Another round of conflict?

  • Despite our impatience to embark on a path of prosperity, we still need to work on peace
- Ajaya Bhadra Khanal

Mar 15, 2017-

The Nepali populace is impatient to embark on the path to prosperity. The next logical step would be to hold a round of elections at three different levels and focus on economic development. However, the Madhes movement has emerged as a stumbling block, forcing many to choose the path of ultra-nationalism. While ultra-nationalism has the potential to fuel a strong political movement, will it ensure the protection of democracy and guarantee prosperity?

Given that political stability and peace are the preconditions for economic development, we might need to prioritise the achievement of peace by spending more time and money to attain it.

Madhes alienation

Nepal has a history of being susceptible to conflict. This vulnerability was highlighted once again by the CPN-UML’s show-of-strength campaign along the Tarai belt. This campaign met with violent resistance from the Madhesi Morcha, triggering police shootings in Saptari that led to the unfortunate deaths of several innocents.

This incident was immediately followed by another shooting in western Nepal, where the repeatedly high-handed Indian border security force opened fire on a Nepali. This fatal shooting immediately soured relations between Nepal and India, leading to calls for fencing the border.

Given that border disputes and incursions by Indian security forces are frequent, border issues must be immediately resolved to curtail further harmful incidents. However, this is a task that seems to be impossible at the moment. 

The incidents that occurred over the past week have several implications.

The Madhesi sentiment has been coloured by a sense of discrimination and powerlessness, and recent events have only served as a catalyst to reinforce this belief. While Govinda Gautam was declared a martyr and honoured by the state, Basudev Sah, who died under similar circumstances six years ago, was largely ignored. Instances such as these could serve as appropriate examples of perceived discrimination towards the Madhes populace.

Recent incidents have also raised the prospect of further conflict in the future given the intransigence of the Indian government and intelligence agencies regarding the demands of the Madhes, the UML’s increasingly anti-Indian stance, and the growing significance of China.

Strangely enough, these incidents have had one unforeseen consequence; they have served to generate empathy for the Madhes cause. Many in the Nepali civil society have now begun to speak against strident nationalism and the UML’s anti-Madhes posture.

Whether these changing opinions can close the divide or make a political rapprochement possible is yet to be seen. Positive developments towards conflict resolution were indicated by the Nepali Congress’ discussion on the amendment of the constitution prior to holding a series of elections at the local, provincial and national level.

State of vulnerability

As a patron of the Madhesi Morcha, India has refused to fully recognise Nepal’s constitution. The international community has also expressed reservations about certain provisions in the constitution. In an ideal situation, international legitimacy and recognition should not matter. The Nepali people have a right to decide what kind of constitution they want as long as it does not violate international principles of human rights. However, in-fighting among political parties, corruption and underdevelopment have made the Nepali state vulnerable to external influences.

Though a majority of the people have supported the constitution and display a robust sense of national pride in the face of external pressure, the country is structurally weak and divided. In such a scenario, external pressure could have a significant impact on Nepal’s future political course.

The victories of Donald Trump in the US and of the Bharatiya Janata Party in Uttar Pradesh indicate that it is possible to win elections without pleasing all groups. Trump’s victory was possible despite the alienation of marginal communities, college-educated people and urban voters. Similarly, BJP’s victory was possible despite the total exclusion of Muslims and Yadavs.

In Nepal, too, the display of power by the UML attempts to propagate the perception that they might be able to pull off an electoral victory even if they don’t relent to the pressure of the Madhesi and Janajati movements. There is, however, a caveat that makes Nepal’s situation completely different.

At one point, despite the anticipation of considerable difficulties, the prospect of local elections seemed an achievable political agenda. However, such prospects have been severely undermined by India’s current posturing and other recent events. The necessity to hold three types of elections within the next 10 months has made the political situation volatile. The prospect of violence, like those experienced in the last week, can derail Nepal’s political process.

In theory, political parties may still win in elections by ignoring the concerns of Madhesis in the eastern Tarai districts. However, in reality, alienating the Madhesis and Janajatis may lead to a situation where elections may not even be possible.

Role of India

India’s role needs to be taken seriously. Past experience has shown that India’s intelligence agencies have the capacity and experience to instigate armed movements and violence within Nepal. Unless differences with the Madhes-centric forces are resolved and India is prevented from conducting clandestine operations, we might be heading towards protracted civil conflict and political disorder. In such a situation, the current constitution will no longer be able to guide the political processes and ad-hoc political solutions will have to be sought in cooperation with external actors.

Mainstream political parties have only three options with regard to the Madhes. The first option is to hold dialogues to accommodate the demands of the Madhes, followed by a constitutional amendment. The second option is to push ahead with the current political process by bulldozing the opposition and sacrificing the sentiments of the Madhesi people for the sake of the democratic process. The third option is to either “educate” or “convince” the Madhesi people about the virtues of the new constitution and enlist their support for the democratic process.

Apparently the third option, as chosen by the UML, has already failed. The danger is that there might not be enough time to pursue the other options.

The second option is attractive to a large chunk of “nationalist” Nepali citizens and parties. However, there is a real danger that choosing this option might push the country toward protracted civil conflict and derailment of the new constitution. Choosing this option means pitting China against India, with Nepal as the battleground for their proxy war. In recent years, India seems to have abandoned its “hedging” policy in relation to China and moved closer to Europe and the US. As a consequence of this diplomatic shift, China and India are behaving more like antagonists than economic partners.

Current political polarisation in Nepal is encouraging some political parties to court China in order to take a stand against India. While such kneejerk reactions are natural, it is likely to further weaken the Nepali state, especially if India refuses to stand down.

Published: 15-03-2017 08:21

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