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The following text forms part of Crisis Group’s Early Warning Watch List for December 2015, compiled for the European Union (EU) and its member states to provide analysis and updates on conflicts, and on opportunities for preventive action. Each Watch List identifies up to ten countries or conflicts which are particularly vulnerable to an outbreak or intensification of conflict or crisis – or which in some cases offer an opportunity for prevention or resolution – in the following six to twelve months.

Each country or conflict is chosen from the 70 crisis situations monitored by Crisis Group and regularly reported on in CrisisWatch; the choice of countries is representative of a range of conflicts and is not meant to be all-inclusive or a ranking of deadly violence. Each country summary contains an outline of recent developments and forthcoming events that may increase risks, and lays out opportunities for action for national, regional and international actors, in particular the EU and its member states.


The passing of a new constitution in September, perceived by minority groups to be rolling back commitments to federalism and inclusion, has pushed Nepal into a dangerous new phase of political conflict. Over fifty people have been killed in protests against the new charter, while a shutdown in the southern Tarai plains, and a blockade on crucial imports including fuel and cooking gas from India, have brought about an economic and humanitarian crisis – compounded in parts of the country devastated by the April earthquake by the government’s lack of movement on reconstruction. Constitutional amendments to address grievances related to state boundaries, electoral representation and constituency demarcation are essential, but negotiations between the government and political parties representing Madhesi protesters have been slow and inconclusive. Widespread support for the protests points to a profound, deepening sense of alienation from the state felt by plains-origin Madhesi and Tharu communities, exacerbated by the security forces’ crackdown on protesters. There is credible fear of an increase in support for armed political groups and growing sympathy for a still-fringe separatist movement.

The EU, its member states and the wider international community should:

  • Urge the government and protesting parties to agree immediately to find a roadmap agreement, and encourage them to call for restraint on the part of the security forces and protesters alike, as well as establish an independent investigation into all protest-related deaths since August as a trust-building measure.
  • Base financial support on a shared analysis of conflict dynamics in the country and program it in a conflict sensitive manner. The EU and international donors should continue supporting the allocation of basic services and projects that benefit the population, and use their commitment to post-earthquake reconstruction (ie trade contracts, building reconstruction) as a point of leverage with the government.
  • Recognising that implementing the new constitution is fraught with conflict risks, reach a common understanding of potential threats, and try and use international assistance in the medium term to help the bureaucracy in this transition – but only providing support if the constitution has broader public legitimacy than it does now.
  • To help encourage a viable settlement between the government and political parties representing Madhesi protesters, request that the government bolster constitutional amendments by social dialogue and reconciliation measures, which could be supported on a technical level by international actors if requested.

On 20 September, following seven years of deadlock, Nepal’s Constituent Assembly issued the country’s new constitution with a close to 90 per cent vote, despite protests against the draft by a range of social groups. Plains-origin Madhesi and Tharu indigenous groups, Janajati and other groups that see themselves as historically marginalised, say the new statute significantly rolls back many earlier solutions to structural and historical discrimination. They claim the proposed boundaries of the future federal states are gerrymandered in favour of groups generally seen as the dominant elite, while the delineation of constituencies is seen as reducing representation from the densely populated Tarai plains. The groups oppose, among other measures, the new state allocation of seats in the Upper House which they argue does not reflect population density variation, the reduction of proportional representation in the electoral system, the dilution of past affirmative action provisions, the restrictions on women’s ability to pass full citizenship to their children, and lesser commitments to secularism.

Forty-five people died in protests prior to the new constitution being passed, including eight police at the hands of protesters in a single incident. Since then, six more have been killed. Madhesi and Tharu protesters, who at times numbered in the thousands, have enforced since August a general shutdown in the Tarai plains, home to most of Nepal’s manufacturing and agriculture. Since late September, as part of the protest and to pressure the government to negotiate, Madhesi groups have enforced a blockade of supplies entering Nepal from India, by occupying the no-man’s land between the Nepal-India border along its most significant transit point. The shutdown and blockade have had disastrous humanitarian and economic consequences across the country, most harshly in the Tarai, and the central hills, which were devastated by the April earthquake and where reconstruction has not yet begun.

Senior leaders of the major political parties used the need to focus on post-earthquake reconstruction to justify fast-tracking the constitution writing process, which meant cancelling all debate in the Constituent Assembly, ignoring social dissent, and restricting decisions to a few politicians. So far, the government has made no progress on reconstruction planning or programing and the National Reconstruction Authority is largely toothless. Though delays in reconstruction have not yet led to social tensions, patience may run out in the absence of state-led efforts to spend the $4.2 billion pledged by international actors. When reconstruction spending does begin, large-scale contracts and local level competition could spur unhealthy rivalry, given the patronage networks that plague Nepal’s political system.

At the heart of the constitutional standoff is whether the dominant conception of Nepali identity can be expanded to accommodate groups that do not fit its hill-origin, Nepali-speaking, Hindu upper-caste-centric parameters, and thus create a more equal citizenry. Hill-origin upper-caste (Brahmin and Chhetri) Hindu men comprise 70-95 per cent of the bureaucracy, judiciary, and mid- and high-ranking officers in the security forces. Madhesis, who have close and constantly renewed social, familial, and linguistic ties in India across the open border, say they are treated as lesser Nepalis and at times branded anti-national, resulting in their exclusion from state institutions, marginalisation from decision-making, and being generally discriminated against. Nepal’s security forces largely comprise hill-origin groups, and their frequent use of racially charged language against Madhesis, together with repeated incidents of excessive use of force against their protesters and use of live ammunition, reinforces the hill-plains divide and strengthens Madhesi narratives of discrimination.

Wide support for the protests suggest they are not engineered, as some allege, by discredited Madhesi political parties or external actors. The speed and intensity with which they spread, the protesters’ willingness to maintain the shutdown despite their own enormous suffering and losses, and the participation of a wide range of Madhesi groups – diverse caste groups, the elderly, rural groups, women and college students – point to the deep social roots of the agitation. There are increasing reports and some evidence of growing sympathy for a thus-far fringe Madhesi separatist movement. The Tarai plains have a recent history of underground armed groups, underlining the risk that some political forces could again start using guerrilla-style violence against the state. Nepal’s previous conflict, the decade-long Maoist-led insurgency against the state (1996-2006), highlighted the structural discrimination that persists against many ethnic groups. Given the current standoff, the profound alienation of Madhesi groups and the open border with India, the situation becomes more complex and harder to control with every passing week.

Many in the twelve-party ruling nationalist coalition of left-wing and formerly monarchist parties led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) say Madhesi are in reality not behind the blockade, but India is. India denies this, saying its transporters fear for their safety due to the volatile protests across the open border. Yet, Indian customs and border officials are doing little to facilitate movement of cargo at transit points where there are no protests, and there are reports of Indian support for the blockade. The Nepali government has procured some fuel from China, though huge logistical hurdles limit this option. The perceived Indian role in the blockade and slight to Nepal’s sovereignty, and, scepticism of Madhesi groups’ loyalty to Nepal, leads some in Kathmandu to advocate a zero-tolerance approach to the protests.

Read the full Watch List for December 2015 (pdf).

Learn more about the Watch List.

Note: The Watch List is produced as part of the project “Strengthening Early Warning and Mobilising Early Action”, co-funded by the European Union. The project aims to strengthen the links between early warning, conflict analysis and early response, and to build civil society’s capacity for early warning.

The Crisis Group EU Early Warning Watch List is one of many products the organisation produces to alert policy makers and the general public on unfolding crisis or conflicts, and which offers them solutions to support conflict prevention, management and resolution initiatives.

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