Nepal’s new constitution has seen an inauspicious start, dividing the country into two. There are those who have cheered its arrival – never mind the deaths and injuries in its wake, and the suffering of nearly half the population. And on the other side are those who have opposed it, saying it was promulgated at the barrel of a gun despite Madhesi and Tharu opposition to boundaries of newly created federal states. Many Madhesis, who have deep relations across the border in India, and many disgruntled minorities – women, the indigenous and Dalits – have gone to the extent of burning the document that was supposed to unite the country around a shared vision of progress.

In this constitutional tussle, bystanders have paid the heaviest price. Forty-four people have died in the unrest in the volatile flatland, the Terai, since protests began in early August. This includes 10 policemen killed by mobs with domestic weapons. The response of the security forces has been fierce. Most of the remaining deaths, according to human rights observers on the ground, were due to “excessive use” of force by the police and the paramilitary.

There is a disregard for the alarm bells rung by journalists, human rights defenders, including the UN – even the country’s Supreme Court issued orders to the government to rein in the use of force. The National Human Rights Commission found that the security forces fired live rounds at the agitators instead of rubber bullets. For the past month and a half, curfews and shutdowns have imposed untold hardships on the people. Hundreds of local politicians and activists have been rounded up. While the government has charged more than 50 Tharus, the indigenous groups protesting the federal demarcation, it is unlikely that anyone from the security forces will be prosecuted for human rights violations.

The run-up to the promulgation of the constitution on September 20 saw enormous political mobilisation by the Madhesi and Tharus to delay the constitution. But Kathmandu didn’t budge.

Dramatic chill in relations

Kathmandu also didn’t heed its neighbour's calls. After voting had begun in the Constituent Assembly on the constitution, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a special advisor on a doomed mission to halt its promulgation to get everyone on board. When that didn’t work on September 20, the neighbour that sorrounds Nepal on three sides did not welcome the constitution. Instead, Delhi went on to scold Kathmandu for not listening to its recommendations.

The ensuing chill in the relations has been dramatic. Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala, the man presumed to be the next prime minister, KP Oli and the Maoist leader and former Prime Minister Prachanda, who was kicked out of power unceremoniously in 2009 due to Indian efforts, all scaled up nationalist rhetoric critical of Delhi.

For its part, Delhi has tightened the screws on Kathmandu by shutting down the border transit points – although, officially, there is no blockade. (The Nepal government sees it as an “undeclared blockade”.) To add to Kathmandu’s woes, the Madhesi parties, too, have decided to obstruct the border trade. The protesters have occupied the roads that connect the town of Birgunj, a major entry point, with Raxaul across the border in India.

As a result, the entire country, including Kathmandu, is feeling the pinch, exacerbated by the closing of the northern trade routes with China due to the April earthquake. Petrol pumps are shut. The prices of essentials, such as vegetables, rice and daal, have crept up. Shopkeepers say prices of domestic produce too are rising due to lack of petroleum. Shortages are growing. On Saturday, the government made a fresh “request” to conserve fuel by disallowing vehicles with odd-numbered plates to ply on even days and those with even-numbered plates on odd days.

Arm-twisting or assistance?

So far, Delhi’s activism has proven beneficial to the Madhesi cause. Still, as many Indian commentators have noted – in contrast to the torrent of hawkish views of former ambassadors to Kathmandu rallying for a hardline approach – Delhi is seen as bullying a small neighbour by suggesting specific changes in the constitution. That being refused, it resorted to blockading a landlocked country reeling from a devastating earthquake.

India’s move has divided Nepal along ethnic lines. Those who support it say it energises a Madhesi movement that was left further disillusioned when the insensitive rulers in Kathmandu shoved through a constitution despite bloody protests. They hope it will give the Madhesis greater sway over Kathmandu when serious negotiations over a constitutional amendment finally take place. Those who oppose the blockade see it as unacceptable arm-twisting in international relations, and a further reason to stand up to Delhi. A resolution is not yet in sight. In the coming days, Kathmandu is expected to make a great show of efforts to reopen and expand trade routes with China – the great big hope of Nepali nationalists to balance India’s power in Kathmandu.

Kathmandu leadership has already wasted a huge opportunity to unite the country around a new constitution. If it continues to be obstinate, it will further damage relationships among the many diverse but equal groups in Nepal and with its all-important neighbour India. Moving on, the best path would be for the Kathmandu leadership to compromise on federal boundaries, amend the constitution to end all discriminations, and embark fresh on nation building in a federal Nepal.