NEW DELHI:Nepal and India share an open border of about 1,880 km (1,168 miles). The two countries have finalised maps covering 98% of the boundary, but the Lipulekh pass, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura in western Nepal are among the areas that remain contested. Together, the three areas cover about 370 sq km (140 square miles), Nepalese officials say. The strategic Lipulekh pass connects the Indian state of Uttarakhand with the Tibet region of China.
Nepal and China have been angered by India’s recent moves. Delhi’s published its new map of the border region in November, after it divided Indian-administered Kashmir into Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. The map,Nepal claims, incorporated some of the territories disputed with Nepal inside India’s borders.In retaliation, Nepal published its revised map last month showing the disputed areas within Nepal, infuriating India in return.
Nepal surrendered a part of its western territory in 1816 after its forces were defeated by the British East India company. The subsequent Sugauli treaty defined the origin of the Kali river as Nepal’s border point with India. But the two countries differ on the source of the Kali river.
India argues that the exact co-ordinates of the river were not mentioned in the treaty and claims that improved survey techniques have redrawn the map in the years since.
In reality, all the three contested areas have been firmly under India’s control for the past 60 years or so and the people living in those areas are now Indian citizens, pay taxes in India and vote in the Indian elections.
Nepali politicians argue that as the country was going through decades of political crisis followed by a Maoist-led insurgency, they were not in a position to raise the border dispute with India.
As a landlocked nation, Nepal depended for many years on Indian imports, and India played an active role in Nepal’s affairs. But in recent years Nepal has drifted away from India’s influence, and China has gradually filled the space with investments, aid and loans.
China considers Nepal a key partner in its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and wants to invest in Nepal’s infrastructure as part of its grand plans to boost global trade.
President Xi Jinping last year became the first Chinese leader to visit Nepal since Jiang Zemin in 1996. During his visit the two countries decided to upgrade their ties to a “strategic partnership”.
For India, the Lipulekh pass has security implications. After its disastrous 1962 border war with China, it was concerned about a possible Chinese intrusion through the pass, and has been keen to hold on to the strategic Himalayan route to guard against any future incursions.
The pass has proved a point of contention since. In May this year, the Indian defence minister, Rajnath Singh, inaugurated an 80km (50-mile) upgraded road on the pass. The improvements will help to reduce travel time for the Hindu pilgrims that use it, but it was this move that triggered the diplomatic spat with Nepal.
In the current territorial dispute, the Nepalese government has accused Indian foreign ministry officials of not seeking to resolve what’s at issue. The suspicion in Delhi is Kathmandu’s new-found confidence is because of Chinese backing.
The Indian army chief, General MM Naravane, has said publicly that Nepal “might have raised this problem at the behest of someone else” – an indirect reference to alleged Chinese interference. And some mainstream right-wing media in India have called Nepal “China’s Proxy” for raising the border issue. The remarks did not go down well in Kathmandu.
Pessimism about the state of Nepal’s politics is common these days, despite the fact that the country has experienced significant changes since the declaration of the republic in 2008. At that time, an alliance of civil society leaders, democratic political parties, and ex-rebel Maoists had just finished leading a popular protest movement that overthrew Nepal’s King, Gyanendra Bir Bikram Shah Dev. The alliance was a somewhat uneasy one because its members envisioned different goals. The major political parties called for a return to democracy and civil liberties that had been suspended by the King in 2005. The Maoists, who were coming out of a decade-long rural insurgency, called for a federal state structure, radical transformation of Nepal’s caste-based society, and secularism. All parties agreed on the need to end the economic stagnation gripping the country since the civil war began in 1996, but they disagreed – in theory, at least – about the route to growth and the need for redistributive policies. Today, 11 years on, certain promises of the new republic have been fulfilled.
In a basic sense, the new republic has been successful: elections have been mostly free and fair, with high voter turnout. The Constituent Assembly was formed to write a new constitution in 2008 after an election in which 60 percent of eligible adults participated. Because it failed to draft a new constitution in the allotted timeframe, a second Constituent Assembly was elected in 2013, this time with a record-breaking 78 percent turnout. After this Constituent Assembly promulgated a new constitution in 2015 that reaffirmed secularism and federalism, elections were held in 2017 for central, provincial, and local offices under the new federal structure. Again, turnout was high: roughly three-quarters of those eligible voted in local polls.
Because politics and the bureaucracy had historically been dominated by high-caste men, the Maoists and activists from marginalized castes and ethnic groups pushed for the creation of new, inclusive policies. Today, reserved seats for women, Dalits (so-called untouchables), and various ethnic groups exist in all three levels of government. However, most of these seats fall under the proportional representation category, whereby party leaders choose representatives after the election is over. This system has been criticized for tokenism because it allows the party leaders to overrule seat holders’ dissenting opinions. An affirmative-action system was created for the civil service, but the government has recently sought to roll it back.
During their insurgency, the Maoists pushed for the creation of a federal state structure to decentralize power from Kathmandu. Later, in 2007-08, Madhesis – a historically marginalized group from the southern Terai region – also led protests in favor of federalism. Federal governance was seen not only as a way to ensure greater local accountability for office holders, but also as way to give ethnic minorities control over government in local constituencies where they formed a majority of the population.
The Constitution of 2015 met some, but not all, of these demands. It created seven new provinces and several hundred local government constituencies. However, most of the provinces were delineated based on geographical rather than ethnic boundaries. Since they were formed in 2017, local and provincial governments have been stymied by disputes with the federal government over concurrent powers, such as those related to taxation and natural resources. The central government, which has the most revenue, has been reluctant to fund provincial governments, and it has delayed reassigning bureaucratic staff to the local and provincial levels. Many question whether central-level officials are genuinely committed to federalism.
Secularism, another hallmark of the new republic, has also had mixed results. During the constitution-drafting process, the Maoists and religious-minority activists pushed for ending Hinduism as the state religion. The Constitution of 2015 declared Nepal secular, but it defined this as “religious and cultural freedom, along with the protections of religion and custom practiced from ancient times,” implying special protections for Hinduism and Buddhism but not newer religions like Christianity. A ban on cow slaughter remains in place, which the Supreme Court has accepted on secular grounds, and opinion polls show that the Hindu majority is unsupportive of secularism. Some mainstream political leaders have even called for a referendum on the subject.
Previous eras of Nepali history have been marked by bans on protests and censorship of the press. Perhaps one of the most important promises of the new republic was the possibility of a more free, open society. However, the government has had a mixed track record regarding civil liberties since the declaration of the republic in 2008.
The constitution-drafting process saw several instances of suppression of speech. When Madhesis erupted in protest against certain aspects of the 2015 Constitution, the police cracked down with excessive force, killing several dozen people. From 2013 to 2016, the government’s powerful corruption watchdog organization was led by a corrupt official who sought to silence media criticism of him.
In the first elections after the promulgation of the new constitution, held in 2017, the Maoists formed an alliance with another party that had hitherto been its rival, the Communist Party of Nepal-United Marxist-Leninist (UML). The Left Alliance won in a landslide, gaining nearly two-thirds of parliamentary seats. The parties merged in 2018, forming the Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Since coming to power, the NCP government has had rights groups worried. It has used a decades-old law designed to regulate electronic transactions to crack down on online news and social media, arresting six journalists in 2018. More worryingly, a proposed bill could reduce the autonomy of the National Human Rights Commission, an independent government body that plays an important role in monitoring and calling out abuses. In the future, press freedom could be further curtailed by a proposed law that would give government officials the authority to jail or levy hefty fines on journalists they deem to breach a code of ethics.
The NCP government has defended its speech restrictions as necessary to control online abuse, pointing to instances of “fake news.”
Aditya Adhikari, the author of a history of the Maoists, thinks that the current government’s authoritarian tendencies are not unique to the NCP, as some anti-communist critics claim. Instead, he says, a lack of democratic culture among Nepal’s political class was exposed after the NCP gained an unprecedented super-majority.
Meanwhile, criticisms of the NCP from the United States and Europe begin to sound hollow amid the Trump administration’s anti-media rhetoric and the rise of the far right in parts of the EU.
Standing outside the Republic Memorial, a view of Kathmandu’s skyline features several new luxury hotels, high-rise malls, and condominium buildings with apartments retailing at over 10 million rupees (roughly $100,000). Following the declaration of the republic, Nepal’s GDP grew slowly but steadily until 2014. There was an economic slowdown in 2015-16 due to an earthquake that devastated rural areas, but growth has since rebounded with increased aid and other spending for reconstruction.
However, domestic job opportunities are lacking, and the economy has become one of the most remittance-dependent in the world. The Department of Labor has issued over 3.5 million travel permits since 2008 – mostly for Nepalis bound for the Middle East and Malaysia – while an unknown number of workers travel through informal channels.
Though the Maoists advocated radical economic change as rebels, virtually none of their promises, like land reform, have been carried out since they joined mainstream politics. The current NCP government speaks of passing “progressive budgets” and recently increased the state’s old-age pension, but the social safety net remains extremely weak.
Perhaps more importantly, inequality is perceived as increasing. A recent report by a national think tank argues that a kleptocratic network has taken hold of political parties, public institutions, and the private sector over the past decade, primarily enriching the well-connected elite. Kick-backs are common in infrastructure projects and in procurements, like the recent purchase of an Airbus jet for the national airline. While corruption is a problem across party lines, the current NCP has often sided with big business and cartels, such as when it defied popular protests in January to pass a law benefiting private medical education businesses, seen as a particularly corrupt group.
Growing inequality and corruption has led to popular disaffection. Recently, a rogue group of former Maoists, headed by the dogmatic communist Netra Bikram Chand a.k.a. “Biplav,” took up arms against the government. In February, the group planted a bomb next to an office for Ncell – a major telecommunications company accused of evading taxes – that killed an innocent bystander. In response, the government arrested hundreds of suspected cadres, although many were later released. In one case, the police were accused of summarily executing a suspected Biplav supporter. Home Minister Thapa – a former comrade-in-arms of Biplav – has used harsh rhetoric against the rebels, claiming they are “not citizens.”
It remains to be seen whether Biplav’s group can capitalize on popular frustration with corruption and wealth inequality to grow their movement. Currently, they can claim few supporters and are believed to have only four companies, totaling several hundred armed fighters. But Kunda Dixit, the editor of the Nepali Times weekly newspaper, worries that Biplav could draw more support if the government lashes out wantonly, just as the original Maoist rebels drew support when state security forces committed human rights abuses during the civil war from 1996-2006.