Nepal Is Dealing With A Massive Crisis, And India’s ‘Unofficial’ Blockade Made It Worse

By Harsh Mahaseth:

Nepalese students holding placards take part in a protest to show solidarity against the border blockade in Kathmandu, Nepal November 27, 2015. The middle hills and the capital Kathmandu have suffered fuel and cooking gas shortages after protesters in the south switched to blocking supplies from India, Nepal's largest trading partner, almost two months ago. Many in Nepal accuse India of supporting the protesters - a charge New Delhi denies. India has expressed its dissatisfaction with parts of the constitution, although it also says it cannot allow trucks to enter Nepal while conditions are unsafe. REUTERS/Navesh Chitrakar - RTX1W3C4
Image credit: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar.

A significant development emerges after months of political tension in the land-locked country of Nepal. The country that had been adversely affected by recurring earthquakes in April 2015 subsequently faced a political crisis which had its roots deep in the social divisions found in Nepal. This crisis led to an ‘unofficial’ blockade being established between the border of India and Nepal which has currently taken a hiatus.

As the former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral had once said, “India and Nepal are not friends, we are brothers!” India and Nepal share unique relations with similar lingual, racial, cultural and structural heritage. India and Nepal have had good relations for a long time and in 1950, the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship cemented their relationship as they were the first two neighboring countries to have an open border. However, the current issue at hand has taken its toll and has affected millions of lives.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-Moon, had addressed this issue and had underlined Nepal’s right to free transit and had called to lift the obstructions that the landlocked country is facing without further delay. However, it is over here that we need to look into what is really occurring at the borders. The Madhesis have been blocking the borders since September 2015. It is not India which is blocking the border. However, there is no response from their side.

Nepal’s geography has made Nepal economically dependent on India as it is surrounded on three sides by India and on one (to its north) with the Himalayan range and the region of Tibet. The blockade is not happening at every border point as the entry point of Kakarbhitta remains unaffected by the Madhesi protests. India denies the existence of the blockade and there is some room for ambiguity. However, the Indian Oil Corporation refusing to service Nepali tankers and the absence of trade through unaffected points such as Kakarbhitta make the situation clear enough.

The aspirations of the Madhesis can no longer be ignored as they do deserve equal rights just as any other community that calls Nepal home. After months of struggling there have been talks to amend the constitution with the consultation of the Madhes-based parties. Talking on behalf of the Nepali Congress, former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba reiterated that all the different communities’ rights will be respected and that the communal harmony maintained in Nepal for decades shall continue. However, the Madhesis rejected this proposal as a ‘drama’, ‘hollow’ and lacking in substance.

The Knowledge Disparity

Social media, as well as various forms of print media, have addressed this issue, however, there has been no uniformity in the news that has been seen. Different entities have constructed a different reality and framed the entire situation to further their own political or monetary benefit. While some link the blockade with the Bihar elections, others related it to the BJP and their demand of Nepal to be a Hindu nation. Other views seemed to put forward the argument that the blockade was due to the Article 289 of the Constitution which confers upon children who have a Nepalese mother and foreign father the status of a naturalised Nepalese which denies them the holding of key positions. And some others think that it was due to the Madhesis asking for proportional representation in the government. Now, all views have some amount of truth in them and none can be disregarded. The entire issue related to the blockade is a very complex and intricate issue. It certainly has various issues coupled with it.

The constitution has relegated the Madhesis to the status of second-class citizens. As the Madhesis have strong cross-border relations with the neighboring States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, many Madhesis have roots that can be traced back to India. This, coupled with underrepresentation in the national parliament and an unusual proposal of federal boundaries, has strayed away from the equitable representation that was expected.

India had stated the lack of security for the truck drivers as the reason for no supplies going through. The Indian Government had been exerting pressure on the Nepalese Government with this embargo and had been denying the Nepalese their sustenance. India feared that an unstable Madhes population close to the border will have a spillover effect on the bordering states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Social Outcry

For several months, #BackOffIndia was trending on Twitter, first in Nepal and then worldwide. A wave of nationalism swept across Nepal as they responded to India’s lack of approval of the Nepalese Constitution. This got converted into a worldwide movement where people started criticising the Modi Government for meddling with their land-locked neighbour that too at a time when they still haven’t recuperated from the earthquakes.

On the other side, there has been a considerable amount of people going against this trend and either denying India’s involvement or justifying their involvement in this issue. People haven’t created their own trend but they have commented on various articles and posts regarding this. There were comments like As a sovereign country why did you allow us to manipulate you?”, “Looks like Communism has fried some Nepalese Brain”, “People from Bhikari Nations who have developed a habit of eating Alms and Fokat ka Maal develop such habits (people from poor nations have developed the habit of sustaining themselves on handouts)”, etc.

The Media Bias

The media plays an important role during any humanitarian crisis. When there is a need for reliable information during a crisis the media reports every relevant piece of information. However, the media is highly politicised and this issue clearly highlights this fact. Several news agencies have shown their bias in this situation by twisting the facts and portraying the entire situation differently in the minds of their readers.

The Times of India appears to have shied away from addressing this issue properly as the only article found online was that of the blockade coming to an end and even that seemed to have numerous factual errors. Other leading daily newspapers that I looked up such as the Daily Telegraph, Asahi Shimbun and the Sydney Morning Herald have also not gone much deeper into the issue. With only a superficial analysis of the entire crisis which merely states that there is a blockade going on in Nepal the readers from countries who subscribe to such newspapers do not understand the context of the blockade. All four of these newspapers are in the top 10 most read newspapers in the world and without an in-depth study and the detection of the root cause of the crisis the readers cannot comprehend the severity of the issue.

Apart from articles which do not cover the entire story, there are articles which change the entire story.

An article written by the Indian Express has clearly modified the story and tried to convey anti-Nepalese messages to its readers. While the article states that “India has assured Nepal of lifting the blockade,” there had been no such assurance as the Indian Government had completely denied the fact of there actually being a blockade. Also, the article states that Nepal’s Government is blaming Narendra Modi for shutting down schools in India but clearly this is the only newspaper that has put the blame on the Prime Minister for such an occurrence.

The Pioneer is another print media which has told a reality different from the original. With headlines such as ‘Self-imposed eco blockade in Nepal’ and ‘From Open Borders to Blockades’ this newspaper has blamed the entire crisis on the Madhesis and Tharus. They have blatantly denied the claim that India has any role in this issue. Furthermore, statements such as “India can’t be substituted with China” and “India’s goodwill should not be taken for granted” completely divert attention from the reality.

The politicisation of the media has been accepted in society. However, the objective of the media should be to share the various perspectives which would allow the readers to gain a better understanding of the situation. It is important for the media to analyse the situation and suggest remedies to end the crisis. During a crisis, when the situation is chaotic and urgent, the media should report about this and make people aware of the situation and the measures that can be taken; but, in the present scenario, several newspapers have not conveyed the issue of the rising level of people going below the poverty line due to this blockade or about the blockade itself!

The Current Scenario

According to the latest World Bank report, Nepal is currently the third poorest country in the SAARC region after India and Bangladesh which has not included Afghanistan. Nepal improved its condition and from being the poorest country and moved ahead of Bangladesh in 1999 and of India in 2008. However, the current political impasse coupled with the devastating recurring earthquakes has pushed a large population of the country below the poverty line. According to Deependra Bahadur Kshetry, the former vice-chairman of the National Planning Commission, the rate of poverty has increased by seven percent which has gotten even worse due to the shortage of supplies, long hours of load shedding and the arrival of winter. Due to the indefinite strike, the industrial sector was operating at one-fourth of its capacity while the development and earthquake reconstruction activities had come to a halt.

At the time of such a political crisis, brother India should be giving its unconditional support instead of imposing an ‘unofficial blockade’ which has caused great despair yet again in Nepal. There had been a deficient supply of petrol, food products and even medicine. The blockade was enforced at such a time when more than 200,000 families were affected by the devastating earthquakes and are still living in temporary shelters. Adding to the damage, around 60% of Nepal’s food, fuel, medicine, etc. are imported from India. This has set the Nepalese economy back by at least 20 years. With the long excruciating load shedding hours, people are having a tough time dealing with the change. Without gas, people are shifting towards induction cookers and daura. Without electricity and food materials the life of a large chunk of Nepal has come to a standstill.

The Oxford Dictionary defines a blockade as an act, or means, of sealing off a place to prevent goods or people from entering or leaving. If we try to use this definition and understand what happened then there actually was no blockade. However, the technical meaning of a blockade shows a stark difference from what it is if looked at from the general understanding of a blockade. From a humanitarian perspective, refraining from sending in products has been seen as a blockade too. This ‘unofficial’ blockade has caused great suffering to the Nepalese while no one could do anything as it was technically not even a blockade!

However, now the blockade has been lifted and the supply of essential goods such as medicine, food, petroleum products, etc. has resumed. The brotherhood between the two countries had been strained and it was then that the Nepalese Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, visited India to attempt to mend broken bonds. The differences between the two brothers have been sorted out via the passing of a constitutional amendment.

However, the Madhesis still remain defiant and the protests still continue. The contemplation of a fresh blockade could arise if the government does not effectively deal with their problems. The government also has to aid the families that were affected by the earthquakes while also tending to the current situation that Nepal is in. To prevent itself from falling any further Nepal has to take immediate effective measures to help alleviate the condition of people who were affected by the unfortunate events, which occurred in Nepal throughout the year of 2015, that now classify them as people below the poverty line. Media has an important role to play in this entire issue and it can definitely help address this issue while also assisting the people recuperating from it.

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