No End in Sight to Indo-Nepal Border ‘Blockade’

Rohit Wadhwaney
2015.12.10
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151210-nepal-620 Nepalese activists clash with police on a bridge on the Nepal-India border at Birgunj, Nov. 2, 2015.
AFP

More than a month since police firing along the Indo-Nepal border killed his grandson, Ashok Ram is still struggling with how an internal conflict between the Nepalese government and a community of ethnic people over a new constitution claimed the teenager’s life.

Ashish Kumar Ram, a 19-year-old undergraduate student from Raxaul town in northern India’s Bihar state, which borders Nepal, was returning home after visiting a friend in the neighboring country on Nov. 2, when Nepali police opened fire to disperse a crowd of protesters who had blocked a key border trade route for days.

Ashish was shot in the head “from point-blank” range while trying to enter Raxaul from Birgunj, which lies across the border, via an adjacent route, according to eyewitness accounts reported in the Indian media.

“I still can’t believe that an internal conflict in Nepal took Ashish’s life. He had nothing to do with the protests. He was only visiting a friend in Birgunj, which he did routinely. Only that day, he didn’t return home, not alive,” Ram, a resident of Bihar who works for a telephone exchange company, told BenarNews.

Madhesi grievances

Madhesis - Indian-origin residents of Nepal’s southern Terai plains – who are seen by Nepal’s political elite not as loyal patriots, but as India’s fifth column, have imposed a near complete blockade of imports since the Himalayan nation promulgated its new constitution on Sept. 20.

The Madhesis, who make up for nearly 50 percent of Nepal’s population of 27 million, claim the new charter has handed them the short end of the stick. They are seeking measures to resolve issues of underrepresentation in parliament and government jobs.

More than 50 civilians have been shot dead by Nepali police forces since the protests began, according to Madhesi leaders.

“We are trying to conduct peaceful protests, but it is the Nepali government that is trying to stifle our voices with bullets. But we will not back down,” Rajendra Mahato, a senior member of the United Madhesi Democratic Front (UMDF), told BenarNews in New Delhi on Thursday.

Mahato was part of a UMDF delegation to attend talks with Nepal’s government officials in Delhi, where Indian foreign ministry officials tried in vain to mediate a compromise between the feuding factions.

Several rounds of similar talks between the Madhesis and the Nepal government have failed in recent weeks.

“We will intensify the protests,” Mahato said, even as he conceded that more innocent people might lose their lives in the process.

“We are going for an all-out agitation this time. We want what is rightfully ours. And the Madhesi people are ready to sacrifice their lives for that,” he said.

‘No other alternative’

The nearly four-month impasse on goods entering from the Raxaul-Birgunj border point – the gateway to 70 percent of Nepal’s U.S. $7 billion foreign trade with India – has left the earthquake-stricken Himalayan nation reeling under a severe shortage of fuel, cooking gas and medicines.

Bilateral ties between India and Nepal have plummeted to a new low as a result of the trade blockade, with Nepali Prime Minister K.P.S Oli accusing India of fanning the Madhesi agitation – a charge India vehemently denies.

The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industries pegged the national loss from the ongoing impasse at about U.S. $1 billion so far.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the present crisis may worsen.

The UNICEF has warned that the lives of more than 3 million Nepali children below the age of 5 are at risk if the shortage of medicines, vaccines and fuel is not met before winter sets in.

“The plight children and their families are facing in the country has been worsening by the day, and will deteriorate further in the winter months. Children need to be protected from disease, cold and hunger,” Karin Hulshof, Regional Director of UNICEF for South Asia, told the Press Trust of India.

But Rahul Barua of the South Asia Foundation, which is facilitating talks between the government and the agitating group, said the Madhesis “have no other alternative” but to block the crucial trade route.

“During the first 40 days of the agitation, when they (Madhesis) were protesting peacefully no one bothered to pay any heed to their demands,” he told BenarNews, adding that as many as 40 protesters were shot dead by the police in the first month.

“It is only when they blocked the Birgunj-Raxaul border that the government felt the heat and offered to give in to certain demands,” he said.

But Nepal’s ruling party is “only trying to buy time” and is “not interested in solving the humanitarian crisis,” he added.

Agitators’ demands

The agitating Madhesi faction has submitted its 11 demands to the government, among which, redrawing the boundaries of the new provinces and 83 parliamentary seats are key, according to analysts.

The Madhesis regard the formation of seven federal provinces as per the new constitution as “grossly unfair to them,” Nepal expert Hari Bansh Jha wrote in a report for the New Delhi-based Institute for Defense Studies and Analysis (IDSA).

“Only eight districts in the Terai region, from Saptari in the east to Parsa in the west, have been given the status of a province; the remaining 14 districts are to be joined with the hill districts, with the sole purpose of converting the local people into a minority,” Jha wrote.

He said the constituencies have been demarcated in such a way the people of the hill and mountain region would get 100 of the 165 parliamentary seats, “despite the fact that their share in Nepal’s total population is less than 50 percent.”

“On the other hand, the Terai region, constituting over half of the country’s population has been allocated only 65 seats.”

But Nepal’s Minister of Home Affairs Shakti Basnet on Thursday squarely blamed the agitating group for the delay in resolving the crisis.

“We want to take necessary steps at the earliest to resolve the issue, (but) the Madhesi leaders are staying away from dialogue and the country is being pushed to witness a crisis,” he told reporters in Nepal’s Pokhra town.

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