25 FEBRUARY 2016
Restoring goodwill with Kathmandu
Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s just-concluded six-day visit to India has come at an important juncture. The visit came after months of turmoil in the Madhes, or plains, region of Nepal following protests demanding a more federal framework in the new Constitution. India had tacitly backed the agitations, which resulted in a virtual blockade and a shortage of essential supplies in Nepal. After a prolonged period of vacillation, Mr. Oli committed to amendments in the Constitution that would satisfy some of the demands made by the Madhesis. This yielded an easing of the blockade after the protestors called off their stir. The net result of the Indian hand in the unrest, and of New Delhi’s perceived partisanship, had been a resurgence of jingoism in Kathmandu. It was also damaging for India, as the stand-off drained the goodwill gained from its commitment to supporting Nepal’s reconstruction after the devastating earthquake in 2015. The two countries clearly needed to recalibrate their positions, and this is a good start. Nepal has to maintain cordial relations with India; its economic dependence, especially as a landlocked state, is well understood and was, in fact, reinforced during the economic blockade. India too needs a friendly Nepal, whose geopolitical importance due to the open border between the two countries cannot be overstated. It is also in India’s interest that there be political stability in Nepal, to prevent the spillover effect any turmoil can have for the bordering States of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and to secure the republican consensus needed to pull millions of Nepalis out of poverty.
'To that extent, Prime Minister Oli’s visit has helped reset some priorities. The emphasis by both sides was on taking forward the reconstruction assistance that India has promised. A memorandum of understanding in this regard was signed. Other MoUs covered economic aid for road projects, enhancing power transmission, and easing travel and transit of goods. As regards the question of the Constitution, the Indian government had not budged much from its earlier position on the need for a consensus through dialogue with the dissenting Madhesis to take their concerns on federalism on board. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi did acknowledge that the conclusion of the Constitution-writing process is an “important achievement”. The onus is now on Mr. Oli, his Cabinet and his party, the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist). They could still project the halt in the economic embargo and return to normalcy in the Madhes as a sign of victory and resist any further concessions towards a truly federal Nepal. But that would only amount to further brinkmanship, which could prove detrimental again in the longer run. New Delhi too should dwell on the lessons from the recent deterioration in ties and on the need for a calibrated position that supports inclusive democracy in Nepal yet does not amount to interference. Mr. Oli’s visit has demonstrated the importance of high-level ownership of bilateral engagement to return relations to a mutually beneficial equilibrium.
A sordid record in Chhattisgarh
Adivasi rights activist and Aam Aadmi Party leader Soni Sori was attacked by motorcycle-borne assailants in Chhattisgarh on February 20. They threw an acid-like substance on her, which left her in deep pain, and her face swollen with chemical burns. This was not the first physical attack on Ms. Sori. As international human rights watchdogs have reported, Ms. Sori was also allegedly tortured and sexually assaulted by the Chhattisgarh police while in their custody in October 2011. The latest attack on her comes in the wake of a series of developments that suggests a government-endorsed clampdown on free speech and dissent in the State. Earlier this month, Malini Subramaniam, a journalist associated with the news portal Scroll, and Jagdalpur Legal Aid, a group of human rights lawyers working with Adivasis, were allegedly forced out of the State for highlighting police atrocities against the tribal population. Both the journalist and the lawyers have claimed that their landlords were intimidated by the police into issuing eviction notices on them. It is worth noting that Ms. Sori had been trying to lodge an First Information Report against the Inspector General of Police, Bastar Range. She has been leading a powerful Adivasi movement that has sought to hold the State administration accountable for the killing of Adivasis in fake encounters, arbitrary arrests, and alleged sexual assault and torture of Adivasi women by the police and security forces. She had planned to highlight these issues through a 200-km march from Bijapur, set to end in Jagdalpur on International Women’s Day, March 8, before she became a target of the latest attack.
For some time now, free speech and dissent have been on the retreat in Chhattisgarh. The official excuse for this has been the ongoing civil conflict between the state and Maoist insurgents. But the fact that individuals who have no connection with the conflict are being forced out, suggests a larger anti-democratic agenda at work. And this is in keeping with the pattern across the world where so-called underdeveloped but mineral-rich regions have fallen prey to fierce corporate plunder of natural resources at the expense of the local population. The Bastar region is rich in minerals as also Adivasi settlements, and the people are loathe to giving up their land for resource-extraction. It is their resistance to being forcibly evicted from their land — best exemplified in the figure of Ms. Sori — that is the trigger for the crackdown on democratic rights in Chhattisgarh. Given the current political scene where a perverse form of nationalism is threatening to shut down free speech, the attack on Ms. Sori represents another front in the battle against the criminalisation of dissent. The kind of spotlight that has been illuminating the absurd charges of sedition against the JNU students needs to also be focussed on the likes of Ms. Sori who have been waging such battles for a long time.