With just a few weeks before i leave on my next adventure to Nepal, finally, there is some good news, and it is not just “cheap gas.” The Madhesi have changed their position on a closed border. The blockade has lasted about five months, closing the India-Nepal border, effectively reducing medical supplies, petroleum products, etc. The new Nepalese premier, Prime Minister KP Oli, announced an open border on February 8, eleven days before he travels for meetings in India. Numerous trucks, tractors, containers, various cargo vehicles, and one “dumper” crossed the unobstructed border as soon as the critical Miteri bridge was clear.
Here’s what just happened. Women, children, and tradesman from India arrived at the crossing at noon. They proceeded to remove bamboo poles, tents, and debris blocking access to Nepal. Jitendra Sonal (Tarai Madhes Democratic Party leader) led protests opposed to removal of barriers and the opening of the border. When United Democratic Madhesi Front leaders and Pradeep Yadav (Chairman of the Federal Socialist Forum Nepal Parsa) showed up later, Indians suggested the Nepalese agitators close other border crossings as well if they were going to re-establish and continue a blockade at Birgunj-Raxaul. That pretty much ended closure.
Sushil Sharma (Spokesperson for the Birgunj Customs Office) reported that there was now a free flow of goods when the Miteri Bridge was cleared and reopened. There was a sigh of relief among tradesmen. Even though the number of protesters has declined over the last five months, and even though local business people have “physically” expressed their exasperation with protesters at times, this is the first time in a long time that trade is happening and goods are flowing from India into Nepal.
The Birgunj-Raxaul border blockade has been the focus of protests related to the new Naplese constitution and a change in government structure. Stopping trade was one way the Madhesi could protest coming changes in government structure and the extent of their representation in the new government. With the opening of the Miteri Bridge, protesters have shifted tactics. Reportedly, there is now a closure of the Rautahat bazaar that has begun immediately.
The Madhesi of Nepal are an ethnic group of Indian origin. They have opposed the new constitution that divides their ancestral lands into seven provinces. They seek to maintain family and cultural ties to India. They want proportional representation within the new Nepalese governmental structure. Protests in support of the Madhesi position have continued for months, paralyzing services in the Terai region (directly bordering India) by causing major shortages in all merchandise coming in from India, including critical fuel and medicine.
Turmoil in Nepal and closing of border points have strained relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi. Each nation blames the other for fomenting border closure. India denies blockade involvement and asserts that the Madhesi are the responsible party for border closure. In Kathmandu there has been public concern that the Madhesi Morcha is the source of the problem.
With the opening of the border after close to half a year of closure, it is apparent that the protest in the Terai region is tied directly to Morcha action. For the first time Sadbhawana Party Chairman Rajendra Mahato has announced a change in direction for its opposition, placing the blockade strategy on hold. A position statement notes that “considering the current crisis facing the nation and the public necessity and aspirations, the ongoing protest programmes of general strike, border blockade, and shutdown of government offices have been called off for now. But the other agitation programmes will continue.”
So, the threat of border closure remains, but crossing points are open at this point. As the flow of goods increases, we expect that the high prices tied to shortages will be reduced. With all the physical and political problems hitting this small nation in these past months, perhaps there is now more hope for normalcy.