Nepal is angry over the unofficial fuel blockade imposed on it by neighboring India since early last week. On Monday, protesters in Kathmandu burned an effigy of Indian P.M. Narendra Modi, shouting “Down with Indian expansionism! Down with Modi!” Internal clashes over Nepal’s new constitution that went into effect on September 20 — and which India dislikes — provided the pretext for Delhi to halt nearly all fuel shipments out of safety concerns.
Nepal’s constitution defines the majority-Hindu nation as a secular republic divided into seven federal provinces. But the road to acceptance was not smooth. Since August, over 45 people have been killed in Nepal in clashes over the then-forthcoming constitution. The heart of the violent resistance has been in the Terai, the southern plains adjoining the Indian state of Bihar.
The Madeshi and Tharu ethnic minorities (which together comprise nearly 40% of Nepal’s population) living there reject the boundaries of the new provinces, fearing political marginalization. But most importantly from Delhi’s perspective, the Madeshis share close ethnic ties with people in India, and Bihar is already one of the more unruly states in India. And since a large number of Nepalese citizens work in India, Delhi is worried about an overflow of violence from across the open border.
India’s foreign minister was even dispatched by Modi to Kathmandu — after Nepal’s Constituent Assembly had passed the constitution — to press the Nepalese government to delay the adoption of the constitution and hold discussions with political groups opposed to it. That mission failed.
So Indian customs officials began halting most border trade shipments last Tuesday, exacerbating the ongoing obstruction by the Madeshi parties. According to a customs official in Nepal, a few trucks carrying fuel, vegetables and building materials started to cross the border into Nepal on Monday but hundreds more were waiting to cross. The Himalayan Times reported on Monday that around 2,000 trucks and other vehicles transporting goods (including 120 tankers carrying petroleum products) have been stranded in Jogbani, India.
“Transportation has come to a complete halt since Thursday,” said Siva Tripathi, an official at the Nepal Ministry of Supplies. Now in crisis management, on Sunday Nepal began restricting domestic driving. A better long-term solution would be for China to re-open its border crossings with Nepal that have been closed since a large earthquake in April. (In contrast to India, China welcomed Nepal’s new constitution.)
In this case India has strayed too far, straining ties with Nepal and all but offering a win on a silver platter for China in their contest for regional influence.