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Bickering at UN suggests break in traditional India-Nepal ties


Shastri Ramachandaran

Relations between India and Nepal have never been as bad as they are today.  Differences and disagreements between land-locked Nepal and its giant neighbor are not new. The airing of these publicly is also an old story, as are Indian and Nepalese politicians taking swipes at each other.

What is new in the ongoing build-up of India-Nepal tensions that have spilled over far beyond bilateral spaces? On November 4, the two countries clashed publicly at an UN forum for the first time. India and Nepal sought to put each other in the dock in the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva.

This is an unprecedented development that indicates near breakdown of back-channel diplomacy to resolve the issue of Nepal being subject to a "blockade more inhuman than a war," in the words of its new Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli.

The situation has assumed crisis proportions, prompting UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to express concern over the obstruction of essential supplies to Nepal. On November 11, invoking the landlocked country's right of free transit, he called on "all sides" to lift the blockade at the Indo-Nepal border immediately.

An acute shortage of fuel is impeding deliveries to earthquake-affected villages in Nepal, Ban's spokesman Stephane Dujarric said. Humanitarian organizations urgently require fuel to maintain operations and deliver food, warm clothing and shelter materials to high-altitude areas that would soon be cut off by the harsh winter, he added.

India attributed the border blockade to Nepal's "internal factors." The blockade began in September, after the Madhesis, a group of Indian origin in Nepal's Terai region, rose in protest against the recently passed constitution. They hold the new statute to be discriminatory, and point out that it ignores their interests and denies them due parliamentary representation.

With the agitators on the border blocking movement of goods and fuel supplies, normal life across Nepal has been badly hit for two months.

A day after Nepal sought UN to intervention to end the blockade, on November 4, India joined the US and EU nations in pressing Kathmandu to start talks with Madhesis to defuse the political crisis. Never before has India carried its diplomatic battles with neighbors - except Pakistan and, on occasion, Sri Lanka - to any international forum.

India pointed to reports of "violence, extra-judicial killings and ethnic discrimination" in Nepal and blamed Kathmandu for the protests that blocked a transit point which accounts for 70 percent of bilateral trade.

India's deputy permanent representative to the UN in Geneva, B. N. Reddy, expressed concern over "lack of political progress" and said that "the problems facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved through force or a security-based approach."

This provoked a scathing and emotional rejoinder. Nepalese Deputy Prime Minister Kamal Thapa said his country lost an estimated $5 billion in trade in the last two months. Denouncing the blockade as unjustifiable, he asked, "Can't Nepal have its own authority to promulgate its constitution?"

Nepal's constitution, already a bone of contention in domestic politics and being at the root of its tensions with India, is a point that the Nepalese government, its political parties, civil society groups and intelligentsia have been emphatically making in every forum. The blockade is widely seen, in both countries, as Nepal "being punished" for its new constitution, which was promulgated in defiance of New Delhi's request to defer the process until "Indian expectations" in the matter were met.

The impact of the present blockade is far worse than what Nepal suffered in 1989 when the Rajiv Gandhi government closed all trade and transit points. This blockade comes at a time when Nepal is fighting to recover from the devastating earthquake of April 2015. Humanitarian organizations from many countries are involved in relief and rehabilitation work, and many of them want more financial and material assistance extended to Nepal. "How much suffering can we go through?" lamented Thapa in the UN meeting.

India and Nepal have been fast friends. Tensions in the past were always overcome because of the enduring strength of traditional ties, civilizational bonds and cultural similarities.

The clash in the UN forum marks a clear break with this past, and for the worse. Neither country has reason to be happy with where the relationship is going.

(The author is an Indian journalist and commentator on international affairs and co-author of the book State of Nepal. shastriji@hotmail.com)

Friday, Nov 27, 2015 1:03 pm

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