By Amit Gautam, Kathmandu
6 June 2020
The government of Nepal tabled a constitution amendment bill earlier this week – a way towards endorsing a new political map the government had issued late last month.
This development in Nepal has caught considerable attention of Indian political leaders and opinion-makers. Evidently, the Indian establishment is annoyed and mortified by this move of the Oli government.
Some in Nepal predict India may resort to as hard an alternative as economic blockade – which would not be the first time by the way and hence, the apprehension among Nepalese people. They have tasted blockades in the past.
Meanwhile, a day after the government tabled a constitution amendment bill, Samajbadi Party Nepal registered their own amendment bill at the Parliament Secretariat. They did so jointly with the Rastriya Janata Party Nepal. These two parties had been demanding constitutional amendments for quite some time now.
Their demands relate to language, citizenship, proportional representation, formation of autonomous regions, protected regions and non-geographical special regions, an expanded role for the deputy speaker in the absence of the Speaker as well as a change in the governance system with directly elected President.
Prof. Khadga KC from Tribhuvan University blames Indian media and some key opinion-makers for exacerbating the age-old relationship between the two countries. The Head of the Department of International Relations and Diplomacy at Nepal’s top university says unnecessary and provocative comments on the Lipulekh issue have further put a strain on Nepal-India relations whereas the only way to resolve the Lipulekh stalemate is through a political dialogue.
Dr KC said Nepal’s cartographic assertion should not have surprised the Indian establishment as Nepal is an independent nation-state and enjoys an absolute authority over its own territory. He strongly denounced the claim of some Indian leaders that Nepal’s cartographic assertion was at the behest of China.
“India should not have drawn China into the age-long border disputes, which in many instances have agreed the area to be a place of contestation between the two, which is mainly due to hegemonic attitude of India,” Dr KC said. He fails to understand why India does not realise that it has unilaterally constructed a 19 kilometre-long road in Nepalese territory. He said it was obvious for Nepal to feel offended by the activities on its soil. It was obvious for a sovereign state to act the way Nepal has, he maintained.
However, Nepal needs to further engage with China and ask her for a clearer position on the Lipulekh issue. Since Nepal has already settled its border issues with China, there is no point pulling China into this current debacle, Dr KC said in a conversation with southasia.com.au.
According to the TU academic, India is reluctant to sit at the negotiation table because it is not entirely confident of its own evidence to lay claim on the disputed land. He said Nepal should already begin to plan for alternative ways to resolve the matter, even arbitration at multilateral forums.
There should not be any problem for Nepal though, the TU academic added, as it has strong evidence to support its claim on the land. Nepal should form a competent and confident team who could take up the matter in any negotiation with India. “But, I suspect India would be ready even to sit for the negotiation,” he added.
Prof. KC decried Rastriya Janata Party Nepal and Samajwadi Party Nepal’s joint submission of the simultaneous constitutional amendment bill as something which is intended to complicate the parliamentary process. However, he asserted, there should be no problem for the government in getting the bill endorsed as main opposition party Nepali Congress has already decided to vote in favour of the government’s constitutional amendment bill. Once endorsed, the bill would pave way for Nepal’s National Emblem to be updated to reflect the new map of Nepal inclusive of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani.
Any distraction from the major agendas could buy time to divide major political stakeholders in the parliament, Prof KC warned.
Dr. Geeta Kochhar Jaiswal, Assistant Professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, has however repudiated the cartographic assertion by the Government of Nepal as an opportunist step to leverage the ongoing India-China border tension.
All border issues between two states, Dr Jaiswal pointed out, are dealt through bilateral mechanisms. Fortunately, India and Nepal already have that mechanism in place.
Yet, Nepalese leaders are galvanizing the Lipulekh issue to score their brownie points by inciting anti-India rhetoric, which she said was not in the interest of either side.
In the short run, Nepal can woo China, but that won’t help Nepal in the long run.
“As the map is on the table for amendment bill, I do see some conflict of interests happening among Nepali leaders,” Dr Jaiswal added.
Oli may project support, but reality is that there is lot of unhappiness brewing against him inside the country. Just passing a map within Nepal serves no purpose, as the world needs to recognise and accept it.
She doubted that the Nepali Prime Minister would be able to change Nepal’s map at all international forums and institutions.
She suspected Chinaitself will approve Nepal’s new map.
She explicitly mentioned this as a mockery of the issue, which is misguiding the Nepalese citizens ever since this issue has been bounced into public forum for discussion.
Commenting on the bill tabled by the Samajwadi Party Nepal and Rastriya Janata Party Nepal, she said, “As regards, Samajwadi Party Nepal and Rastriya Janata Party Nepal’s demands, thesehave been there for long; these demands are not new. And, it is high time that the government gives due consideration to debate and discussion over Madhesi issues; rather than playing geopolitical card to divert domestic issues.”
Nepal may see a fourth wave of Madhesi protests if it fails to manage demands of the two Terai-based parties, Dr Jaiswal warned.
“The demands have already seen three movements, and I foresee that with greater pressure of the returned migrants amid the Covid-19 crisis, these forces will get strengthened and mostlikely, a fourth wave of movement is not far away,” she predicted.
How the Indian establishment responds to Nepal’s daring move to etch its updated map into its national emblem is yet to be seen.