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India-Nepal: dignifying interdependence

This article is an extract from the Gateway House publication Neighbourhood Views of India which was brought out in December 2012 to commemorate the 27th SAARC day. 

“The overarching Himalayas, the monsoons and the southward flowing rivers gave the subcontinent its civilisational unity;  we can prosper or self-destruct together” – Jagat S. Mehta, India’s former Foreign Secretary.

The relationship between Nepal and India is often described as unique. Geographical proximity, an open border, and cultural, civilisational, historical and social bonds have intimately brought together the two sides from ancient times to the present. Except during a few short-lived phases of “hostility,” the two countries have been able to overcome the pitfalls of the “familiarity breeds contempt” dictum.

At the same time, an objective looks shows that the potential of this “unique” bilateral equation is hyped, not adequately explored and barely achieved. Are the platitudes of “special relations” going to be enough to explore our common goals?

The roots of the binary mindset

India’s independence in 1947 may not have directly contributed to major political changes in the region. But a committed group of young social democrats from Nepal – most of them students – who were involved in India’s freedom struggle, strongly felt that democracy should be the most preferred political system in a “decolonised” region. Although Nepal was never directly under British rule, three years after India’s freedom, 104 years of the Rana oligarchy came to an end in Nepal. The Nepali Congress Party, led by the same young social democrats, was at the forefront of this change.

It was expected that the end of the oligarchy would pave the way for the restoration of monarchy – the Ranas had appropriated all the powers of the King since 1846 – and create a situation where the Crown as a figurehead and the political parties would work together to form a parliamentary democracy.  In that spirit, a tripartite deal was signed in New Delhi (where King Tribhuvan had taken asylum in 1950-51), between the King, the Nepali Congress and the Ranas. India’s then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, mediated the deal.

Nepal’s journey to democracy, and India’s independence from colonial rule, were to have a tremendous impact on the bilateral relationship. Nepal, a land-locked and hitherto largely off-limits country, was in a hurry to be seen as a sovereign, independent and democratic member of the larger world. India’s challenges were bigger: it had to retain its clout and its interests in the neighbourhood without being seen as hegemonic.

Nepal became a member of the United Nations in 1955, and was moving fast to establish diplomatic relationships – which other Himalayan kingdoms like Bhutan and Sikkim were not doing – with various countries, far and near. India, concerned about the region’s, and its own security, and pursing a stronger role for itself in the region, was not comfortable about Nepal’s international forays.

Nehru even advised against Nepal establishing relations with the Soviet Union and China. He wanted Nepal to interact with a third country only after “consultation with us.” [i]   Nepal’s leaders had a personal rapport with Nehru, and they convinced him that Nepal would never establish relations with other countries at the cost of India’s geopolitical interests.

India’s aversion to Nepal making direct contact with other countries, an aversion that was especially manifest during the early years of the bilateral relationship taking shape in a changed geopolitical context, eventually created a negative perception about India in Nepal. This perception lingers till today.

“I chose to resign rather than sticking to power by appeasing the external [Indian] lords,” Maoist leader Prachanda said a day after he quit as prime minister on May 3, 2009. Prachanda echoed Maoist ideologue and current Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai, who too implied that India’s ultimate design was to “Sikkimise” Nepal through a process of  “‘Bhutanisation”– that is, India planned to either annex Nepal like Sikkim or reduce it a protectorate status, like Bhutan.[ii]

Three perceptions of India

Nepal was dependent on India because of geography and for various forms of assistance, including the modernisation of its bureaucracy. Indian administrators were sent to Nepal as advisors to the King, and its Ambassador enjoyed unparalleled access to Nepal’s prime ministers. The Indian approach on issues such as Nepal’s right to separate trade and transit treaties was often inconsistent. Some Indian diplomats believe India’s policies sometimes took Nepal “for granted.” [iii]

Despite Nepal’s dependence on India for up to 70% of its trade and for various kinds of  help, political parties and policymakers in Nepal have three negative perceptions about India: one, that a weak Nepal is in India’s interest; two, that India always tries to extract maximum concessions from a falling regime and ends up supporting the emerging ruler; and three, that it extends hospitality to rebel political personalities or organisations to use them as leverage with the Nepali regime of  the day.

These perceptions are rooted in reality, but also influenced by Nepal’s “small nation syndrome,” which tends to exaggerate India’s perceived “big brother” attitude.

The evidence for the first two perceptions comes from various sources: for example, India signed the Treaty of  Peace and Friendship with the fragile Rana regime (1950s), which most communist parties, including the Maoists, say amounted to surrendering sovereignty to India, but supported the democratic movement spearheaded by the Nepali Congress against the Ranas; in 1989-90, when King Birendra was facing a powerful prodemocracy movement in the country, India offered to help him, provided he became more considerate towards India’s security interests and recognised India’s prior right over Nepal’s rich water resources, estimated to generate 82,000-megawatt power.

The third perception – that India supports political rebels and organisations to use them as leverage against the Nepali regime – is rooted in the fact that from the late 1960s various powerful rebel Nepali political leaders and their groups were provided shelter in India. Subarna Shumsher (1960-68) and B. P. Koirala (1968-76), both Nepali Congress leaders who at times threatened to change the regime in Nepal through armed revolts, found shelter in India. The pro-republic leader Ramraja Prasad Singh, who launched bomb attacks on Nepal’s legislative building and a hotel in 1985, also got Indian support from 1978 to 1992.

The Maoist leadership guided most of its violent campaign in Nepal from 1996 to 2006 from safe places in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Mumbai and Delhi. The Maoists however tried to mislead New Delhi by assuring India’s political leadership that “they were a genuine political movement and not a bunch of terrorists and that they recognised the need to sustain the close ties between India and Nepal necessary for Nepal to advance.” [iv]

India perhaps took the Maoists at face value and mediated yet another deal, generally referred to as the “12-point understanding” between the Maoists and Nepal’s seven political parties. It was signed in New Delhi in November 2005. The signatories decided to collectively launch a movement in Nepal against the monarchy. The resulting 19-day agitation in April 2006 brought the nine month-old royal rule to an end, and Nepal’s triumphant new political leaders announced that the world’s only Hindu kingdom will henceforth be a secular, federal republic.

But the Constituent Assembly, elected in May 2008, failed to deliver the constitution during its four-year tenure, until it was dissolved on 28 May 2012, nor did it institutionalise the radical changes it had promised. India, perceived as the dominant influence, is now linked with this failure, and with the resultant chaos, uncertainty and political instability in Nepal. Anti-India sentiments are palpably growing.

Prevailing uncertainty and likely consequences

Observers of Nepal-India relations say that the period from 1990 to 2005 was relatively less controversial. India’s “economic blockade” of 1988-89, with New Delhi’s reluctance to extend the transit treaty, had ended after the restoration of democracy in Nepal in 1990. Democracy demanded more transparency in governance, both in domestic and foreign affairs.

But a series of political setbacks in Nepal – the nascent multi-party democracy came under severe threat from the Maoist insurgents for a decade from 1996, there was political instability with 15 governments in as many years, the palace massacre that resulted in the killing of King Birendra and his entire family in June 2001, the succession by his brother Gyanendra and his takeover in February 2005 – have all impacted political stability in Nepal.

The Maoists used the instability to achieve their political goals. In June 2002 they established contact with Indian political leaders and top-level bureaucrats to convince them that they were the real representatives of the Nepali people. The election of the Constituent Assembly in 2008 legitimised the Maoist party as the biggest group without a majority. They refused to transform into a democratic party accountable to Parliament and implement the internal peace accord. Their insistence on federalism on ethnic lines with a right to self-determination also injected uncertainty about Nepal’s status as an integrated state. The change in regime caused more political instability – five prime ministers in as many years. The hopes generated in 2006 fast evaporated and turned into frustration.

Nepal is now going through its most uncertain phase since 1950. The absence of a full-fledged constitution, the fragmentation of politics, and divisions among the signatories (Maoists and Nepal’s seven political parties) to the 12-point understanding have contributed to this uncertainty. The political parties have not been able to agree on a model of federalism – should it be based on ethnicity or other factors – or on governance, the electoral system, and around 118 other issues that are related to drafting the constitution.

At the same time, the Madhesi parties are pushing for recognition of their region as a single province, as a solution to being treated like “second class citizens” by the Nepali state for generations. The parties  are based in the Madhesh plains, which share a border with India, and represent the entire plains area comprising 18% of  the total geography of  Nepal with 48% of  the population.  Any such proposal related to restructuring and re-arrangement of power is always a difficult issue. But in Nepal, additionally, a sincere and non-partisan approach has been lacking.

Nepal’s growing fragility and vulnerability are a matter of concern. [5] The absence of the monarchy without a credible alternative in place has created a huge political and constitutional vacuum. The state’s authority has significantly eroded. Political parties and their top leaders in Nepal stand discredited as never before. All this has brought the influence of other external forces, including China, into Nepal. A failed, fragile or weak state will not only be a problem for Nepal, it will also have ramifications beyond its boundaries

The growing role of China in Nepal

India‘s role in Nepal is often strongly critiqued. India stood by the four big parties – the Nepali Congress, the Unified Communist Party of Nepal-Maoists, Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, and the United Democratic Madhesi Front – promising support for the timely delivery of the constitution. On a visit to Nepal in April 2011, the then External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna offered all the support the people of Nepal and its leaders wanted, given the “special relations” shared by the two countries.

All the parties have worked in close proximity with India. And they all failed to deliver the constitution and peace dividends to the people. The weak and unstable governments and all major political parties in Nepal have failed to realise that drafting and finalising the constitution has essentially to be a sovereign exercise – only drawing lessons from external sources.

In contrast to India’s involvement, China took the position that Nepal is capable of formulating its own constitution and focused more on development assistance. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao reiterated his country’s position during a visit to Nepal in January 2012 – that it is entirely for the Nepalese people to prepare their constitution without outside involvement.

But China’s presence, role and visibility in Nepal is much greater in the post-2006 scenario in general, and after the exit of the monarchy in May 2008 in particular. In fact, with Nepal’s growing tilt towards China, it is now becoming one of the competitive pieces of the chess game between India and China.

This is a change from China’s previous stand of a deliberate lack of interest in Nepal’s internal affairs except on matters related to Tibet. From the 1950s, and ever since the Dalai Lama left Tibet in 1959, China has repeatedly requested Nepal to not to allow its territory to be used by free-Tibet elements. Of late though, the U.S. and the European Union’s (EU) support to the Tibetan cause through Nepali territory seems to have irritated China.  Xinhua, China’s official news agency, has said that Nepal has “the highest degree of foreign interference in the world.” [v]

When democracy was restored in Nepal, India and Nepal promised to embark on enhanced cooperation in the hydro-power sector – but so far this has not been substantial. Instead, China has now bagged the 760-mw West Seti hydro-power project, to be completed by 2019. Nepal also imported arms from China for its army after India stopped supplying arms in the aftermath of the royal takeover, at a time when King Gyanendra, in New Delhi’s view, was seen as being less sensitive to India’s interests. Other players such as China and the EU have stepped into the resultant void, with their own geopolitical calculations.

In 2011, Lumbini, the historical town in Nepal where the Buddha was born, received the promise of an investment of $3 billion to build infrastructure, including an airport, a highway, hotels, a convention centre and a Buddhist studies university. On paper the investor is a Hong Kong-based non-governmental organisation, but it reportedly has the backing of the Chinese government. If executed, this is a huge investment in a country whose 2010 GDP was $35 billion. Chinese companies are expected to play a key role in developing the infrastructure.

The proposed investment in Lumbini is in competition with India’s prestigious but delayed investment in the revival of the ancient Nalanda University in Bihar. The proposal – which involves Singapore and other East Asian countries – has been on the cards since 2006. During a visit to Nepal on 8 November 2011, Karan Singh, a leader of the Indian Congress party, said that India was keen to develop Lumbini. But the Maoists are pinning their hopes on China. India’s slow-moving plans on this project can be seen as another misstep in a long line of missed opportunities in building a counterweight to China.

During his January 2012 visit to Nepal, Wen Jiabao also offered a $120 million aid package and assistance for building a rail link connecting Lhasa to Lumbini. Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai said that instead of Nepal being a “buffer state” between India and China, Nepal will now act as a “friendship bridge” between the two. India can seize the advantage by moving swiftly to develop infrastructure from the India side up to Lumbini on the Nepalese border. Once completed, India and China will have direct road and rail links; Lumbini can then be integrated with the remaining Buddhist sites in India, forming a Buddhist circuit.

Nepal no longer has leaders with direct access to their counterparts in India, unlike the leadership until the early 1990s – largely a product of Indian universities – who understood bilateral relations in a much wider context, and would not call India a “hegemonic” force even during times of major rifts, as the Maoists do (despite their tactical proximity with the Indian establishment for some time).

Education plays a significant role in building future leaders, in honing their quality and statecraft. Now most of Nepal’s future leaders turn not only to India and the West, but also to the North, for higher education. Of  the 77,628 foreign students in Chinese universities in 2003, 80% were from South Asian countries, with Nepal prominently in the list.[vi] Many schools, colleges and at least one university in Nepal have introduced Mandarin and Chinese studies in their curriculum. There are now predictions that China’s global rise will usher in a golden age of pan-Asian prosperity in which Chinese products, culture and values will set the standard for the world.[vii]

Nepal’s foreign policy – based on King Prithvi Narayan Shah‘s “between two boulders” theory – has to be sensitive to the vital interests of both big neighbours. That needs to be the core spirit of its neighbourhood foreign policy. Both India and China have vital interests and stakes in Nepal, and any imbalance in Nepal’s relations with them may take “…a more difficult turn in the nuclear age,” or could be made more complicated by politicians of “loose thinking and loose tongue.” [viii]

A humanitarian foreign policy

Bilateral foreign affairs and security interests need a great degree of confidentiality, but foreign policy and security issues will also always remain under the radar of researchers and critics. SAARC continues to fail as an effective forum to integrate the security and economic interests of the region, and the impression remains that the “intractable Indo-Pak divide over Kashmir” has exhausted the potential for regional cooperation. [ix] As a result, regional diplomacy will largely continue to be a bilateral affair, and this calls for a greater understanding of each other’s concerns between Nepal and India.

South Asia in general, and Nepal and India in particular, will attain a sense of integration if regional security, trade, food security and other issues come onto a common and more transparent agenda. Preserving biodiversity and the intricately linked ecosystem and agricultural patterns of our two countries, and jointly addressing natural disasters are challenges that can also be brought onto a common platform. For example, the Chure mountain range in Nepal protects Bihar and Uttar Pradesh from floods and drought. But rigid perceptions have come in the way of a more humanitarian vision of  foreign policy.

In Nepal, 36 of 75 districts, or 3.5 million people (one-eighth of the total population) are officially described as vulnerable to “food scarcity.” In post-conflict Nepal especially, agricultural production has been severely impacted. An exodus of agricultural workers continues to the Gulf countries, Malaysia, Singapore and other countries – at an average of 500,000 people a year, according to government figures – and many more go to India. Official figures indicate that at least 12,000 women were trafficked to India’s sex industries last year. An unspecified number are trafficked as “organ donors.” Managing migration and controlling human trafficking also require Nepal and India to work in close cooperation.

But the immediate challenge for Nepal is to overcome the current political mess and social discord, maintain the country’s integrity, and discourage caste and ethnic divisions. India and China as well as the EU could contribute by not patronising the forces that have failed Nepal’s people in the past six years. In the bilateral context, Nepal and India have to appreciate the challenges both countries face in terms of security, take a common position on terrorism and the criminal forces operating along the open border, and settle border disputes wherever they exist.

Security is intimately linked to development and internal stability, which require public participation in policy-making. Credible diplomacy also requires time-bound implementation of earlier agreements. Once bilateral relations focus more on development and security, other contentious issues can take a back seat. That will be a milestone in our bilateral relations.

What will be the best way to increase mutual understanding between the two sides? Nepal’s seasoned diplomat, Dr. Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, said: “While different problems will have different remedies, the best way to go about now is for Nepal to understand India’s real security concerns in the context of  each other’s location. And India will earn much more respect in Nepal by leaving Nepal’s political process to the Nepalese.” [x] What will also count is whether the bilateral relationship is based on partnership, is more symbiotic and less parasitic. That will make the inter-dependence more dignified in the long run, more legitimate and more acceptable to Nepal.

Yubaraj Ghimire has worked with various mainstream media publications in India, including ‘The Telegraph’, ‘India Today’ and ‘Outlook’; he continues to write a weekly column for ‘The Indian Express’. He has extensively covered Indian politics, parliamentary affairs and major events across the subcontinent.

This is an extract from the Gateway House publication Neighbourhood Views of India which was brought out to commemorate the 27th SAARC day. 

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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1. Koirala, M. P., A Role in Revolution (Jagadamba Publishers, Kathmandu, 2008) (Nehru’s letter no. 3746-pm, 25 April 1952).

2. Bhattarai, B. ‘New Kot Massacre  should not be recognized’, Kantipur Daily, (2001, June 6)

3. Muni, S. D. Bringing the Maoists down from the Hills:  Nepal in Transition, eds. Sebastian Von Einsiedel, David M.  Malone and Suman Pradhan, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p 320-21.

4. Dahal, D.R. & Ghimire, Y. ‘Ethnic Federalism in Nepal: Risks and Opportunities’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, (2012). p 75

5. Xinhua, Global Times, 2012, June 11.

6. Martin, J., When China Rules the World, London, (2012) Penguin Books, p 543.

7. Kissinger, H. On China, London, (2011), Penguin Group, p 506.

8. Khanal, Y.N.,  Nepal’s Non-Isolationist Foreign Policy (Satyal Publication, Kathmandu 2000).

9. Rana, S.M., ‘Future of SAARC’, India-Nepal Relations: The Challenges Ahead, eds. Rupa Publications/ ORF,  New Delhi , p 139.

10. From an interview with the author, done for Gateway House