Nepal is edging closer to a humanitarian crisis potentially even bigger than the massive earthquake that struck in April. This time, however, it’s a political crisis rooted in Nepal’s social divisions.
Nepal’s new constitution, passed in September, has generated significant controversy. Ethnic minorities have taken to the streets in large-scale protests against the discriminatory provisions of the new governing order. Amid the dispute, fuel exports from India have halted, creating an escalating emergency as the winter approaches.
Here’s what you need to know to understand the crisis.
• Nepal’s new constitution is highly controversial (and clearly flawed).
Nepal’s politicians had been drafting a new constitution for seven years. The long-stalled writing process accelerated after the earthquake, which placed pressure on elites to resolve their political disputes. But the parties saw this an opportunity to rush through a constitution that consolidated the conservative establishment’s power.
Even though 90 percent of Nepal’s parliament endorsed the constitution, the new constitution has left much of the nation deeply disappointed. It is the people of the plains area bordering India, called Madhesis, who are angered most. New provisions reject full citizenship to children born of a Nepali and a foreigner and ban these offspring from being elected to higher office.
To the Madhesis, who often marry Indians across the border, this is blatant discrimination. When coupled with new federal boundaries that deny them a province, Madhesis view the new constitution as an overt attack on their community.
• The political crisis has resulted in a fuel shortage.
For over two months, indigenous groups have been both violently and nonviolently protesting the constitution. Security forces have brutally suppressed these demonstrations while political elites have ignored their demands. Escalating their tactics, the Madhesis have deliberately disrupted trade routes from India into Kathmandu.
However, there is debate surrounding the blockade. There is a belief that India is complicit in the fuel disruption. India has strongly criticized the new constitution and many in Nepal argue that India has imposed an economic blockade to pressure change. Although the exact truth is unclear, it seems likely the Indians have played a deliberate role in the fuel shortage.
• The current unrest is rooted in Nepal’s national identity.
The long-standing ambivalence between Nepal and India is vital to understanding the present crisis. Even though India and Nepal share a long history of cooperation, India has also been portrayed in Nepal as a meddling foreign power that manipulates Nepal’s domestic politics. Because of the Madhesis’ close geographical and cultural ties to India, many in Nepal view Madhesis with suspicion.
India’s sympathy for Madhesi demands has heightened tension. Many view it as evidence of an Indian-backed Madhesi “fifth column” determined to undermine Nepalese national identity. In this environment, Nepal’s politicians have ignored calls for reform while vilifying the opposition.
The hyper-nationalistic notion that India – and not the Madhesis – are behind the protests has weakened the movement.
• China is unlikely to benefit from the tension between Nepal and India.
A recent article in Foreign Policy argued that India’s actions, which have left a substantial proportion of the Nepali population angered, will push Nepal toward a closer relationship with China. But this position misunderstands local realities.
China is unlikely to assume India’s strong position of influence in Nepal. Despite tension, India and Nepal share many religious, cultural, and linguistic commonalities and have a long history of cooperation. In addition, the sparsely populated and mountainous border between Nepal and China is inhospitable to trade. While Nepali nationalists would like to see Nepal move into China’s embrace, India remains the country’s natural ally, despite recent strains.
• What happens next will be transformational — for better or worse.
Nepal’s young democracy is at a critical juncture. While resentment between the political elite and indigenous groups has risen significantly, accommodating Madhesi demands would bring broader buy-in for the new constitution. The resulting political stability would end the fuel crisis, avert humanitarian disaster, and could facilitate much needed development.
The alternative path is perilous. If Madhesi and other ethnic demands are ignored, the anti-constitution movement could become more radical. Separatist factions could emerge while the fuel shortage could hurt millions. The decisions of Nepal’s political establishment in the coming weeks and months will have lasting consequences.
Nirabh Koirala worked for the Centre for South Asian Studies in Kathmandu, Nepal, and studies political science and economics at Grinnell College.
Geoffrey Macdonald, PhD, is a consultant at the United States Institute of Peace and a lecturer at George Washington University.