Lachlan R Dale

The blockade that crippled Nepal

Nepal

Approx Reading Time-12Nepal: a beautiful country beset by recent constitutional strife, natural disasters and a crippling blockade…but Everestian change is on the horizon – Lachlan R. Dale

 


From 1996 until 2006 Nepal was in a state of upheaval. A civil war saw Maoist rebels battle government forces in an effort to overthrow the monarchy.

The final stages of the conflict came in 2005 when King Gyanendra dissolved the government and seized total control of the country. The unpopular move had the effect of consolidating the previously fractured opposition. As hundreds of thousands of Nepali citizens took to the streets in protest the monarchy eventually buckled under the pressure. A permanent ceasefire was arranged and an interim government created with an eye towards the writing of a new constitution.

The civil war was finally over.

Within a few years the Maoist-led government officially abolished the monarchy. After centuries of feudal rule, Nepal was now a republic.

Still, the transition was far from easy. Nepal is a highly stratified nation; its citizens speak more than 90 languages and are divided along ethnic, geographic, religious, class and caste lines. Political unification was always going to be a rather difficult affair.

And so sadly Nepal’s decade of civil war transitioned into a decade of political stalemate, all centred around the struggle for a new constitution. The Constituent Assembly that was elected to write it missed deadline after deadline until finally the Supreme Court refused to extend the date any further. The assembly was dissolved for its failure.

Eight years on from the end of the war, the country was once more pushed to breaking point. The New York Times remarked that Nepal’s failure to create a new, fair and inclusive constitution risked “turning it into a failed state.”

A vote for a new Constituent Assembly was held in late 2013. When the group met for the first time in early 2014, they promised to deliver a new constitution within a year.

While this deadline was not quite met, the horrific earthquakes of April and May in 2015 provided sufficient impetus for its completion.

Constitutional controversy and the blockade

While some level of controversy was probably inevitable, we should not overlook the fact that Nepal’s new constitution contains many positives:

  • It recognises the rights of women, stating “women shall have equal ancestral right without any gender-based discrimination.”
  • It abolished the death penalty, making Nepal the second South Asian country to do so (after Bhutan).
  • It provides strong anti-discrimination provisions on the basis of “religion, colour, caste, tribe, sex, sexual orientation, bodily condition, disability, status of health, marital status, pregnancy, financial status, origin, language or region, (or) ideological conviction.” This makes Nepal the first Asian country to recognise the rights of the LGBT community.
  • It strengthened environmental laws by providing the “right to a clean environment.” Some believe this gives individuals affected by pollution the right to receive compensation.
  • It is inclusive of marginalised groups, providing quotas for women, indigenous community members and low-caste Dalits for roles in constitutional bodies (though some would argue these quotas do not go far enough).
  • It makes the country a moderate secular nation, but balances this with a pledge to protect ancient religious practises.
  • It provides free higher education for citizens “with disability and economically poor conditions.”

Provided these elements of the constitution were enforced fairly (no small task), this seems a reasonable basis for a democracy. Still, it was very controversial at the time of its announcement. The BBC claimed the new constitution meant a reduction in representation for many minority groups.

But the biggest outcry came from the Madhesi and Tharus, groups indigenous to the Terai region which runs across almost all of Nepal’s southern border. Terai is historically separate to Nepal, and the Madhesi, who are considered ethnically and culturally Indian, allege ill-treatment from the country’s political elite.

The constitution carved the nation into seven states. The Terai peoples were concerned the new divisions reduced their political clout, and feared it would undermine their autonomy. They were also angry at changes to citizenship laws, which stated that if a Nepalese woman marries a foreign husband, he must become a citizen before their children could do so (though I do note that if a man marries a foreign wife he has no such issue). With many Terai having relatives on the other side of the border, they viewed this measure as unfairly targeting them.

In response, the people of Terai imposed a blockade of the entire Nepali/Indian border. With the country’s only other sizeable trade route (up through Lhasa) having been destroyed in the 2015 earthquakes, the Nepali/Indian border is the only remaining major route for supplies to reach the country. This was no minor issue.

As Terai protests quickly turned deadly the international community accused the Nepali government of using excessive force. Perhaps, understanding the gravity of the situation, they hoped to crush the movement early.

A protest against the blockade in Washington DC. Photo © S Pakhrin

There was another major problem. India was publicly backing the Madhesi, going as far as to issue a joint statement with the United Kingdom at the United Nations. This did not sit well with the Nepali Government, who saw such actions as a challenge to their autonomy. Many claimed that India had engineered the Madhesi protests. While India denies this, TIME claims “glaring evidence to the contrary” including: statements by Indian border-security officials and oil-company representatives have cited “orders from above” to continue stopping fuel trucks.

Whether this is true or not, the result of the five-month blockade was devastating. Crucial supplies of fuel, medicine and earthquake relief materials languished at the Indian border. The country ground to a halt. Schools closed. Hospitals ran out of medicine and turned away patients. The cost of fuel skyrocketed. Industries shut. Tourism plummeted – and all this over the course of a brutal himalayan winter.

Nepal was crippled. The blockade had proven to be a particularly effective (though perhaps cruel and inhumane) strategy. While it gained little international media attention, some argue its toll was even greater than the much-covered earthquakes of 2015.

With little other choice, Nepal agreed to amend the constitution.

After such a bruising encounter one can’t help but wonder how long it will take for goodwill between the two nations to return – but to end on an optimistic note; it finally looks like Nepal may soon have a firm democratic foundation after decades of instability.

I certainly wish it for the suffering Nepali people.

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