Nepal seems to be on the cusp of another social and political upheaval, and China appears to be the culprit. Through its proxy, the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), China is pushing the Himalayan country towards another spell of turmoil with the sole aim of whipping up sentiments against India and, thus, increasing its own influence in that country.
Last week, the cold winds sweeping into the Kathmandu valley from the snowy peaks of the Himalayas brought welcome tidings. Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal had promised to table a bill amending the Constitution to incorporate changes demanded by the Sanghiya Gathabandhan, an umbrella alliance of Madhesi and Janajati forces.
The Madhesis and the Janajatis (indigenous people like the Tharus and Magars), who together form a majority of Nepal’s population, have been agitating against the country’s new Constitution that came into force in September last year. Immediately after the Constitution was enacted (only 57 of the 598 Constituent Assembly members voted for it), the Madhesis and Janajatis expressed opposition to it.
The enactment of the Constitution was largely the doing of the then Prime Minister Khagda Prasad Sharma Oli of the CPN-UML. Soon after, violence broke out in Nepal, especially in the southern plains or terai areas bordering India, and the Madhesis launched a blockade of the trade and transit points along the Indo-Nepalese border that led to a crisis in Nepal.
Oli repeatedly blamed India for the blockade and used it to take the country closer to China, his long time friend. Oli cut a number of deals favouring China and allowing Beijing to massively increase its footprint and influence in Nepal. Oli also vilified India in the eyes of the Nepalis and sought to limit Indian influence in Nepal on China’s behest.
But Oli’s style of functioning, unabashed cosying up to China, his India-bashing, his non-performance on many fronts and his hunger for power, which led him to renege on a power-sharing deal with Dahal, triggered a grave political crisis in that country.
China tried its best to keep Oli in power, but was unsuccessful and he resigned in end-July this year ahead of a no-trust vote that he would have lost. Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre Prachanda, became the Prime Minister.
Dahal’s ascension to power was good news to India, and New Delhi soon found itself back in its earlier position of influence in Kathmandu. China, whose disproportionate influence was being systematically curbed, bristled at the loss suffered by its staunch ally Oli and has been plotting ever since to create trouble for India in Nepal.
One of Dahal’s primary tasks was to hold negotiations with the Madhesis and Janajatis to form a consensus on amending the new Constitution. The primary demands of the Madhesis and Janajatis were four: redraw the boundaries of the seven provinces, increase proportional representation in the new Parliament that has to be elected in 14 months’ time, repeal new citizenship laws that will disenfranchise many Madhesis and strip them of their citizenship and recognise Bhojpuri, Maithili and other languages, including those spoken by the Janajatis, as official languages in the provinces.
After protracted negotiations with the Sanghiya Gathabandhan, Prachanda finalised a draft amendment proposal last week. This draft amendment incorporated the demands of the Madhesis and Janajatis for recognition of their languages, increase in proportional representation for all in the national assembly, relaxing citizenship norms to allow children of Nepali women married to non-Nepali men to become citizens of the country and redrawing the boundary of Province Number 5 to leave out the hill districts and incorporate some additional plains districts.
Though many Madhesi groups expressed disappointment with the proposed amendment, saying it fell short of their expectations, especially on the issue of redrawing the boundaries of the provinces to have exclusive hills and plains provinces (instead of mixing up the plains and hills districts in provinces as was done in the new Constitution to allegedly deny the Madhesis and Janajatis their due share of power), they largely agreed to support the amendment in Parliament.
Even the CPN-UML initially agreed to the draft amendment. But at the eleventh hour, Oli’s party backtracked and started opposing the amendments, especially the one on redrawing the boundaries of Province 5. Indian intelligence officials are of the firm belief that the CPN-UML’s U-turn was prompted by China.
“It is a dangerous game that China is playing in Nepal. It wants to stall the Constitution amendment proposal and thus provoke the Madhesis and the Janajatis into launching another round of agitation. If that happens, Nepal will be thrown into another crisis and the divide between the plains and hill people (the Madhesis and the Paharis) will sharpen.
India will perforce find itself supporting the Madhesis and, thus, it’ll be easy for Oli and his men to once again portray India as the villain of the piece. China wants this to happen so that it can regain the lopsided influence it enjoyed in Nepal during Oli’s tenure,” explained a top Indian intelligence operative, who deals with Nepal, among other South Asian nations.
The Gathabandhan, miffed at Dahal’s failure to table the draft amendment in Parliament last weekend as he had promised, has threatened a stir. It has also gone back on its support for the draft amendment, saying that it will take a call only after studying the bill. Dahal needs the Gathabandhan’s MPs, as well as those of the Nepali Congress and other parties, to get the amendments passed with the mandatory two-third majority in Parliament.
China has also been provoking a section of Nepali Congress (NC) leaders as well to oppose the amendments. These NC leaders have already launched a campaign against tinkering with the boundaries of Province 5. But so far, the top NC leadership has been in favour of the amendments and for resolution of the demands of the Gathabandhan.
Also, China retains some influence over Dahal, who, in his first stint as prime minister in 2008 to 2009, had an adversarial relation with India and even blamed New Delhi for his resignation in 2009. But Dahal has since become pragmatic and realises the need to maintain good ties with India.
Even so, China, being more economically and militarily powerful than India, can apply a lot of pressure on Dahal to junk the amendments and push the Madhesis and Janajatis into another round of agitation. And Beijing can always rely on Oli and his men to stoke the fires.