A Nepalese Student Explains #BackOffIndia
#BackOffIndia began trending online last week, days after the long-awaited promulgation of the Nepali Constitution after 507 members of the 598-strong Constituent Assembly (CA) voted in favour of the new Constitution. 66 members of the CA, however, abstained from voting in protest. They belong to Madhes-based political parties who perceive that this constitution reneged on promises that were made to them in 2008.
Madhes refers to the southern plains across the breadth of Nepal. The majority of its population share strong socio-cultural ties to the Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The Madhesis and the Tharus (another sizeable community from the plains) have felt historically marginalised by the unitary state structure, which was based in Kathmandu and controlled by the powerful Hindu high-caste community (the Brahmin-Chettri nexus that gave Nepal its 240-year-old monarchy and the majority of its politicians and bureaucrats).
The new Constitution was expected to draw federal state lines in such a way as to enable marginalised communities to have stronger political representation. But after eight years of political wrangling over the Constitution, the Madhesis feel that they have been short-changed. As former Indian ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad notes, 12 out of 20 Madhes districts were incorporated into states with a majority hill population and significant issues previously agreed upon – like the proportional inclusion of marginalised communities in state bodies and delimitation of constituencies on the basis of population – have not been included.
Over the past week, a wave of nationalism has swept across Nepal. #BackOffIndia trended online in response to India’s apparent lack of approval of the new Constitution and its insistence that the Madhesi demands be taken into consideration. This hashtag is a manifestation of this love-hate relationship that has baffled me over the years. There are times when the hate seems righteous. Like earlier this year, when social media rightly exploded in indignation over Indian media’s churlishly sensational coverage of Nepal’s devastating earthquakes. #GoHomeIndianMedia. Then there have been times when it’s been downright silly. Like in 2009, when (the sorry excuse of a film that was) Chandni Chowk to China was banned in Nepal for the suggestion that Buddha was born in India.
Which brings us to the crux of the matter i.e. India’s political “meddling” in Nepal. From helping King Tribhuvan remove the Rana oligarchy to facilitating the peace agreement with Maoists that effectively ended the bloody civil war, this “meddling” has been far from futile. Admittedly, this relationship is UNEQUAL, as is evident in how New Delhi often leverages its influence on Kathmandu for its own benefit. As prominent Nepali journalist Prashant Jha suggests in his book, Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, although India continues to interfere, it has become more accommodating too like in its support to remove monarchy or to increase investment in Nepal.
Nepal is heavily dependent on India for essential commodities like fuel. Trade deficit with India has trebled in the last five year to $3.6 billion. Then there is the little matter of cultural gratification. Indian films and TV shows permeate every Nepali household. The Indian cricket team is widely supported. Modi’s address to the Nepali Parliament last year was met with the kind of fanfare I have never noticed for a Nepali politician. There is no bigger Nepali or Hollywood movie star here than Sallu bhai.
It’s surprising then how little it takes to perpetuate the anti-Indian sentiment; like Heath Ledger’s Joker prophesied about madness being like gravity, “All it takes is a little push.” And my fear is that this nationalistic fervour typified by #BackOfIndia is stoked by the same xenophobic, power-hungry political class that had a big hand in passing the current version of the Constitution.
I have seen students, doctors, and journalists around me and on social media jump on this bandwagon without enough empathy for a large section of our own people, the Madhesis. The Madhesi jhaal-muri/paani-puri wallahs from whom the neighbourhood bullies would snack off, and pay only with a “go back to Bihar, dhoti!” comment. The Madhesis who I grew up associating with trash collectors (khaali seesha, purana kaagaz) and illiterate corner shop barbers. The Madhesis who will overpopulate and take over Nepal.
The matter is not helped by cutting off fuel and food supply from India, which over the past week has crippled life in Nepal. Furious Nepalis are convinced that New Delhi is covertly responsible for the blockade, while India sheepishly denies any involvement. In typical Balaji frivolity, the response is that cable operators in Nepal are expected to cut off all Indian TV channels indefinitely.
This is not to decry the document entirely (and it does enshrine progressive clauses like LGBT rights), but the first amendment will have to reconsider these demands and attempt to become the new, all-inclusive, uniting national symbol. Because, God knows Nepal could really use a national symbol right now.
(A former journalist, Satish Gurung is currently pursuing his Masters in International Relations from University of Birmingham. He hopes to go back home to Nepal and help rebuild his country.)
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