Democracy has not brought stability to a country also rocked by an earthquake and tensions between its two giant neighbours, reports Justin Huggler
When India rolled out the red carpet for the visiting Nepalese prime minister in August, Sher Bahahdur Deuba could have been forgiven if he felt a moment of vindication. Sacked for ‘incompetence’ by King Gyanendra, and then jailed on trumped-up corruption charges when the former monarch made his ill-advised attempt to seize absolute power, Deuba has outlasted his old nemesis.
He heads a young republic, and returned to office earlier this year under a peaceful power-sharing deal with Prachanda, the former leader of Nepal’s 20-year-long Maoist insurgency. The guerrilla movement has been consigned to history along with the ex-king, and Deuba will lead the country into its first federal elections this November. Under his premiership, parliament has voted to improve women’s rights and end the barbaric practice of banishing menstruating women from villages.
But all is not well in Nepal. Behind the smiles in Delhi and the international plaudits, Deuba is walking a tightrope. Almost unnoticed by the international press, his government lost a vote in parliament recently, one that could yet plunge the fledgling republic back into violence and chaos.
The vote was over more rights for the Madhesi people, a minority who live in the plains along the Indian border. The Madhesis say the new republican constitution discriminates against them. In 2015 and 2016, more than 50 people were killed in protests over the issue, including police officers who were beaten to death. The border was closed for so long there were severe shortages in Kathmandu, and fuel rationing had to be imposed. The protests were brought to an end with a pledge to tweak the new constitution and grant the Madhesis more rights, but Deuba failed to win the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution.
It is all a far cry from the heady days of 2006, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary Nepalis took to the streets of Kathmandu and defied police bullets to force Gyanendra to restore democracy in an uprising that, if not entirely bloodless, was still remarkably peaceful. Within months, the Maoists had laid down their arms and ended a civil war that cost more than 13,000 lives. Two years later, the monarchy was ended, and Gyanendra became plain Mr Shah.
But, as France and Russia can attest, revolutions do not end with the overthrow of kings. The hard work of remaking Nepal as a republic had only just begun.
The Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, better known by his nom de guerre of Prachanda, or The Fierce, a man most Nepalis feared but had never seen, flew into Kathmandu by helicopter and turned out to be another fallible politician. His now democratic Maoists won their first election by a landslide and he became prime minister, but less than a year later he was forced to resign after his attempt to fire the head of the army failed. In the next election, the Maoists lost their majority, and Prachanda lost his seat, though he managed to cling on by standing in another seat as well. In the nine years since the end of the monarchy, Nepal has had no fewer than ten prime ministers.
To his credit, Prachanda has rebuffed pressure from his old comrades to restart the insurgency and stuck doggedly to the democratic path, even suffering the indignity of being publicly slapped in the face by an activist in 2012. He returned for a second term as prime minister last year, and handed over peacefully to Deuba under the power-sharing deal earlier this year.
But Prachanda’s critics say that he has abandoned the struggle for equality for Nepal’s lower castes that once fired the insurgency, and allied himself to the country’s traditional élites. To them, the power-sharing deal with Deuba is further evidence of this.
It was always going to be a challenge to forge Nepal, a country made up of communities isolated from each other by its rugged geography, into an inclusive democracy. The framers of the new constitution had to bring together peoples as diverse as the Sherpas of the high Himalayas, the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley, the Madhesis of the plains and traditional Gurkha communities such as the Gurungs, among many others.
The obvious solution was some form of federalism, and the decision was taken to divide Nepal into seven federal states on the Indian model, each with their own parliament and regional government. It is these states that will vote for the first time in November. The trouble was where to draw the borders of the new states.
While the classic image of Nepal is the towering peaks of the Himalayas and the Kathmandu Valley, the country also includes large swathes of the Terai plains along the border with India. The dominant community here, the Madhesis, have Indian ancestry and close ties to their brethren on the other side of the border. Low-caste Madhesis in particular have long been excluded from power, which in Nepal has traditionally been in the hands of the upper castes from the hills.
The Madhesis hoped federalism would give them a long-sought share in power, but they were deeply disappointed by the new states. Activists contend the borders have been deliberately drawn to exclude them again, by illogically lumping the Terai together with neighbouring hill districts in order to dilute their influence.
It is perhaps a telling detail that the new states do not have names yet, as they do not correspond to traditional divisions or areas of the country, and are instead referred to by number. Madhesi activists also complain that citizenship clauses in the new constitution are designed to disadvantage them, because of their tradition of cross-border marriages with communities in India.
Delhi has been caught up in the controversy, responding to the Madhesi blockade by closing the border for what it said were safety reasons. But the border is Nepal’s lifeline to the outside world, and the resulting shortages brought Kathmandu close to its knees. Despite Indian denials, many in Nepal remain convinced India was acting out of its own political interest. They point to the large Madhesi community on the Indian side of the border and the Bihar state elections that were looming at the time. But more than that, they claim India was unhappy at the growing closeness between China and Nepal.
Delhi has steadfastly denied politics had anything to do with the closure. But whatever the truth, the nationalist rhetoric in Nepal has only served to make the issue more combustible. Political factions have played on other Nepalis’ long-standing mistrust of Madhesi ties to India. For the Madhesis, being portrayed as a potential fifth column has only served to strengthen their feelings of isolation. The border areas remain quiet for now, but any new flare-up could have serious implications —not only for Nepal, but for the wider region as well.
There is no mistaking the unease in Delhi at the growing warmth between Nepal and China. Beijing was quick to match India’s offer of aid in the wake of Nepal’s devastating 2015 earthquake, and Kathmandu has been much less accommodating towards Tibetan exiles of late. There is even talk of China developing cross-border trade with Nepal – though geography would appear to preclude that, since the border lies across the highest mountains on earth. Given the current stand-off between India and China over Doklam, where Bhutan, Tibet and Sikkim meet, the last thing the region needs is trouble on the India-Nepal border.
The tone at Deuba’s meeting with Narendra Modi in Delhi was clear. ‘Defence ties and assistance in security is an important aspect of our partnership,’ India’s PM told a joint press conference afterwards. ‘Our defence interests are also dependent on and connected to each other.’
Deuba was even more explicit. ‘I would like to assure you that Nepal will never allow any activity against friendly neighbour India, and there will be every support, every help and cooperation from our side,’ he said.
Modi also made it clear India wants the Madhesi issue solved. ‘I have a full confidence that under your adroit and experienced leadership, dialogue will continue with all sections of society, and Nepal will be able to successfully implement the constitution by incorporating the aspirations of all its citizens,’ he told Deuba.
But with the constitutional amendments to meet Madhesi demands blocked in parliament and elections within the contentious state boundaries only months away, Nepal’s latest leader may have his work cut out.