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Big Brother India Isn't Exactly Thrilled About Nepal's New Constitution

After nearly a decade of political infighting, the downfall of the monarchy, a civil war and an earthquake, Nepal this week overwhelmingly adopted its first democratic constitution. India's reaction has been pretty terse.
Niranjan Shrestha/AP

After nearly a decade of political infighting, the downfall of the monarchy, a civil war and an earthquake, Nepal this week overwhelmingly adopted its first democratic constitution.

The document, seven years in the making, creates seven states under a secular, federal system and replaces an interim constitution that was put in place in 2007.

It has not been without opposition — or bloodshed, for that matter. Religious groups, who want to see Nepal return as a Hindu state, and ethnic minorities from southern Nepal fear marginalization under the new federal system.


The result has been deadly street clashes near India's border with a curfew imposed and the army called in to quell the tensions.

But it's not only the minorities that are pissed off. India — Nepal's much larger and often dominating neighbor — has expressed concern over the violence and instability on the other side of its border, triggering, in turn, a backlash under the hashtag #backoffIndia.

While China, the other mammoth economy vying for geopolitical influence in the region, promptly issued a statement "sincerely" congratulating Nepal and promising to keep providing economic assistance, India didn't hesitate to show its displeasure. It merely made "note" of the constitution and said it is in favor of an "inclusive" constitution that allows "broad-based ownership and acceptance."

After the constitution was passed, but not yet adopted, India dispatched its foreign secretary to Nepal to meet with the president, prime minister and senior political leaders and asked them to take into consideration the dissenting social voices. Indian media reports say that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had even called his counterpart and urged him to reach an amicable solution.

"The Kathmandu elite, in its wisdom, ignored [India's] advice … and India decided that if that was to be the case, the possibility of strife and confrontation at the border would increase and the constitution would not have Indian support," Prashant Jha, a journalist and author of Battles of The New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal, told VICE News.


India taking a stand on its landlocked neighbor's domestic affairs is not new or unusual. The two countries share close economic and cultural ties and an open border. It brokered the peace process during the end of a decade-long civil war between the Maoists and the monarchy. When Nepal was hit by a devastating earthquake this year that left more than 9,000 dead, India pledged $1 billion in aid and its army assisted in relief efforts.

Related: One Dead and 17 Injured After Protest Over Nepal's New Constitution Turns Violent

However, India's terse public position on the current situation in Nepal has surprised many. It issued two consecutive strongly-worded statements and pointed out that it had "repeatedly cautioned" Nepal to defuse the tension. It went on to say that Indian freight companies were finding it difficult to cross the border because of the unrest. The Nepalese economy relies heavily on India and the bilateral trade between the two countries counts for more than half of Nepal's total trade.

"The notion of absolute-sovereignty doesn't apply especially in India-Nepal relations. It's been an actor in Nepali politics during each step of Nepal's political changes over the last 60 years. New Delhi cannot detach itself when Nepal is at its climax," Jha said.

India's also worried the violence could spill over into its territory. The state of Bihar, which borders Tarai, often has its own problems with lawlessness and there's fear the unrest could affect the state elections next month. And it's the ethnic Madeshi community from the Tarai region that feels the creation of the seven states will diminish their political standing and give dominance to upper-caste Hindus.


There's been a strong backlash and criticism from Nepal about India playing big brother in its internal democratic process.

"There will always be a bunch of people in Nepal who don't like what India is doing," Rakesh Sood, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, told VICE News.

He noted that the Madeshi community has "strong kinship ties" to India, making the larger nation naturally sensitive to its concerns.

"Unfortunately for a long time, there has been a tendency in Nepal that privately … the Nepali leaders would assure India that its concerns would be addressed. But publicly they would denounce India and then privately say 'well, we had to say this for public consumption.' This has gone on for too long, and unfortunately it has created a narrative in which Nepali nationalism and anti-Indianism get intertwined," Sood said.

Some students have also taken to the streets to protest against India's involvement. The hashtag #backoffIndia was trending worldwide on Twitter and editorials in Nepal's media have asked India to avoid being seen as "crossing the red line." The press advisor to Nepal's prime minister also wrote an op-ed in which he said it's time India "respected the voice of Nepali people. " He resigned a few days later and blamed it on "external pressure" around the article.

"There's always this kind of tension in the relationship between India and Nepal," Alyssa Ayres, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told VICE News.

"Nepal values having India there, but at the same time also often resents that here is this major, powerful country and huge economy right on its border," Ayres said. "It's the same kind of thing when people resent the United States saying something about issues in another country and of course the US does it all the time."

Follow Aakanksha Tangri on Twitter: @AakankshaT