As Tarai burns, various allegations have been leveled against India, including its supposed support for violence. It’s also said that one reason the 16-point June agreement on eight provinces failed was because it didn’t have India’s stamp of approval. Is that really the case? Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Ranjit Rae, spoke to Republica Daily covering a wide range of issues on Friday afternoon. Here is the full text of interview published in Republica Daily on September 5, 2015.
How do you evaluate ongoing protests in Tarai belt? And what has been the role of India, if any, in helping diffuse the crisis?
Let me answer this in a generic way. India-Nepal relations are on a high right now, in terms of our bilateral agreements and projects that have been signed. I believe the implementation of these plans and projects would help bring the two countries closer. But for that you first need peace and stability in the country. A constitution acceptable to all section of society is a prerequisite for this. The constitution is important because you are basically deciding the future of Nepal. As far as India is concerned, all we want is peace and stability in Nepal and the corollary to that is a constitution with the widest possible consensus. This is the message our prime minister has also given. We understand that Nepal is a very diverse country and it is difficult to take everyone along. But the effort has to be made and I must say that effort is being made. So the effort of all the parties should be directed at addressing the problems expressed in the protests not only in the Tarai but also in the hills. We hope all outstanding issues can be settled through negotiations.
The constitution should not be seen as a zero-sum game. It is a win-win in which everyone should feel we have benefited. That is where we are coming from. Obviously, we are very concerned and disturbed about the violence and the loss of lives and our appeal would be that all the sides should resolve these issues through dialogue and negotiations. These are not issues that can be resolved through violence.
There is a perception that the 16-point agreement among the four parties back in June fell through since it didn’t have New Delhi’s approval.
You cannot reduce relationships between states to issues of ego and such like and on whether someone was consulted or not consulted. That is not important. What is important is that the agreement you have brings peace and stability and is acceptable to the society and the country. I don’t think Nepal should be bothered about whether this or that agreement is acceptable to A country or B country. The priority should be ensuring that the agreement is acceptable to the people of Nepal. I am sure all the foreign countries would be very happy with a process that leads to this ultimate objective. I see in many newspapers here that India is unhappy (with the 16-point deal). That is simply not true. We are not prescriptive in any way. All we are saying is please bring peace and stability in the country.
Nepal occupies a sensitive geostrategic position. As such, what are your concerns about the federal project in Nepal?
Again, like I said, we are not prescriptive. We do not say you should have X or Y number of states, or you should have this delineation or that demarcation. That’s not our job. The ultimate objective is peace and stability. So you devise a framework that takes everybody on board and ensures peace and stability. I don’t think that is an impossible task. Yes, it might take some time, but this is a task worth undertaking because the objective is so important for the future development of the country. But, again, the number and delineation of the provinces in federal Nepal is something for Nepalis to decide.
There is a perception in Kathmandu that India was the architect of ‘One Madhesh’ idea, something that some Madheshi parties are still pushing.
India’s relationship is with all of Nepal. When we talk of Indo-Nepal relationship, we are talking about all of Nepal, not just about India’s relationship with the Tarai. Of course, we have a strong bond with the Tarai because of the open border, the cross-border links, the familial links, so that is very much there. But India is concerned about maintaining harmonious relations with all of Nepal. Of course, there is the strategic context to India-Nepal ties and there is an economic context. That is why we attach so much importance to India-Nepal relationship, which is in line with our prime minister’s ‘neighborhood first’ policy. That is our priority. If there is instability in the neighborhood, it will impact India and its economic development. India looks at its relationship with Nepal holistically and not in piecemeal fashion. So some of these ideas being floated about in the media are simply not true.
Could you elaborate on why you think India is misunderstood in Nepal?
Whenever there are disturbances in Nepal, especially in the Tarai, voices start appearing, whispering campaigns begin, and social media starts churning, that India is behind this, or India is doing that. Or on the other hand we hear that India is not doing enough to prevent disturbances. I am worried because if a person has a disease, the diagnosis has to be correct in order to find a cure. If the diagnosis itself is incorrect, how will you find a cure? These allegations are made to deflect attention from real problems. It’s not in India’s interest to have instability in Nepal in general, and especially not in Tarai.
Why should India do anything that will create problems on its border? It’s contrary to India’s national interest. So for those who make these unsubstantiated allegations, our response is, if you have evidence, please show it to us. We will investigate and take appropriate action. But please don’t make such allegations without evidence or engage in whispering campaigns. It’s not in India’s interest, it’s not in Nepal’s interest, and it’s certainly not in the interest of India-Nepal relations.
How do you see the demand for ethnicity-based federalism in Nepal, especially considering that India itself has many states based on ethnicity?
There is a certain context in Nepal from which the idea of federalism has emerged. Nepali leaders in their wisdom have decided that the federal states will be delineated on the basis of identity and economic viability. This is not something that has been prescribed by outsiders. Who are we to say this model is right or wrong? In India, we have applied different criteria. Initially states were created based on language. But subsequently even these states broke up. The birth of Uttarakhand in the hill parts of Uttar Pradesh, for example. The hill parts wanted a separate state because they felt discriminated inside Uttar Pradesh. So they separated. Look at Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, which separated for various historical and other reasons. So this (federalism in India) is a work in progress. In many states we have created territorial councils, whether it is Darjeeling or in other North-Eastern states by taking into account the aspirations of certain groups living in those states. So there are lots of permutations and combinations.
Some Madheshi political leaders have in recent times openly leveraged their connections with New Delhi to push their agenda. How do you see this development?
That is part of the internal political dynamic of Nepal. Some people might use their so-called proximity with India to serve their ends. Others might want to leverage their so-called nationalist credentials to push some other agenda. This is a part of any democratic process. This is a fact of life. Whether in India or Nepal, people will use whatever leverage they have to promote their interest. But like I said, we look at Nepal holistically. We are not looking at individual leaders as such. We have an overall objective in terms of how we want our relationship to develop and we do everything we can to meet those objectives.
The Tarai belt is in turmoil right now. Many people have been killed. The security situation is fragile. What are India’s security concerns in Tarai?
Certainly, it’s a very sensitive region for India and for Nepal as well. I am sure the people and government don’t want to see turmoil and disturbances in any part of Nepal, including Tarai. The Tarai is important because we have open border between the two countries. If there is unrest there, then the whole territory becomes vulnerable to interests that might be inimical to both Nepal and to India. These could be internal groups, or they could be external groups. So we obviously don’t want instability on our border, especially an open border. Of course, this situation has arisen because of certain political issues regarding the new constitution. We very much hope that an amicable solution can be found so that the border can go back to being peaceful and stable.
India’s message, as you said, to Nepal government has been clear. You would like a constitution with broadest possible support. But what has been your message to the Madheshi and other parties opposed to the ongoing constitutional process?
First of all, there have been close consultations with all political parties. India has a strong engagement with Nepal and we engage with all sections of political opinion and all political parties equally. Of course, we have also spoken to the Madheshi parties in the context of the Tarai unrest and our message is always that you please come to the negotiating table and find an amicable solution because these are issues that have to be resolved politically. These are not law and order issues; political issues require political solutions. But for that you need to sit down and talk. There must be political will and sincerity on both sides. Further, what does negotiation mean? Both the sides should show flexibility. Only then can you compromise and arrive at something meaningful. This is our message to all the political parties.
In your consultations with the leaders of the ruling alliance, what is the message you have been getting?
As far as the government of India is concerned, we want this dialogue process to continue and we want an amicable solution that is mutually acceptable. That is the only way there will be peace and stability. Of course, there is a very strong view, which we appreciate and understand, that it’s been so many years since the negotiations started, and now you are virtually at the threshold. A lot of progress has been made. With the same determination and political will, even the remaining issues can be resolved. All the players know each other extremely well, and they are part of the same democratic process. So I think the situation is ripe for some sort of solution. The message I am getting from all the parties is that this is the way they want to go forward.
Can we say the government of India is hopeful that we will soon have a constitution?
The government of India is hopeful that you will soon have a constitution that will deliver peace, stability and prosperity in Nepal.
How often do our government actors engage in consultations with their Indian counterparts, particularly concerning the ongoing unrest in Tarai?
Like I said, we have very warm and friendly relations between the two countries and we discuss all issues of mutual interest, whether they are economic issues, or political issues or security-related issues. That is the nature of our relationship. In the last year and a half in particular, the frequency of political exchanges between the two countries has increased significantly. You have had two visits of our prime minister; three visits of our foreign minister; a visit by our home minister. There have been phone conversations at the highest level. So both the sides are keen to step up this engagement and cooperation. When political leaders talk to each other, there are no limitations on what is discussed.
A lot gets written and broadcast about the perceived Indian interference in Nepal. Have you ever been struck by something you saw or read that this was not true, felt ‘India does not do this’ in Nepal?
That happens all the time (laughs). You yourself tell me India is not happy with the 16-point agreement because it was not consulted. Then you say that India micromanages and gets involved in everything. This is a fact of life in Nepal. Irrespective of what we do or say, there are perceptions that people have. And there are certain perceptions that people want to promote for their own interest. This is something that keeps happening and we have become used to it. All I can say is that you must always see what India’s policy objectives in Nepal are and try and interpret and understand our interactions in Nepal in light of those objectives. That is the only way in which you can understand India’s policy and the manner in which we interact and this is constant.
Individuals come and go, but the substance of the policy is the same. There may be nuances in the manner in which you implement the policy. But please don’t make the mistake of thinking that the manner of implementation of the policy is the policy. Our broad strategic objective in Nepal is peace, stability and economic development. How you implement this policy, or if you are micromanaging things, or if you have a hands-off approach, or if individual egos come in, all that is irrelevant.
But doesn’t an image of India trying to micromanage things affect how India is seen here and thus also India’s overall objectives in Nepal?
One refrain I constantly hear in Nepal is that the two countries have very good political relations and it’s these bureaucrats and others who spoil things. It doesn’t work like that. India has a very robust and rigorous policy-making system, so individual whims and fancies do not influence policy in Nepal. This is what people of Nepal have to understand. It’s not one individual sitting in Lainchaur who is dictating what is to be done.
But perceptions are important. For instance there is a belief in Nepal that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in contrast with Manmohan Singh, has made an effort to engage Nepal.
That is your perception. What I would say is that the ‘neighborhood first’ policy and the many-many initiatives taken by our government, including the invitation for SAARC heads to attend the prime minister’s swearing-in, all these indicate a renewed focus in the neighborhood, and the primacy of the neighborhood in India’s overall foreign policy.
In your two years as ambassador in Nepal, what has been your reading of our constitutional process? Why have we not been able to come to a meeting point?
In any country as diverse as Nepal or India, there are bound to be different interests, there are bound to be different views. But all mature democracies resolve these issues through dialogue. Look at the Indian federal system. The demand for new states has come up in order to meet the regional aspirations or linguistic aspirations. So those aspirations have to be accommodated within the larger framework of the Indian union. So you can be a proud UP-wallah and a proud Indian at the same time and in any democratic system you provide this cushion. We all have multiple identities but all these identities are submerged in your national identity. That is the beauty of the democratic system and that is the kind of federal model we have in India. Your slogan, like our slogan, is unity in diversity. This is the spirit in which the matter has to be approached. I understand that it’s difficult to mould this diversity into unity. This is why these negotiations have been so prolonged and arduous. But you have to go through this process.
As you suggest, the diversity in Nepal makes it difficult to accommodate all voices. So do you consider recent developments in Nepal, both inside the Constituent Assembly and on the streets of Tarai, part of a natural process of arriving at the constitution of a diverse country?
Disagreements are a part of the natural process; violence is not. And nobody can condone violence. In fact, disagreements should not be allowed to go out of hand to an extent that they bring violence. Wisdom lies in trying to resolve these disagreements and I think that is what your leaders are trying to do.
One issue that made headlines in Nepal was Lipulekh. Have there been consultations between China, India and Nepal on this recently? Or is it a non-issue?
Of our 1,800-kilometer-plus border (with Nepal), 98 percent has already been agreed and the demarcation is more or less ready. But there are two major outstanding points on which no agreement has been reached, one is Narsahi-Susta and the other is Kalapani. The agreement between the two governments (Nepal and India) is that these issues have to be resolved at a higher level than the technical survey level. So this is not a new issue. The two governments have also agreed that we will establish a committee at the level of foreign secretary to address this issue. So there is already an existing mechanism to address this issue. That is the right forum to address it. Let’s discuss it within the existing mechanisms that we have. That is the most productive way to find solutions, and any other way is not really going to help.
We are ready to discuss all issues, whether it’s the border, or the 1950 treaty. We want to be completely transparent in our relationship and we want to explain to you the logic of our policy and where we are coming from and we expect the same from you. In a relationship as close as India and Nepal’s, there are bound to be issues on which we differ. You resolve it only by talking to each other.
When you are long gone from Nepal, say 10 or 15 years down the road, how would you like to picture Nepal?
I hope that Nepal will meet its objective of graduating from LDC status by 2022. That would be a great achievement, especially in the aftermath of this terrible earthquake. What really strikes me is the resilience of the Nepali people. Notwithstanding the great tragedy, they bounced back quickly. I believe adversity has made Nepal strong.