Border turmoil has led to an acute shortage of life-saving medicines, Red Cross Society says.
Last September, when Nepal passed its much-delayed constitution, it was met with jubilation on the streets of the capital, Kathmandu.
But people in the southern plains bordering India also took to the streets alleging the new charter failed to address their historical marginalisation.
Nepal’s politics has been dominated by the upper Hindu castes from the northern hill region for centuries.
After a decade of armed communist rebellion that ended with the abolition of the monarchy in 2008, hopes were raised of the inclusion of ethnic groups into the state’s apparatus.
Protests by the people of the southern Tarai region – known as Madhesis – have been ongoing for more than three months. The often-violent demonstrations have claimed more than 50 lives, mostly Madhesis.
Al Jazeera spoke to CK Lal, a widely read columnist and a playright, by phone. He has been critical of the Himalayan nation’s ruling elite for not sharing power with historically marginalised groups such as the Madhesis.
Al Jazeera: Why aren’t Nepal’s ethnic Madhesis and the ruling coalition arriving at a political solution?
CK Lal: There is some kind of stalemate currently between the ruling coalition, which promulgated the new constitution and the Madhes-based political parties, which allege that the new constitution has regressed from provisions of the 2007 interim constitution and has denied them citizenship, representation and inclusion and diluted federalism rights.
The government does not seem to be yielding at all. Even two amendments that the government put forth in parliament fail to address the concerns of Madhesi parties based in the southern plains.
AJ: Why have successive democratic governments since the people’s revolution of 2006-2007 failed to address grievances of marginalised groups such as Madhesis, Dalits, minorities etc?
CK Lal: In Nepal, for almost 250 years we have had a strong hill community, which have retained total control of every apparatus of the state. I call them PEON, the permanent establishment of the nation.
The PEON thought that after the [decade-long] Maoist insurgency and Madhes uprising one and two  it had to loosen its control over the state. But after the second constituent assembly elections [in 2013 in which ruling elite emerged victorious], it was buoyed. This ruling community thought it was the right opportunity to take back what has been promised in the interim constitution.
The passing of the constitution can be compared with an analogy of the birth of a child. They used the opportunity to save the mother no matter whether the child born is dead or alive. So we have a dead constitution and the mother that has been saved is the hegemonic upper caste Nepali-speaking Hindu males of hill region.
Madhesis and indigenous janajatis have been denied rights. The eight years of work during the transition period is back to square one.
AJ: The ruling coalition is dominated by communist parties, including the Maoists. By resisting the changes are they protecting the ruling elite?
CK Lal: This is the strangest part in South Asia and not only restricted to Nepal. Our communists are dominated by the upper caste people. Maoist leaders of Nepal, most of whom are upper caste Brahmins, when the crux came turned out to be more communalists than communists They threw away all their agendas to embrace and maintain this hegemony of the upper caste, Hindu, Nepali-speaking hill people.
The ruling class used natural calamity such as an earthquake as an excuse to promulgate the constitution.
AJ: The 2006 peace agreement between Maoists and government spoke of “deconstruction” of the state structure to make government and state institutions more inclusive. Was it carried out?
CK Lal: The state was envisioned to be restructured with realities of multi-cultural, multi-religious, plural and multi-national societies that exist in Nepal. They [the ruling class] have sort of put a fine-bolt that it has been restructured. Look at the essence of it, for example, proportional representation has been diluted, only inclusion word is there.
They have included groups which have ruled before. So this whole idea of inclusion is defeated. Similarly, they have taken away rights of women to get citizenship with the ease it was before. They talk of federalism and restructuring but in such a manner that they retain control of all the units. In this way, they have put a signboard that some restructuring has been done, but if you look inside, it’s a complete sham.
AJ: The Maoists who fought a 10-year ‘people’s war’ spoke for the rights of the marginalised. But they back the new charter that is being opposed by ethnic Madhesis. How do you explain this change?
CK Lal: We have heard that power corrupts. In Nepal, we saw how badly power corrupts. Within months of coming to power, the Maoists’ whole behavior, lifestyles and everything changed. They started aping the lifestyles of the ruling class. They forgot all the promises they had made to the people that had supported them.
People had expected them to be different from other political groups because they had come through struggle and armed revolution, but once they became ministers, it became very difficult to differentiate between established political parties and the Maoists.
AJ: Upendra Yadav, the leader of the Sanghiya Samjawadi Forum, has accused the ruling class, which has traditionally come from the hill areas, of racism.
CK Lal: I think Upendra Yadav’s expression is a political rhetoric not anthropological or technical word. The hill and Madhes belong to almost the same racial groups – Indo-Burmese, Indo-Aryans, Indo-Gangetic plains. Racial groups are the same.
Where he is right is that it is not just economic discrimination, it’s a cultural civilisational discrimination whereby almost the same caste say, for example, Brahmin of the hill considers the Brahmins of Madhes as his social and cultural inferiority. Even rich people from the Madhes region are looked down on by the hill poor.
The term you can use is communitarian discrimination.
AJ: Did Nepali politicians fail to anticipate the intensity of the protests?
CK Lal: I think they thought like before they will be able to crush Madhesis. They did not realise that the ground situation during a republic is different from a monarchy. In a republic it’s not easy to crush a large population.
When millions of people come out on the streets, how many will you shoot? They anticipated opposition but they thought it would be very localised. They did not realise that a new political system is in place, there is a new awakening and the internet has changed the way people communicate.
AJ: Nepali politicians accuse India of behing behind the economic blockade. But India says it is Nepal’s internal matter. What’s the fact on the ground?
CK Lal: Actually that is propaganda. India has consistently supported hill against Madhesis for the last 150 years. Had India been slightly sympathetic to Madhesi, the problems would have been resolved long ago.
This time there is a slight difference. Now India has perhaps realised that Nepal is a republic – and in a republic votes count. So the Madhesis community will also emerge as a force. India is not really supporting Madhesis but trying to maintain a balance. This has given the ruling dispensation some excuse for indulging in rhetoric.
If India were to impose a blockade, Nepal will find it difficult to stand even for a day. This blockade thing is a complete lie. Blockade implies that even people are not allowed to move – let alone goods. But if you read Nepali newspapers you will find out that poor Nepalis are going to Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu for work. Every day 3,000 people are leaving for India.
What we have to agree on is that some kind of controlled movement along the border is assisted by Indian authorities.
Another reason is that, at least in some sections of India, there may be a thinking that “we were the guarantor of the agreements between Madhesis and the hill establishment, but one section of the agreement has not been implemented”.
The blockade was called by the Madhes-based parties and they are taking responsibility for this.
AJ: There is strong anti-India sentiment among the hill people. Have mainstream parties used the economic blockade to fan anti-Madhesi and anti-Indian sentiments?
CK Lal: Blaming India is fair game; it’s a game of all seasons for hill parties. They have resorted to propaganda such as “India is enemy, difficult to deal with India, India does not want sovereignty of Nepal to be practiced”.
This time the ruling dispensation is being very careful. They don’t want to risk antagonising all Madhesis. So what they are saying is that these protests are by a particular section of Madhesis. They are not portraying Madhesis as enemies.
The monarchy drummed up nationalist rhetoric against all outsiders, including Madhesi. The current ruling dispensation carried forward the same values that propagates that “Madhesis are lesser Nepalis”.
Follow Saif Khalid on Twitter: @msaifkhalid