Modi and the Madhes

  • Modi has a chance to break with the past and provide assistance to the Madhes proportional with the hills
Modi and the Madhes

Jul 29, 2014-

In the 2014 general election, the people of India voted overwhelmingly in favour of the ‘Modi sarkar’. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi, who previously had an image of being a radical Hindu, particularly after the 2002 Gujarat riot during his chief ministership, managed to transform his image to that of a developmentalist. Subsequently, people from all castes, creeds and religions voted for Modi, primarily because they expected him to emulate the Gujarat model of development throughout India.

Similarly, the people of Nepal attach great importance to Modi’s upcoming visit on August 3-4 because of his record of achieving high growth in his home state of Gujarat and putting the state on the path to rapid economic development. If he is able to incorporate his vaunted Gujarat model into the Indian foreign policy, particularly with regard to India’s neighbours, that would definitely change the future of those neighbouring countries for the better. Modi’s invitation to the heads of government of neighbouring countries for his swearing-in ceremony has already reflected the importance he attaches to the neighbourhood. In the same spirit of neighbourliness, Modi’s upcoming visit, so early in his premiership, has dominated political discourse in Nepal.

For the Madhes

Indian news reports have confirmed that Modi will be announcing a huge economic package for Nepal during this visit. He is expected to announce assistance for hydropower projects, the Kathmandu-Tarai fast-track road, the Postal Highway, the Mahakali Bridge and a cricket academy.

News reports have also hinted at a strong possibility for the Indian PM’s visit to Janakpur, a town known not only for its religious and cultural affairs but also for political discourse that differs from that of Kathmandu or the Permanent Establishment of Nepal. Accordingly, Janakpur has been isolated and punished for long by the hill-centric Nepali state. The state apparatus has not taken full ownership of this city and India too hasn’t provided it much priority in the past for fears that attaching too much importance to Tarai towns could easily antagonise the hill power holders. The people of Janakpur, however, expect some form of assistance from Modi for the development of the city.

On July 23, Rakesh Sood, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, wrote on the opinion pages of The Hindu that “some Indian political leaders would push for supporting the Madhesis, who enjoy a close kinship with Indians in north Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Modi government should ignore these and advise Nepali leaders, both publicly and privately, to resolve their differences internally.”

Yes, this is an internal matter and should be resolved internally. But since large sections of India border the Madhes, it would be sensible for India to give priority to this region. Unfortunately, this has never happened yet.

Perhaps the Modi government should think of breaking from the past by attaching more importance to the Madhes. This could even help serve India’s interests better as increased interest in the Madhes alone can help check anti-Indian activities. Only then can India prevent its border regions in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar from being exposed to anti-India elements. The crucial niche for Indian interest in Nepali politics, therefore, is the Madhes.

Neighbours first

On July 21, a group of Madhesi youth protested at Jantarmantar in New Delhi and submitted a memo to the Prime Minister’s Office demanding a revision of the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship. They also demanded equal distribution of the Indian aid and assistance to the Madhes under the banner ‘Hum Madhesi aap ke padosi hain’ (We Madhesis are your neighbours). They claimed that Madhesis are unfairly treated in Nepal and barred from joining the Nepal Army and government institutions. Additionally, the Indian Army too does not recruit Madhesis into its Gorkha regiments.

Madhesis have strong cultural and social ties to UP and Bihar and Modi’s development assistance for the Madhes can have positive impacts on the electorates of these two populous states. Nepali FM stations operating in Tarai districts, particularly along the border region, can be easily heard in Indian border areas. So Modi’s visit to the Madhes, or any form of assistance, will definitely have some impact in UP and Bihar.

India has always found it difficult to balance its relationship with the Nepali hills and the Madhes. Anti-Indian sentiments are more visible in the hills than in the Tarai. A large percentage of the Madhesi population is democratic and pro-India.

In India, Prime Minister Modi has an image of supporting the autonomy of different identity groups. The BJP has always supported the creation of autonomous states such as Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Telangana and is also in favour of Gorkhaland. That’s why BJP candidate Surinder Singh Ahluwalia won the Darjeeling Lok Sabha seat in northern West Bengal.  

The BJP election manifesto also mentioned its support for smaller states that are based on identity. It talked about Gorkhas, Adivasis and other peoples in Darjeeling and the Dooars; of the Kamtapuri, Rajbongshi and other peoples of North Bengal (including recognition of their language); and to take initiatives for a permanent solution to long-pending issues of Bodos and other tribal communities of Assam, the peoples of Sikkim, Leh, Ladakh and Lakshadweep. Will Prime Minister Modi, whose party has an absolute majority in the Indian Parliament, support similar aspirations of Madhesis, indigenous communities and other marginalised communities in Nepal?

 

A Modi doctrine

If he chooses to visit, Modi will receive a warm welcome in the Madhes, where he can glimpse people like him, clad in dhotis and speaking similar languages. Cross-border security issues are on Modi’s checklist and for this, he needs to visit the borders of the Tarai. Tackling the many misdeeds of the Sashastra Seema Bal along the border area should also be a key agenda. Modi can even offer a plan to develop the Ganga in Janakpur.

The last Indian Prime Minister who paid an official visit to Nepal was Inder Kumar Gujral in 1997, during the height of his ‘Gujral Doctrine’ which said that India, being the largest country in South Asia, should be willing to give more to its neighbours and not expect reciprocity. Along these lines, the new generation of Nepalis is expecting equal treatment and fair distribution of Indian assistance to all groups and regions. Columnist CK Lal, at the launch of Prashant Jha’s book Battles of the New Republic, said that India’s relations with Nepal were that of a tiger and mouse, with India playing the role of tiger. This must change. India must rebrand its image along a new ‘Modi Doctrine’ in favour of mutual respect that will further cements the ties between the two sovereign nations.

 

Jha as an advocate practicing at the Supreme Court

Published: 30-07-2014 09:28

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