Tuesday, July 29, 2008

India-Nepal Relations: When Magnanimity Misfires

(Book Review)
By Gautam Sengupta, Tue, 22 Jul 2008 NI Wire

Less than three years after it helped put Nepal back on the road to democracy, India’s reputation in the Himalayan nation lies in tatters. The mainstream democratic parties and the former Maoist rebels – the two forces that joined hands under Indian mediation to fight royal tyranny – today routinely criticise New Delhi for “meddling” in Nepalese affairs.

The Chinese, whose growing influence under the monarchy partly spurred New Delhi into action, have consolidated their position in the former kingdom. With the Maoists poised to lead the government, the process is likely to deepen. The Americans, too, have quietly extended overtures to the Maoists, something that is likely to raise Chinese anxieties. Simply put, India has lost the initiative in Nepal. Where did we go wrong? The Indian establishment has dug deep for answers ever since the Maoists defied pundits and pollsters to emerge as the single largest grouping in the constituent assembly elections held in April.

As the facilitator of the November 2005 charter that brought together the mainstream political parties and the Maoist rebels, New Delhi has since worked hard to ensure the peace process reached its logical conclusion. At the time, the Nepali Congress, the Unified Marxist-Leninists as well as the Maoists lauded India’s role. New Delhi shed its longstanding reluctance to third-party intervention and agreed to a United Nations role in bolstering the peace process. Now hardly a day goes by without one of the main protagonists berating India for interference.

This phenomenon is not new and India is not entirely at fault, as a new book, “The Raj Lives”, suggests. In this political history of India-Nepal relations, Nepali journalist Sanjay Upadhya tackles the supreme paradox of how traditional closeness has alienated the two countries. The book begins with the evolution of British India’s policies toward the expanding Gorkha kingdom. Indian readers can identify with the injustice Nepal suffered under British colonial rulers. What is certain to baffle them is Upadhya’s contention that independent India virtually upheld British policy.

Three years after Indian independence, Nepali exiles in India rose up against their feudal Rana oligarchy, which had usurped the powers of the monarchy a century earlier to establish a closed and tyrannical regime. King Tribhuvan sought and received asylum in India where he became the leader of the Nepali democratic movement. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru mediated a compromise under which the monarchy regained its predominant role. The Ranas entered a coalition with the Nepali Congress with the express purpose of inaugurating democratic rule through free and fair elections. Nepali communists immediately denounced the compromise as a sellout, triggering a fresh round of instability.

Admittedly, India had its own motives in facilitating democratic change in Nepal. Mao Zedong’s capture of power in China in 1949 and the People’s Liberation Army’s subsequent invasion of Tibet had endangered India’s security. Sardar Ballabhbhai Patel was more wary of long-term Chinese motives in Nepal. Nehru, however, saw an independent and democratic Nepal as a cushion for India.

Clearly, that was short-sighted. As Nepal’s politicians squabbled for power, the monarchy steadily gained ground. Politicians actively courted India’s mediation in the most mundane of disputes. Those who lost out in the bargain immediately turned against India. During a visit to Kathmandu, Nehru was greeted with black flags. Nepal’s much delayed election did not seem to quell anti-Indianism. Prime Minister B.P. Koirala’s power struggle with King Mahendra, Tribhuvan’s son and successor, culminated in a palace coup.

India once again became the refuge of Nepali politicians and activists that evaded the palace crackdown. From Indian soil, the Nepali Congress, which enjoyed the moral support of leading Indian politicians, launched an armed insurgency. The royal government became increasingly vitriolic in accusing India of fomenting unrest. The war with China in 1962 prompted New Delhi to pursue quiet diplomacy as a means of democratic change. That bore fruit six years later when the royal regime freed B.P. Koirala and key associates from prison.

Shortly thereafter, they slipped into India to step up the fight against the monarchy. The Nepali Congress and the communists had become bitter rivals and the palace took full advantage of the rifts in the 1970s and 80s. King Birendra, Mahendra’s son and successor, announced Nepal’s intention to declare itself a “zone of peace,” a thinly disguised attempt to unilaterally define Nepal’s relations with India. In 1989, he purchased arms from China in a clear violation of agreements with India.

Kathmandu, moreover, raised issues that precluded the renewal/renegotiation of trade and transit treaties. Despite the expiry of the treaties, India granted landlocked Nepal continued access to two transit points, even though it was obliged under international law to provide only one. The royal government used international conferences to accuse India of imposing an economic embargo.

In early 1990, the Nepali Congress and communists finally buried their differences and launched a movement for a return to democracy. Indian political parties extended full moral support to the agitation and several Indian leaders visited Kathmandu. In a matter of weeks, the royal regime crumbled. Multiparty democracy was restored after a three-decade hiatus.

It did not take long for anti-Indian tirades to emanate from Nepal. The communists, as usual, were at the forefront, accusing India of trying to exploit Nepal’s river waters. Amid the infighting in the ruling Nepali Congress, the dissident faction accused Delhi of propping up Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala. For much of the 1990s, Delhi was accused of fomenting political instability, sponsoring the Maoist insurgency, engineering the hijacking of an Indian airliner to expose Nepal’s poor security capabilities. In June 2001, India was accused of complicity in the palace massacre of King Birendra and his entire family. When Gyanendra, Birendra’s brother and sole surviving heir, seized absolute powers, India once again became the center of the democracy movement.

What makes India such a recurrent theme of Nepali politics? Upadhya does not provide a clear answer. However, he explains how Nepalese sensitivities in a variety of areas such as trade and transit, military/security issues, water resources and the two countries’ open and largely unregulated border have reinforced a collective sense of victimhood. It is only toward the end of the book that Upadhya seems to lament the opportunities missed under entrenched political demagoguery in both countries.

Since India is the larger partner in a unique relationship defined by history, geography, religion and culture, it is tempting to expect us to become more magnanimous. Yet diplomacy cannot be a one-way street. New Delhi long extolled its “special relations” with Kathmandu, but Nepalis resented that description. In the mid-1990s, it applied the Gujral Doctrine of non-reciprocity, but received virtually no cooperation on clamping down on Pakistan-funded militant groups based in Nepal. The Maoists have vowed to abrogate the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with India, which most Nepalis consider a symbol of Indian hegemonism. Yet Upadhya’s book is replete with examples of how India has remained at the forefront of Nepal’s development process in the face of its own needs.

If Nepalis truly feel the 1950 Treaty is so iniquitous, then New Delhi perhaps would be wise to start a debate that would take relations with Nepal to the same level India’s has with its other South Asian neighbours. In an unintended way, perhaps, “The Raj Lives” provides an interesting framework for such discussions.


The Raj Lives: India In Nepal

Author: Sanjay Upadhya
Vitasta Publishing Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi
350 Pages; Hardbound
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 81-89766-73-2
Price: Indian Rs. 645

India-Nepal Relations: When Magnanimity Misfires (Book Review).


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