Nepal minister’s slaps cost India dear

Kathmandu, Nov 15 ( Five stinging slaps delivered by a junior Nepal minister to a senior bureaucrat have cost India dear, causing bilateral trade to come to a virtual standstill for five days.

On Tuesday, Nepal’s new Minister of State for Agriculture and Cooperatives Karima Begum created a controversy when she stormed into the office of Durga Prasad Bhandari, the chief district officer of Parsa on the India-Nepal border, and assaulted him for an alleged slight.

The minister, who belongs to a splinter group of Terai party Madhesi Janadhikar Forum, that emerged as the fourth largest party after last year’s election and the most powerful in the southern plains, alleged the bureaucrat tried to humiliate her by sending an old car without police escort to receive her at the airport.

While the coalition government of Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal hesitates to take action against the minister despite a warrant issued for her arrest, the timidity has sent civil servants on the warpath.

From Tuesday, government offices in the Terai remained closed with civil servants demanding action against the minister, who has refused to apologise for her conduct.

The protests shut off the customs office at Birgunj, the most important trading point between India and Nepal, resulting in a loss of NRS 520 million in revenue for the Nepal government.

Though the civil servants’ associations Sunday called off the strike after closing down the plains last week, they have however given a five-day ultimatum.

If the government fails to take action against Karima Begum, they have warned the stir would resume after five days.

The repercussion of the slaps is being felt by Indian traders whose goods-laden trucks have been delayed at the border, awaiting clearance while trade through the Birgunj customs office has been crippled.

Though no official estimates are available about the nature of the loss, it is guesstimated to run into tens of millions of rupees.

The Birgunj border point is also used by the major Indian companies operating in Nepal, like Dabur India’s wholly owned subsidiary Dabur Nepal, ITC’s Nepal venture Surya Nepal, and Hindustan Lever’s Nepal Lever.

So far, there are no indications that the government is planning punitive action against the minister.

Her party remains essential for the survival of the Nepal government that is already under attack from the opposition Maoists, who are seeking its dissolution.

Though Bhandari’s office filed a police complaint, the Parsa police say they can’t arrest the minister since she is in Kathmandu; the Kathmandu police say they are helpless since these has been no instruction from the home ministry.

Home ministry sources said Karima Begum can’t be arrested unless the cabinet or the prime minister issues an order.

The state-run Rising Nepal daily Sunday said the government’s timidity has been increased by fears that any order for the minister’s arrest could snowball into a fresh pahadi versus madhesi debate.

Karima Begum has been holding press conferences in the capital, claiming that she was slighted by the bureaucrat because she belongs to the Madhesi or plains community, who have been ignored by a succession of governments.

The hill versus plains debate created a rift between the two communities earlier this year when suspended vice president, Paramanand Jha, claimed he was sidelined because of his Madhesi origin.