Nepal accuses India of an economic blockade as border trade freezes up

India has made no secret it is displeased with Nepal's new constitution. An ethnic minority in southern Nepal has objected to the federal charter's structure. 

Navesh Chitrakar/REUTERS
Nepalese student take part in a protest shouting anti Indian slogans near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal September 28, 2015. According to the students, they were protesting against the Indian logjam at the India-Nepal borders causing acute fuel crises all over the country.
Rich Clabaugh/Staff

A week after adopting a landmark federal constitution, landlocked Nepal is facing what it calls an economic blockade by India as retribution for the new charter's treatment of a Hindi-speaking ethnic minority along the southern border with India. 

India, a regional powerbroker, has made no secret that it believes Nepal’s constitution should give greater powers to the ethnic Madhesi minority, who are culturally close to Indians and share linguistic and family ties. But India denies conducting a formal blockade, blaming the disruption of road transportation into Nepal on insecurity along the border. 

Protests erupted here Monday against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who leads a Hindu nationalist party. Nepalese say India is trying to coerce a sovereign nation and unfairly aid a minority that shares its beliefs and interests. Public television officials Monday cancelled all India-based programming. 

Gas, diesel, kerosene, aviation fuel, and cooking gas are sparsely available, and the government is asking people to drive cars only on alternate days. Authorities have called for families to switch to charcoal and firewood for cooking, and for international airlines to refuel abroad.

"Indian security personnel have prevented cargo trucks from crossing the border," Home Ministry Spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal said. He added: "Among thousands of trucks stuck on the Indian side of the border are nearly 400 fuel tankers, and trucks carrying cooking gas."

Nepal is  fully dependent on India for overland trade after routes with China were closed by landslides triggered by devastating earthquakes in the spring, the worst in 80 years. 

India blames the supply disruption on “unrest, protests and demonstrations on the Nepalese side, by sections of their population,” and on Indian truck drivers unwilling to brave the crossing.

Minority group protests new charter

Ahead of the Sept. 16 vote on the new constitution, the Madhesi ethnic minority in and along Nepal’s border had protested violently for weeks, and continue to do so. Some 40 people have died.

The charter was agreed by a rare show of unity between Maoists and the main ruling parties in Nepal. Unlike the past, India played no key role in the shaping and ratification of the document, which was approved by a vote of 507 to 25. 

The Madhesi minority is using the blockade to ratchet up its demands for a bigger state. The constitution guarantees a seven-state federal structure, ending Nepal’s unitary structure. One of the states has been carved out specifically for the Madhesis.

Rich Clabaugh/Staff

Most Nepali analysts argue that India is supporting the group's demands. "This is a blockade done through official connivance of the Indian government," says Kanak Mani Dixit, publisher of Himal Southasian. "Indian customs officials, Indian border police, and Indian Oil Corp., the monopoly supplier to Nepal, have all worked together to block the border citing orders from New Delhi."

On Sept. 18, two days before the vote on the constitution, India's foreign secretary visited Kathmandu to lobby for the Madhesis. Since then, India hasn't welcomed the new charter, only saying Sept. 20 that, “We note the promulgation in Nepal today of a Constitution.”

Mr. Dixit says that India is more resentful of the process rather than the content of Nepal’s new constitution. He says India feels it should be consulted about change in the region and that it may want clear access to natural resources in Nepal.

"Indian bureaucrats and intelligence officials, on whose hands Nepal policy is by and large left by New Delhi, feel irritated" by Nepal's self-driven adoption of its own charter, he adds. 

Efforts are underway to reopen the Nepal-China trading routes. However, the mountain passes are narrow and few in number; imports are limited mostly to garments and electronics.

Nepal’s government has called for dialogue with the protesting Madhesis and proposed that parliament can pass constitutional amendments next month. 

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