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Protest ethnischer und religiöser Minderheiten gegen Verfassungsänderung in Nepal
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Jiyalal Sah

Anti-constitution protests continue

Gabriel Domínguez
September 28, 2015

Protests in southern Nepal against a new constitution have disrupted cross-border trade with India, severely impacting supplies of fuel and other commodities. But what lies at the heart of the unrest? DW examines.


To try to limit the impact of an ongoing blockade of cargo trucks imposed by protesters at Nepal's border crossing with India, authorities in the Himalayan nation have begun imposing restrictions on the use of vehicles due to growing fears of a fuel shortage.

According to media reports, drivers are allowed on the road only on alternate days, depending on whether their license plates end in odd or even numbers, as a result of the blockade which began last week.

"The government has decided to limit the number of vehicles moving across the country due to the fuel shortage," home ministry spokesman Laxmi Prasad Dhakal told AFP news agency. "We are facing a huge problem because of the blockade in the south and are trying to use the fuel we have effectively."

In the meantime, hundreds of trucks are reported to be lined up at the border awaiting passage into Nepal. Angry about the adoption of a new constitution they claim curtails the rights of certain ethnic groups, protesters have closed major road-crossings along the India-Nepal border, thus preventing trucks from India carrying fuel and other essentials such as medicine, food and cooking gas from entering the landlocked nation of 29 million people.

Indian reactions

"We have seen reports of obstructions at various entry-exit points at the India-Nepal border. The reported obstructions are due to unrest, protests and demonstrations on the Nepalese side, by sections of their population," the Indian Embassy in Nepal said in a statement.

Indian officials also expressed concerns over "incidents of violence" resulting in deaths and injuries in the border areas following the promulgation of the new constitution, and added that they have also prevented cargo from crossing over due to security reasons. Over 40 people, including citizens and security forces, have died over the past month of protests involving arson and fighting with improvised weapons, according to global analytics firm IHS.

Protest ethnischer und religiöser Minderheiten gegen Verfassungsänderung in Nepal
Hundreds of trucks are reported to be lined up at the border awaiting passage into NepalImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ram Sarraf

"We had repeatedly cautioned the political leadership of Nepal to take urgent steps to defuse the tension in these regions. This, if done in a timely manner, could have avoided these serious developments," said the Embassy.

Alison Evans, Nepal expert at IHS, explains that the landlocked country, particularly its capital Kathmandu, relies heavily on imports, specifically food and fuel, from India - Nepal's largest trade partner and source of foreign investment. Nepal's total trade with India accounted for 66 percent of the country's total external trade by the end of July 2013, according to government data.

The cargo affected by the blockade includes clinker, coal, petroleum products, and perishables including vegetables. While the border remains open for people crossing on foot or by bicycle, vehicles have been prevented from crossing by protesters on the Nepalese side and by India's Armed Border Force (Sashastra Seema Bal: SSB), citing the unrest as a security concern, said IHS.

The analytics firm also pointed to local media reports stating that the Indian Oil Corporation (IOC) - the Nepal Oil Corporation's sole supplier - has implemented a blockade until the security situation in Nepal's major dry port of Birgunj improves. "In addition, rail freight from Kolkata to Birgunj has been suspended since September 22, with Indian authorities again citing the unrest as the cause," IHS added.

The new constitution

At the heart of the unrest lies the adoption of a new national constitution following years of political deadlock and violent protests. Nepal's parliament approved the new charter that divides the country into seven federal states, each with three levels of government: federal, provincial and local.

The nation's first complete political framework, since the monarchy was abolished in 2008, was written by elected representatives and ensures secularism, granting citizens the right to practice any religion.

Some of the provisions feature a president with a ceremonial role who will be elected by parliament for a five-year term, and a ministerial council elected by the people that will have executive duties. The long-delayed charter was pushed through by the country's three major political parties.

Analysts say that it was the 7.8-magnitude earthquake - which two months earlier killed nearly 8,900 people and destroyed around half a million homes - which helped break the long-standing political deadlock as it forced all politicians to come together to support relief efforts and manage the $4 billion recovery budget.

'Regressive' features

But while many in Nepal have welcomed the new constitution, smaller opposition parties as well as ethnic and religious groups have rejected the document amid concerns over how state borders should be defined. They also feel the charter does not respect their political and social rights.

For instance, the Madhesi inhabitants of the southern plains have been demanding that state boundaries be drawn by ethnicity, which was rejected by the drafters of the constitution.

George Varughese, Nepal country representative for The Asia Foundation and senior visiting scholar and professor at the University of Wyoming, recently told DW that while the new constitution aims to promote the participation of all Nepalis in governing the country, it contains specifics which are "either regressive or have not been fully thrashed out."

Nepal Polizei vor dem Parlament in Kathmandu
Nepal recently adopted a new constitution that defines the country as a secular republicImage: Getty Images/AFP/P. Mathema

For example, he says, the charter privileges men when it comes to conferring citizenship and further restricts the rights of women, including those granted by previous constitutions. Furthermore, the constitution also lacked specifics in terms of local elections and federal demarcation, the expert added.

25 members of the Constituent Assembly (CA) voted against the charter, and 66 abstained out of a total of 598 CA members. This means that 507 members supported the adoption of the constitution. The 25 members who voted against the charter represent the Hindu extremist right wing that wants Nepal to become a Hindu nation and not a secular one.

Consensus needed

Although the objectors and abstainers make up for a minor block in parliament, they represent a major power block in terms of political stability, especially in Nepal's southern plains. This is why analysts argue that it would be wise for the country's three main political parties to bring them and their entire constituencies on board within the coming weeks, especially given the recent turmoil.

"Otherwise, the direct effect might be that the southern regions are shut down by these parties - something they have done quite successfully in the past," said Varughese, warning that unless the country's leaders agree to also address the needs of Nepal's women, minorities and historically marginalized ethno-linguistic groups, the new charter won't succeed in bringing political stability to the Himalayan nation.

A similar view was expressed by the Indian Embassy: "We have consistently argued that all sections of Nepal must reach a consensus on the political challenges confronting them. The issues facing Nepal are political in nature and cannot be resolved through force," read a statement.

Nepal Hilfe nach dem Erdbeben
Analysts say the recent earthquake that struck Nepal helped break the long-standing political deadlock in the countryImage: Gereon Wagener

How long will the protests last?

Nepal expert Alison Evans is of the view that the protests are unlikely to die down before the month-long Nepalese festival of Dashain, which takes place this year from October 13 to 26.

The analyst explained that previous disruptions on the Nepalese side of the border had been eased by armed escorts overnight, preventing any substantial effect on supplies to Kathmandu.

However, she warned, "if Indian organizations including the IOC and SSB continue to hinder imports, there is likely to be perceived or real shortages of daily necessities in Kathmandu." And although the affects will pressure the major political parties to enter talks with ethnic-minority parties, Evans believes any progress is unlikely to be made until after Dashain.

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