Madhesis of Nepal bear comparison with Tamils of Sri Lanka and distrusted as “Indian agents” In Nepal
Fate has been harsh to Nepal, a small Himalayan country, arguably amongst the most impoverished in the world. Nepal has been repeatedly ravaged by natural as well as man-made calamities, ranging from devastating floods which are now almost an annual feature, to the catastrophic earthquake of 2015 which almost totally obliterated the national capital Kathmandu, leaving more than 7,000 dead and an estimated 14,000 injured. A brutally fratricidal civil war between Maoist insurgents and royalist forces with unspeakable atrocities on both sides, raged from 1996 to 2006, an entirely self-inflicted affliction, which killed an estimated 1,3000 citizens.
The great earthquake of 2015 turned Nepal into a cockpit of competitive international politics. India was the largest aid provider to Nepal amongst Asian countries, and seventh largest overall, and it is undoubtedly ironic that notwithstanding unstinting assistance provided by India, distrust and hostility towards that country still persist in Nepal.
The Parliament of Nepal has recently drafted a written Constitution for the country, under which the country is to be reorganized into seven federal states, replacing the 75 districts and administrative zones into which the country had been organised earlier. While Pakistan and China have heartily congratulated the government of Nepal on its new Constitution, India has quietly conveyed its concerns regarding the reported opposition to it by the Hindi-speaking Madhesi community in the Terai plains contiguous to India. The Madhesis feel that the proposed constitutional regrouping has been deliberately engineered by Nepali politicians to swamp the cultural identity of the non-Nepali dwellers in the Nepal Terai, and intensify the ethnic fault lines between the dominant Nepali-speaking “pahadis” (mountain dwellers) of the Kathmandu Valley, the political heartland of Nepal, and the Hindi-speaking Madhesis (inhabitants of the middle country), living on the fringes along the southern periphery of the country adjoining Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. India has urged Nepal that these concerns be suitably addressed prior to the finalisation of any definitive legislative action by Parliament. The Madhesis of Nepal bear comparison with the Tamils of Sri Lanka in this context, both distrusted as “Indian agents” with extra-territorial loyalties, an impression which is mischievously encouraged in both countries by Pakistani propaganda, even though in Nepal, President Ram Baran Yadav is himself of Madhesi stock.
The Indo-Nepal Terai constitutes the traditional transit zone between India and Nepal and has historically been an inadequately administered no man’s land, freely exploited by smugglers and criminals of both Nepal and India. In more normal times, it was treated as an open border for free movement of people, goods, and services between the two countries, a happy state of affairs no longer feasible within the heightened atmosphere of radicalised fundamentalism, generated by the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and Al Qaeda in South Asia.
The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of Pakistan also exploits the Terai region as a “Ho Chi Minh Trail”, an alternate safe route for induction of terrorists and intelligence agents into India, which totally bypasses the heavily fortified and guarded Indo-Pak border. A clandestine infrastructural network has been established for this purpose near the Indo-Nepal border by the ISI, often through local agents recruited for this purpose, in blatant defiance of diplomatic norms and courtesies.
Ahl-e-Hadith, an organisation for propagation of Islam worldwide, funded by sources in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region, and viewed by intelligence agencies as a surrogate of the ISI also organises anti-Indian protests and demonstrations in Nepal on various occasions. India has taken counter-measures to control Pakistani “agit-prop” in the border zone by fencing off the Indo-Nepal border and deploying the Border Security Force (BSF), as a dedicated border-guarding force to prevent infiltration of undesirable elements from Nepal.
Quite clearly, India understands that preservation of security and stability in the Madhesi region of the Nepal Terai is closely linked with that of the Gangetic plains of upper India itself, a problem which this country can ignore only at its own peril. This makes India a legitimate and unapologetic stakeholder in the security of the Nepal Terai, and it is in this context that the rising Madhesi discontent in the Nepal Terai has generated concerns in India at the highest political levels.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has dispatched the foreign secretary to Nepal almost as his personal emissary, on a fire-fighting mission to put across India’s position on an issue entirely domestic to Nepal, but whose possible external fallout can adversely affect internal security within India’s heartland. It is a contingency India just cannot accept.
The activities of the Pakistan embassy in Kathmandu need to be kept under observation as well. Besides its formal diplomatic duties, the Pakistan embassy in Nepal is also tasked with a non-state role that is almost quasi-official, as an ISI command post and safe house for coordinating anti-India activities inside Nepal, which was exposed to public glare after the tragic hostage drama around highjacking of Kathmandu-Delhi Indian Airlines flight IC-814 to Kandahar.
The corrosive spillover from the Madhesi reaction to Nepal’s new Constitution has immense destructive potential, which may even scour Nepal’s vintage brand ambassador — the Gorkha rifleman from the mountain heartlands of Nepal, and his formidable military reputation acquired in the Indian, British and Nepalese armies. Might Nepal and India similarly accept the Hindi-speaking Madhesi Nepali from the Terai for this role, as recruits in other illustrious Indian Army regiments, who draw their manpower from the Hindi-speaking regions of India like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar?
And, above all, might the Nepal Army be willing to recruit Madhesi citizens into the Nepal Army to share in the honour of defending their common homeland?
Much will depend on the outcome of these and other similar conversations, which must be progressed with urgency, in the best interests of Indo-Nepal relations.
The writer is a former Chief of Army Staff and a former member of Parliament