitution Assembly.
Although received by the majority parties with jubilation and relief, the constitution is not without severe flaws.
Root of Problems
The most eminent disagreement and the foremost catalyst of the blockade is the division of Nepal into seven distinct provinces, which critics argue marginalizes Nepal’s ethnic minorities, the Tharu and Madesi communities. Residents of these communities are both Nepali and migrants from nearby Indian states with close social and economic ties to India. They feel they have been underrepresented in the constitution, and they are not wrong. A key grievance is that the constitution restricts their representation by reducing the percentage of parliament elected by proportional representation (PR) to 45%, compared with the 58% from the previous interim constitution. The PR representation system helps marginalized ethnic minorities and low caste groups to be elected in a country where discrimination is rampant, and it was most certainly a mistake to lower the percentage with the new constitution.
Since the Tharu and Madesi populations have close cultural ties to India, the Indian government views them as a support group and a buffer against any Chinese favoritism that could be operating within Nepal. As can be expected, the Indian government, led by the Hindu-nationalist BJP party, was aggravated with the new provisions within the constitution that limited the representation and authority of their most vocal supporters.
In order to force changes to address the Tharu and Madesi agenda, the Indian government has restricted commercial vehicles holding fuel, medication, vaccines, and other essential supplies from entering Nepal since September. By imposing a blockade of this magnitude on a landlocked country, PM Modi is showing himself to not only be anti-democratic, but also inhumane.
As a sovereign nation, Nepal has the aptitude to handle its internal conflicts, and to resolve the needs of its citizens. No constitution, not even the American Constitution, was without severe flaws in the beginning stages. A constitution, by its very definition as a document that embodies the principles of a society, must be continually reassessed and amended to accommodate the progression and ideas of society. The Nepali constitution is no exception, and amendments should be made to provide better representation for the marginalized communities mentioned above. However, these actions must come from within Nepal through political negotiations and a democratic constitutional process, not from the persuasion of PM Modi. Nepal has the right to manage its own internal conflicts without the interference of neighbors concerned solely for their own well-being.
In order for India to assert the most influence among its neighbors in South Asia, it must reprioritize and focus on nurturing relationships based on mutual respect. A supportive, rather than an intrusive, India will be most able to encourage diplomatic relations that can benefit both nations long term. Through this blockade, India is doing the opposite. UNICEF estimates that the lack of essential medicines and vaccines being stopped by the blockade will adversely affect over three million children under the age of five in Nepal. Pushing a landlocked ally and a neighbor into a situation where it can no longer provide basic necessities for its children is an act of pure hostility.
PM Modi is fostering a generation of Nepali children who will remembers the time they were robbed of an education due to a fuel shortage, the time they lived in a tent in the harsh Winter because earth quake relief supplies had been halted, the time their loved ones and friends died because medication was being blocked at the Indian border. The children in Nepal who survive and go on to become leaders and politicians will remember, and their anti-Indian sentiments will roar. Even if PM Modi isn’t interested in the current suffering, he should consider the ramifications of his diplomatic actions, or lack thereof, on future Nepal-India relations.
PM Modi’s rhetoric is consistently saturated with “pro-democracy” clichés, but his actions speak differently. Holding a landlocked country of nearly 28 million hostage because things didn’t go his way emulate the actions of a vicious dictator, instead of a democratic leader. This is no longer an issue of diplomacy; this is genocide and it must be stopped.