Nepal is aggravating tensions with India and corroding its clout in such a way that if Delhi were to respond it would risk giving China more power and influence in the country, writes the Nikkei Asian Review.
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Nepal’s latest rebuff comes in the form of a long-dormant bill that would alter its Citizenship Act by mandating foreign women married to Nepali men to wait seven years before becoming naturalized residents. The bill was recently approved by a parliamentary panel and is now expected to pass in the lower and upper houses.
The approval comes only weeks after Nepal amended its border to claim a Himalayan region at Nepal’s northwestern tip as its own. India also asserts sovereignty over this land. Nepali President Bidhya Devi Bhandari validated the map bill on June 18, giving it a legitimate standing.
Sarita Giri, a native of India and a member of parliament belonging to the opposition Janata Samajbadi Party (JSP), may have induced the bill out of its dormancy when she, a naturalized citizen, launched a counter amendment against the new map bill. This was closely scrutinised by Nepalis, who were suddenly questioning whether naturalized citizens should be permitted to be parliamentarians.
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It also gave the pro-China ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) a vital occasion — to take a bill that had been drooping for two years and start moving it toward passage. PM K.P. Sharma Oli is the key guiding force behind the bill. As he does so, the ruling party, which has a majority in parliament, is expected to gain more voter support ahead of elections in 2022.
Nepal has two long borders, one with India and the other with China. And most Nepalis are either in a pro-India camp or are grouped in another camp which is pro-China. Most of the pro-India population lives along a southern plane known as the Terai region. Much of the pro-China population lives in the mountainous north.
North-south animosity has been building up for decades now. In 1952, the population of the southern plane made up 35% of Nepal’s total population. But by the time the census was taken in 2011, the number was 50%. As a result, the northern population lost some of its political clout.
Cross-border marriages played a role. By 2011, 120,891 Indians — 57,132 women and 63,759 men — had acquired Nepali citizenship. Their numbers compare to the 2,572 Chinese nationals who gained Nepali citizenship and 15,447 from other nations who did likewise.
Pro-India opposition parties Nepali Congress (NC) and JSP fear that an amended citizenship law would ultimately reduce the population of the Terai region and diminish the southern plane’s political sway.
Ashok Swain told the Nikkei Asian Review that Nepal’s ruling party will use the citizenship amendment “to encourage further anti-Indianism in the country. The citizenship issue is an easy way of stimulating nationalism and further reinforcing the ‘we-they’ divide. … [The NCP is] following the same formula which [India’s ruling party] has followed in India.”
He believes PM Oli has been ideologically closer to China, though Oli has adopted a practical foreign policy in the past. But “in recent months,” “he has come out openly and given statements which are highly critical of India and its policies.”
In 2015, when Nepal promulgated its new constitution, India brazenly meddled, advising against the move. At the time, Nepal’s pro-India parties were voicing concerns on how new borders were established between constituencies which would weaken the south’s political voice. When the constitution was put into effect, India reacted with an economic blockade.
That was “a disaster,” said Bipin Adhikari. “It was an expression of hegemony and fundamentally a wrong strategy against a sovereign country exercising its right to self-determination regarding making a new constitution,” Adhikari said. The blockade “opened up Nepalese eyes.”
This year, Nepal redrew its national boundaries to encompass the disputed territories after India opened a road in a disputed Himalayan border area. Swain said that since PM Modi’s “neighbourhood policies” have been random, another barricade cannot be ruled out.
“If a blockade takes place,” he said, it will destroy any prospect for improved Nepal-India relations in years to come “and will take Nepal-China cooperation to a greater height.”
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Originally Published By Nikkei Asian Review