(Originally published in ‘The Republica’, Nepal)
Blockade on Germany—from 1914 to 1919—by Britain and France during the First World War brought Germany down to its knees. In 1962, the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States suddenly got hot when the Soviets decided to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, only 90 miles off the US. So, the US blockaded the Cuban coast to prevent the Soviets from reaching Cuba.
These examples show that, in foreign policy, a blockade is a wartime tool. Nepal and India are not at war, and neither is a threat to the other. If India continues the blockade, it will definitely bring Nepal down to its knees. Nobody doubts that. But, why is India using a wartime tactic against Nepal? More importantly, whatever the intended results, does India truly believe that the means justifies the end?
A “blockade” is a very effective tool to instigate suffering, and no country knows this better than Germany, which suffered one of the worst cases of an economic blockade in human history. After the Allies beat Germany in WWI, Britain and France wanted Germany to sign the Treaty of Versailles for immediate peace. To pressure Germany into signing the agreement quickly, the British and the French continued the blockade that they had been imposing on Germany since 1914. Although the war officially ended in November 1918, the blockade continued for eight more months, until July 1919.
Aimed at punishing the national level policymakers, the blockade hurt civilians the most. Germans suffered from malnourishment, rickets, scurvy, tuberculosis, and several other illnesses. The British intelligence reported that in the year 1917, hunger-related typhus was responsible for almost 75 percent of deaths in the city of Dortmund alone. More people died in Germany in the flu epidemic of 1918 than in any other European country. In 1919, reports came out that 10 percent of patients in German hospitals died that year simply because the hospitals could not feed the patients.
Famine during the extra eight months of blockade alone killed 250,000 Germans. The government’s rationing system fell apart. So, urban populations suffered from chronic hunger due to unequal rationing of food. Rural self-sufficient farmers fared better than urban citizens. In the urban centers, black markets developed to sell food and essential items at exorbitant prices. Dairy prices were 33 percent higher than the market price, meat was 50 percent higher, and eggs and fruits were 1,000 percent higher. While the wealthy and the well-connected in Germany managed to feed themselves, the black market prices killed the urban poor.
The current Indian blockade of Nepal has now reached a point where health-related crises have started. For example, this month, hospitals in Jhapa stopped providing dialysis services to patients due to medicine and equipment shortages, and ICU/NICU services have not operated smoothly due to fuel shortage. Recently, the Nepal Medical Association announced that hospitals in Kathmandu Valley will soon have to shut their intensive care, surgeries, and incubation as a result of fuel shortages. Pharmacies in the valley have run out of critical supplies, such as anesthetics and life-saving drugs. Because Nepal is no Germany, it has taken us only a month of blockade to face imminent public health crisis.
Rationing of essentials has allowed price gouging in the market on everything from salt to gas cylinders. Immediately after the blockade, onion prices jumped to over Rs 200 per kg in Kathmandu. The valley’s urban poor can no longer afford to purchase gas cylinders. Unequal rationing has also meant thousands of Nepalis queue for hours to buy two liters of petrol while the Rishi Dhamalas walk out of a petrol station with 20 liters of petrol in a public display of “access” and “connection.”
Some valley dwellers got innovative, and asked their family members in the Tarai to send them gas cylinders and petrol cans. We saw the risks in that process. For example, in Banke, many died when a bus carrying gas cylinders and petrol cans met with an accident, causing the gas cylinders to explode, which caused the petrol to catch fire and engulf the entire bus. In another case, a taxi driver’s family in Kathmandu got trapped and burned to death when an emergency supply of petrol stored indoors caught fire.
It is surprising that international media has been relatively quiet on the blockade. The loudest opposition, in fact, has come from the Indian media. However, many of those penning the opposition pieces are current or ex-Indian Congress leaders and politicians. Their opposition could simply be a case of opposition politics, rather than true concern for their neighbors. After all, it was the Indian Congress government that imposed an economic blockade against Nepal in 1989 by closing the borders. Therefore, the Indian Congress Party’s sudden rise in moral authority on the blockade issue is dubious.
The German experience teaches us that a prolonged economic blockade hardens the human spirit and changes people. Scholars have attributed the rise of Nazism and nationalistic policies in Germany to the economic blockade that Germany suffered during the First World War. It is a gross exaggeration to claim that something similar will happen in Nepal. However, there has been a rise in the level of bitterness among Nepalis against India, and some of that is seen even at the top level. A supposedly pro-China politician has been elected the Prime Minister. A known nationalist has been appointed the Foreign Minister and was sent to India to resolve the current mess. The current government has started inquiring China about the possibilities of becoming our fuel supplier. These should worry Indian policymakers who certainly agree that Nepal importing all its fuel from China will damage Indian interests—both economic and political. And, then, there is the damage sustained in the cordial relationship between the two people with shared history and culture.
There is a Sanskrit saying: maunamsammatilakshanam. That is, silence means agreement. Western nations that spare no dime lecturing Nepal on human rights and dignity have shamed themselves on this issue. The response, or lack thereof, from the rest of the world indicates that—at the end of the day—economics trumps human rights and dignity. The US government has mentioned in the past that it follows India’s lead on Nepal-related issues. The EU nations have made their opposition known, but not forcefully. The United Nations has mentioned the fuel crisis and its potential impact on earthquake survivors in the coming winter, but has not acknowledged the blockade. Even China—which has repeatedly informed the Nepali government that it is willing to help out in any way possible has not called India out on the blockade.
If the Sanskrit saying is true, our international friends are complicit in this blockade. Billions of dollars in trade with India is more vital to them than acknowledging the suffering of Nepalis. The international missions claim to be vanguards for peace and security for all. If they can’t perform that role, they don’t deserve to be in Nepal, and should be asked to leave. We can start with the UN and the EU.