Nepal can handle its own democracy, India

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It has been almost a week since Nepal passed its first federal constitution, and tensions continue to escalate. As of Friday morning, 45 people — half of them police officers — have died in anti-constitution protests. Nepal’s southern neighbor India looms large over the conflict. While the crisis itself is worth of attention, it also points to bigger questions about the role of regional leaders.

The new constitution, which was enacted on Sept. 20, has been in the works for seven years. Nepal has been functioning under an interim constitution since its monarchy was abolished in 2007. In less than a decade, Nepal has gone from being a theocratic Hindu Kingdom to a secular federal republic. These rapid changes have inflamed ethnic tensions.

Nepal is made up of several ethnic groups, and these minority groups experienced years of marginalization under the former monarchy. The two largest of these groups, the Madhesis and the Tharus, comprise 40 percent of Nepal’s population, and they live mostly in the southern plains region along the Indian border. In the last week, the south has erupted with protests against what many Madhesis view as their underrepresentation under the new constitution.

Most recently, Madhesis protestors have barricaded the two main borders between India and Nepal, shutting down vital imports and applying pressure to the government in Kathmandu. The new constitution divides the country into seven provinces and distributes representatives based on both geography and population.

Each of the 75 districts in the nation will receive a seat on the Legislative-Parliament, while the rest of the regionally elected seats will be distributed based on population. This is helpful for the rural, mountainous regions of Nepal, where population is sparse, but it also leads to an under-representation of the south, which is much more densely populated.

India, as the regional leader of Southeast Asia, has had much to say about the week’s unrest in Nepal. After the constitution was ratified by the Constitutional Assembly, Indian Foreign Secretary Subrahmanyam Jaishankar rushed to Nepal to request a delay in its implementation. When that failed, the Indian government in New Delhi recommended seven amendments to the Nepalese constitution. These amendments sided heavily with the southern protesters and pushed for more population-based representation.

India certainly has a vested interest in keeping Nepal stable. The two countries share an open border, and instability in Nepal would increase smuggling and terrorist traffic across it. Also, the Indian government fears that violence in Nepal’s south will spill over into the already unstable Indian state of Bihar.

While these concerns are legitimate, India is overstepping its bounds. A constitution is meant to reflect the voice of a nation’s people, not that of its allies or neighbors. While support and advice during the writing process can be constructive, proposing amendments and trying to delay a constitution that was ratified by a democratically elected Constitutional Assembly is patronizing. Nepal is a sovereign nation, and its government deserves to be respected.

The violence in Nepal is certainly troubling, and the 45 deaths are a tragic loss. However, when viewing this crisis, it is important to remember that state-building is rarely a peaceful or linear process.

Although everyone wishes there was a peaceful path to representational democracy, we have yet to find one. By aggressively enforcing its will, India is stifling Nepal’s progress towards democracy and turning it into a puppet state.

Rajeshwar Acharya, Nepal’s former ambassador to China, summed it up best when he said: "Domestic issues of any country are corrected by the political actors and authorities of the same country and there is no need for any other country to issue instructions. It doesn't mean that Nepal can't work independently just because it is a small nation. All of our friendly nations are requested not to interfere into our domestic affairs," according to Republica.

The entire political system of democracy rests on faith. A nation’s people need to have faith that their vote matters. When more powerful nations step in, they undermine that trust — no matter how good their intentions.