by Ratnakar Tripathy
Although it is customary to look at foreign countries entirely through the lens of national interest, it helps to look at a given country’s self-interests to begin with. In the case of Nepal, its attitude towards the Madhesi populations is becoming puzzling by the day. Madhesis who constitute above 50 per cent of the population have been seen as close to India as they continue to have what is called ‘roti-beti’ relations as they marry across the borders and freely traverse them. Even culturally, the hill people from Kathmandu despise the ‘uncouth’ plainsmen. All this goes on not just at an informal level but is now hardened into the new constitution promulgated in Nepal last year. The Madhesis want a greater say in the nation and want proportionate representation as well as a more federal structure based on ethnic territorial divisions, while the hill aristocracy whether communists or otherwise, have thus far only indulged in brazen gerrymandering. For some reason, possibly reassurance from china, they feel they can altogether ignore their 50 per cent population which also happens to be the most productive economically. The current Prime Minister K P Oli despite his assurances to the Madhesi agitators made earlier in the year has failed to keep his word and has indicated that the Madhesi grievances have been addressed adequately. All this can turn into a dangerous game as the Madhesi agitations are based on genuine hurt and not an outcome of interferences from India.
If India has however acted heavy-handedly throughout this phase, this cannot be a reason for the Oli government to cold-shoulder its own populace. India indeed has played the role of an irritant in the recent past, using the terai [plains] population as its catspaw, thereby adding substance to the common perception in Kathmandu that the Madhesi are more loyal to India than their own country. All these identity issues are doing no good for the Nepali identity which is now riven between the pro-China and pro-India faces of Nepal rather than a more self-assured Nepali identity. So much so that making anti-India noises is considered as the politically correct thing to do in Kathmandu. The Indian government only added to the hostile perception recently through what are seen as covert moves to topple the Oli government in Nepal. As a result the Nepali president’s visit to India was cancelled recently and PM Modi’s trip to Lumbini was called off. On the whole, it seems to be a common assumption that the Madhesi agitation will not escalate beyond a point and that Nepal will continue at a simmer forever. This is a dangerous assumption as reports from the ground during the last phase of the agitation indicated the rise of some extreme voices and factions.