Many Nepalese conceded the constitution may be imperfect but is federal, republican, and secular and can be amended to accommodate the concerns of disgruntled ethnic groups but there was more to India’s disapproval
September 20, 2015, was a momentous day in Nepal’s history when South Asia’s oldest nation-state adopted a new constitution after seven years of political wrangling. It was a rare moment of celebration for the landlocked Himalayan country. Nepal was recovering from an earthquake that killed around 10,000 in April of that year.
Fireworks went off. Thousands of flag-waving Nepalese cheered the adoption outside the country’s legislature in the capital Kathmandu. The celebrations were dampened soon. Nepal was forced to start fuel rationing amid a shortage of essential supplies in the face of an alleged Indian blockade.
Nepalese home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakala described the blockade as ‘vengeance from India as they are not happy with Nepal’s new constitution.’ The alleged blockade came after Nepal snubbed top Indian diplomat S Jaishankar.
Jaishankar rushed to Kathmandu to have the celebrations marking the adoption postponed two days before the event. India wanted Nepal to make seven amendments to the constitution before adopting it.
The amendments were sought ostensibly to address the demands of groups such as Madhesis (Indian-origin Nepalese), who insisted the constitution disempowered them.
Things came to a head when Nepal sought United Nations intervention over the blockade. India insisted it had nothing to do with it. New Delhi maintained supplies to the Himalayan nation have been blocked due to the Madhesi protests.
The ties soured even as the two Hindu-majority countries have historically had close links. From its short-lived experiment with democracy in the 1950s to the ending of the Maoist insurgency in 2005, India played a key role in Nepalese affairs.
Millions of Nepalese work in India. They send crucial remittances to support an impoverished Nepal, which depends on Delhi for practically everything. India played a key role in drafting the new constitution as well.
Many Nepalese conceded the constitution may be imperfect but is federal, republican, and secular. They said it can be amended to accommodate the concerns of disgruntled ethnic groups.
But there was more to India’s disapproval of the constitution. India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s parent organisation, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has long pressed Nepal to reject secularism and become a Hindu nation again.
Turing India into a Hindu nation has been the main ideological position of the BJP as well. BJP parliamentarian Yogi Adityanath, who has since become the chief minister of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh, wrote to Nepalese authorities demanding Nepal’s declaration as ‘Hindu Rashtra (nation)’ in July 2015.
Many Nepalese have rejected the idea of Hindu Rastra as a relic of the monarchy, which long frustrated their democratic aspirations. The constitution received overwhelming support; 85 percent of the 601-member Nepal’s constituent assembly members voted in its favour.
Some members of disgruntled Madhesi and Tharu communities also voted for the constitution. But India chose to oppose the constitution, which culminated in another diplomatic fiasco in its neighbourhood.
In 2020, Nepal’s parliament approved a new map including areas under India’s control and strained ties further between the neighbours.
Six years earlier, Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Nepal in 17 years in 2014 as part of his focus on improving ties with immediate neighbours. But India’s relations with Nepal have worsened. It followed a pattern in its neighbourhood even as Modi went on an overdrive in promoting relations with big powers such as the US.
There was a major slide after May 2014 when Modi invited leaders of neighbouring countries, including Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, for his inauguration. This raised hopes for greater cooperation among South Asian countries.
While Delhi faced flak in Nepal, the Maldives warned India against interference in its affairs while the then foreign minister Sushma Swaraj was visiting the archipelago in October 2015.
The warning came against the backdrop of India’s backing of deposed ex-president Mohamed Nasheed. Swaraj ignored Nasheed in her statements and focussed on improving ties with the Maldives. A week earlier, India called for a ‘fair and just’ resolution to Nasheed’s imprisonment.
Modi cancelled his trip to the Maldives when the ex-Maldivian president, who was later released and now is the speaker of the country’s Parliament, was jailed.
Sri Lanka brushed aside India’s protests and announced the docking of another Chinese submarine and warship. It came a week after National Security Advisor Ajit Doval reprimanded the Island nation over such dockings in Colombo in October 2014. India was earlier accused of involvement in ousting Mahinda Rajapaksa’s government.
The historically acrimonious relations with Pakistan have also worsened. Modi sprung a surprise by inviting Sharif to his inauguration. It was seen as a major departure from the Hindu nationalist leader’s anti-Pakistan rhetoric.
Sharif attended the inauguration despite reported objections by the country’s army, which has been suspicious of his conciliatory policies towards India. Modi also made an unannounced visit to Lahore to meet Sharif.
But the ties began to worsen again. The Modi government called off talks twice over Pakistani insistence on consulting Kashmiris separatists before the ties hit an all-time low over the stripping of Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. Visiting Pakistani leaders have long met the separatists in Delhi before engaging with the Indian leadership.
In the east, BJP’s anti-Bangladeshi rhetoric as a dog whistle against Muslims has hit New Delhi’s ties with Dhaka. The Modi government’s policy of encouraging Bangladeshi Hindus to migrate to India has not gone down well with Bangladesh as it undermines its secularism.