The Madhesi Conundrum: Making Sense of India’s Stand  

ISSSP Reflections No. 41, May 03, 2016

Author: Sanjal Shastri


It has been more than six months since Nepal’s new constitution was accepted; yet India has still not openly welcomed the constitution. The official Indian response has merely ‘noted’ the development. What is the reason for India’s approach? Why is the Madhesi community important for India? Did the Bihar elections have an impact? Does the RSS ideology have an impact on India’s stance? What are the implications of Prime Minister Oli’s visit? This commentary will try and address these questions.

In Sri Lanka, Maldives and in Nepal, historically, India has been supporting democratic and inclusive forces. In Sri Lanka, India has been a vocal supporter of devolution of power and the 13th amendment. India’s Operation Cactus helped save President Gayoom’s government from a military coup in the Maldives. Similarly in Nepal, the Indian government in the past has sided with the Nepali Congress. During the time of the monarchy, the Nepali Congress was seen as the frontrunner for democracy and greater inclusiveness. Given India’s history of supporting greater inclusiveness and democracy in the region, how does the latest stance on the new constitution fit in? The current Indian stance can be viewed as a continuation of its policy to support democracy and inclusiveness across the region. While the populations in the hills welcomed the constitution the Madhesis in the Terai launched an agitation claiming the constitution had ignored their demands. The challenge for the Indian government arose because of Madhesi dissatisfaction with the constitution. Over the past decade, Nepal has been in the process of rebuilding. By dismantling the monarchy, a new secular democratic republic is being setup. This therefore, is the ideal opportunity to bring on board groups that were historically marginalized.

While commitment to democracy and inclusiveness is one thing, the Madhesi question has another crucial dimension. Given the open border India shares with Nepal, a long-term solution to the Madhesi question is in India’s best interest. In case the Madhesis remain unhappy with the constitution there is always the risk of them launching a violent movement. Violence across the border in the Terai would be the last thing India wants. Having an open border and people in Bihar having close cultural ties with the Madhesis, a violent movement in the Terai would be a major security concern. The constitution as it stood in September 2015, did not satisfy the Madhesis, throwing open the long-term consequences of this opposition.

The Bihar Elections and the China factor have often been cited as reasons why the Indian government has backed the Madhesis. Were they actually decisive factors in India’s support for the Madhesis? When the new constitution was accepted in September 2015, the belief was that Indian opposition to the constitution was a part of the BJP’s election campaign.  Since the Madhesis have strong cultural links across the border, Madhesi issue would be an emotive one. The election results clearly proved that this was a false belief. Despite supporting the Madhesis, the BJP failed to do well in the elections. Even in the months following the elections the Indian government has stuck to its stance of ‘taking note’ of the constitution. It is unlikely the Bihar elections played a role in the government’s stance.

With 31% of Nepal’s population Madhesis, by ensuring proportional representation, the Indian government would have had a major bargaining block in the parliament vis-à-vis China. This has been one of the points raised by anti-India factions in Nepal. While, there is no denying that the Himalayan nation is of great strategic importance, it is unlikely that the Indian government would see the Madhesis as a counter-weight to China. There is truth in the fact that the elite circles in Nepali politics are increasingly looking towards China, but thanks to cultural, geographical and economic factors, India will continue to be in important factor in Nepal. Culturally, a vast majority of Nepal’s population identifies with India. Indian music, food and even cricket will ensure that India’s power status will be maintained in the future. For a Nepali, it is far easier to maintain people-people contact with India than China. Thanks to the open border with India, it is very easy for a Nepali citizen to visit India. However, they cannot visit China with similar ease. Economically, almost all of Nepal’s fuel, medicine and essential supplies come through India. Geographically, the southern border with India is more conducive to transport goods. Infrastructure facilities and the terrain would mean that China will never be able to replace India as Nepal’s primary economic partner. India therefore, need not be too alarmed about China increasing its presence. While popular media would like to project China’s role in India’s stance, in reality it is unlikely to have had much impact.

Indian support for the Madhesis is a part of its larger policy of supporting democratic and inclusive elements in the region. Apart from this, the possibility of a violent conflict breaking out that has pushed India to take this stand. One final question remains about the role of the RSS ideology. During the initial stages of the blockade, there were reports that Modi and the RSS were unhappy with the word ‘secular’ being included in the constitution. The RSS was reportedly keen on Nepal being called a Hindu state. Going by the foreign policy moves that Modi has initiated, it is difficult to see how the RSS ideology would have influenced his stand. Foreign policy moves like inviting the SAARC leaders including the Pakistani president or visiting Lahore would have been opposed by the RSS ideology. When Modi has taken such a stand on a far more emotive issue like Pakistan, it is hard to see how the RSS would have influenced him over this issue.

Despite a lot of hope being pinned on Prime Minister Oli’s visit to India, the fact of the matter is that nothing concrete has come out of the visit. Traditionally when the Prime Ministers of Nepal have met, they have issued a joint statement at the end of their meeting. This time around there was no joint statement issued. This is a telling fact regarding the success of the meeting. While Nepal has gone on to make several amendments to the constitution, there still remains some disagreement between the two countries. With the blockade being lifted there is hope that this disagreement will be settled sometime soon.

Looking back at what has transpired over the last six months, could India have handled this issue better? It is understandable that there are security concerns surrounding violence in the Terai, but there could have been a better way to deal with the situation. For all the issues the Madhesis have raised, this constitution was the first document that does some justice to Nepal’s pluralistic society. A statement from the Ministry of External Affairs welcoming the developments would have been the right way to go. This would not have jeopardized India’s support for the Madhesi demands. The six-month border blockade and the anti-India protests have done some damage to India-Nepal ties. However with the protests being called off last month both countries seem to be on the road to normalizing relations. Even at this late stage, a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs welcoming the constitution will go a long way in rebuilding trust.

About the Author

Mr. Sanjal Shastri is Research Intern at the International Strategic and Security Studies Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bangalore. He can be reached at <sshastri93[at]gmail[dot]com>

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