The themes hovered around the consolidation of the peace process in Nepal: rehabilitation, constitution writing, and federalism-as well as on bilateral issues like the open border. The participation was impressive, from retired officials like Hormis Tharakan, the former RAW chief who had a role in the 12-point agreement, to PLA commander Pasang and NC's Gagan Thapa.
The Madhes brigade included Hridayesh Tripathi, Sarita Giri, TMLP's Jitendra Sonal and Sadbhavana's Devendra Yadav. Minister J P Gupta was present in his capacity as a representative of the government.
The most jarring note was Gupta's intervention in the inaugural session. In the presence of Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, JP launched into a diatribe in Hindi against the Nepal government?the government he was representing-for not implementing promises made to Madhesis.
"The Kathmandu rulers are cheating the Madhesi people?they are going back on past agreements?there should be group recruitment of Madhesis in the army..." and he ended the speech with "Jai Madhes, Jai Nepal and Jai Hind."
This was a speech that would have been fine if JP Gupta was an MJF leader speaking to the streets of Rajbiraj. It may have been OK if he had fleetingly mentioned the Madhes problem. But it was totally inappropriate for a minister to be abusing his own government and pushing his political agenda on foreign soil. If Gupta wants to be a Madhesi radical, he should not have joined the government. He cannot use the state's legitimacy, resources and position to oppose the state in another country.
The incident is representative of the larger failure of Madhesi politics. As veteran academic S D Muni pointed out in Varanasi, the Madhes needs to figure out what its vision is of remaining integrated in Nepal and its leaders also need to decide how they want to deal with India.
In a statement that left delegates squirming, Sadbhavana's Devendra Yadav told India: "You do not have to invest in security on the border because of us. Madhesis have been unpaid guards for India. We do your job for free. Now please help us against Kathmandu."
It is people like these who fuel Pahadi perceptions that Madhesis are the fifth column in Nepal and leave Madhesis weaker for they have to prove their Nepali loyalty all the time. Madhesis have close ties with people in India, but that doesn't mean their lives revolve around protecting the Indian state. Historically inaccurate understandings are being foisted because select Madhesi leaders want to act as Indian sycophants. It will not work.
The other striking feature of the discussions was Indian paranoia about Nepal as a base for terror activities. The ISI may be present in Nepal, but for the most part, blaming Nepal and the open border is a ploy by an incompetent and paranoid Indian security establishment to hide its own weaknesses.
The Indian government's intelligence apparatus is in a shambles. India's home minister is too busy changing his wardrobe to pay attention to security. Indian politicians do not know how to deal with rising Muslim alienation within the country. A vicious cycle repeats itself: there is a blast, the media pressure on the establishment to show results increases, cops make arbitrary arrests and engineer fake encounters, leading to more alienation.
In the process, they start planting stories in a pliant media that the suspects have run off to Nepal. The case of the two 'terrorists' arrested in Kathmandu for the 1993 Bombay blasts and extradited to India, but who were innocent and acquitted by the court, proves how hollow some of these claims are.
Nepal must help India when these concerns crop up, but there is no need to bend over backwards to please Indian hawks who are wrong more often than not. In fact, Nepal has a strong case on cross-border crime, given the activities of Madhesi armed groups who have links with political elements in Bihar as well as sections of the Indian state. Given that both sides have concerns, the best way to deal with them is through institutional mechanisms instead of succumbing to the blame game.