Relations between the neighbors have hit a low point following accusations of an economic blockade against Nepal.
Southern Nepalese protest new constitution, blocking trade routes
The Nepalese cable federation threatened to end broadcasts of Indian TV channels and protesters carried an effigy of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi through Kathmandu as anti-India sentiment erupted. The new constitution introduces a federal structure that has left some southern minority groups fearing that they will be marginalized.
Since August there have been over 40 reported deaths in Nepal due to protests. Trucks of oil from India have not been crossing into southern Nepal because of the unrest, and authorities have been encouraging citizens to cut down on their use of cars and fuel.
Overland routes to China have been blocked since earthquakes in spring which killed almost 9,000 people, leaving Nepal almost completely reliant on supplies from its southern neighbor, India.
India criticizes constitution, accused of economic blockade
At the same time the new constitution has drawn criticism from New Delhi, which thinks that it was rushed through. This Monday a handful of trucks of fuel, vegetables and building materials were seen crossing the India-Nepal border, but Nepalese officials say hundreds more are being held up on the Indian side.
Sunil Kumar Lama, general secretary of the Federation of Nepal Cable Television, said the organization will suspend Indian channels from 10am Tuesday. “This is to protest against the blockade,” Lama said. He did not say how long broadcasts would be suspended.
Protesters in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu could be seen with an effigy of the Indian premier, shouting: “Down with Indian expansionism! Down with Modi!” Police later confiscated the effigy and dispersed the protesters.
“We are asking India ‘Please, please open up the border and stop interfering in Nepal’s internal issues’,” said nursing student Amrita Baral, who took part in a 130-strong march on the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu.
A spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs did not make any comment.
Customs officials blame India for truck traffic jam
India denies carrying out an economic blockade, maintaining that its trucks have stopped entering Nepal because of security concerns and blockades by protesters. India is Nepal’s largest trading partner and any slowdown in trade has a huge effect.
Nepalese officials have asked China to accelerate work to reopen border crossings affected by the earthquakes. In the meantime fuel rationing has been introduced after cross-border trade with India slowed to a trickle, said Nepal Oil Corp spokesman Deepak Baral.
Those who oppose the Nepalese government have blocked the passage of trucks from India, sitting on the road to prevent them from passing. At the Sunauli-Bhairahawa border crossing, some trucks had started to pass on Monday, but over 1,000 were backed up in India.
“(Indian customs officials) are telling me, ‘We’re giving permission, there’s no problem,’ but we are still seeing a huge decrease in the number of trucks passing through,” said Lawanya Kumar Dhakal, Bhairahawa’s chief customs official.
Who is really to blame?
Southern Nepalese minorities are considered to be close to Indians, and are worried by the structure of the new constitution. Protesters are demanding that the population be granted greater political power, and are preventing supplies from reaching the capital as a result.
“The reported obstructions are due to unrest, protests and demonstrations on the Nepalese side, by sections of their population,” said Vikas Swarup, India’s foreign ministry spokesman.
Some say that a blockade of Kathmandu would not need to be done at the border zone, but rather at the entrance to the valley where the capital city lies. Narayan Man Bijukchhe, head of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, accused India of declaring a “communal war” with Nepal, while former attorney general Yubaraj Sangraula said that the blockade was “an act of aggression.”
Shortages bring back bad memories for many Nepalese who remember the official economic blockade that India imposed on the country in 1989. India closed its border crossings and denied access to an Indian port following a trade dispute. Nepal suffered terrible shortages of essential goods until the blockade was lifted 13 months later.
As Nepal struggles to rebuild following the devastating earthquakes it suffered earlier this year, it needs full cooperation from its neighbors and major trade partners. The political crisis is hindering rebuilding efforts, especially given the fact that crossings to China remain closed.
If Nepal cannot placate the protesters in the south, it must do more to reopen trade routes with China.