India’s Hegemonic Policy in Nepal : A Failed Policy


By Rohit Karki – With a population of more than a billion, India has the responsibility to lift millions out of poverty. For this to happen, India’s overall foreign policy should be aimed at long-term peace and stability in the neighborhood and retaining ‘strategic autonomy’ in international and regional orders. New Delhi’s relations with many of its South Asian neighbors remain fraught, if not hostile. India’s ability to play a more engaged role on the global stage is contingent on its capacity for ensuring a modicum of stability in its relationships with sub-continental neighbors. The assumption, held by some sections in India, that India can bypass its pesky neighbors and focus on its wider aspirations does not hold up in light of its history over the past six decades. Stability in its ties with its South Asian neighbors remains a key geopolitical objective as stated by former Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stated that, ‘India will not be able to realize its own destiny without the partnership of its South Asian neighbours.’[1]

Given the geography and ethnic and linguistic overlap in the subcontinent, domestic politics both in India and its neighbors impinges upon efforts to stabilize their relationships. India tends to become a factor in the domestic politics of all the South Asian countries. Fear of, or antagonism toward, India has been used by politicians in South Asian countries to bolster their standing at home and Nepal’s case is no exception. The obverse of this is that India has had to pick its friends within these countries—a situation that complicates its dealings with these countries over time.

China’s growing economic, political, and security footprint in South Asia—Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh—complicates India’s dealings with these countries. India’s objectives vis-a-vis these (and other smaller countries) have been to reassure them politically, to hold out the prospect of deeper economic engagement, and to ensure that their internal politics and policies do not undermine India’s interests. China’s growing presence in these smaller countries offers them some leverage against India, which they have unsurprisingly sought to use. New Delhi needs to develop a strategy to counter this trend is widely understood. But the contours of such a strategy remain contested in India. Part of the problem stems from differences in assessing China’s aims in expanding its clout in the region. Is China seeking to develop strategic facilities in these countries—the so-called string of pearls—in order to militarily contain India? Or is it primarily aimed at securing access to raw materials and an opening to the Indian Ocean? Are these necessarily mutually exclusive? Is every form of Chinese engagement in these countries necessarily inimical to India’s interests? These questions are being debated in India with increasing urgency.[2]

But this much is clear: New Delhi’s ability to counter Chinese influence in South Asia is not just a function of what China wants to do, but also of what India can do. India needs, above all, to build its credibility in delivering on its promises and intentions. This is important not just to secure India’s interests in the region but also to ensure that it does not see itself as being locked in a zero-sum game with China in these countries. After all, India’s interests in South Asia do not stem from the fact of a growing Chinese presence. The economic content of India’s foreign and neighborhood policy has increased substantially over the last decade. However, the complex interdependencies being built up by the growing economic ties among the countries have not dispelled the fear of India in the neighborhood. Each country in the neighborhood has a domestic political constituency that is opposed to the idea of friendship with India. The perception of India as a bully and as a hegemonic power dominates the discourse. Indian interest in the neighborhood has been rather sporadic, driven either by critical internal developments in neighboring countries or the growing influence of some external power. [3] In the absence of any innovative measures, the existing problems encountered by India in the neighborhood may worsen, given the persisting antipathy towards India in almost every country in the region. Therefore, there is a need to evolve an overarching policy framework to guide India’s relationship with its neighbors.

After the independence, India’s relationship with Nepal is guided by the policy based on the foundation of 1950 treaty, which is perceived by many Nepalese that it has been based on an inequitable relationship.[4] Nepalese scholars argue that the new leaders of independent India were renewing an old British-Indian policy, prompted by India’s discomfort with the People’s Republic of China’s presence in Tibet in 1949 resulted in an interest in insulating South Asia from Chinese influence and bringing states like Nepal under India’s security perimeter.[5] The main concern for India, with regards to Nepal’s geostrategic location, is China’s increasing interest in Nepal, especially after China’s annexation of Tibet in 1951 (a perceived threat). Time and again, this issue has been raised by Indian strategic thinkers who believe Nepal acts as a ‘strategic Himalayan frontier’ against possible Chinese threat. The Chinese military buildup in Tibet adds fuel to this growing ‘perceived threat’ of that China might someday cross this frontier. This is the reason Indian security establishment has repeatedly advocated for offensive military buildup along India-China border region. The Indian government seems to have heeded the concerns and has started preparing for offensive military buildup in border with China to retaliate quickly in case of a conflict against China. Simultaneously, India is monitoring Chinese activities in Nepal and has been expressing its deep concerns on growing Chinese military and diplomatic activities in Nepal, especially after 2006.

India has a legitimate security concern in Nepal, beside its geo-strategic interests. These concerns relate to counterfeit Indian currency, international criminal organizations operating within Nepal, vulnerable international airport, insecure Indian investment, Maoist movement, and Islamist terrorism, amongst others (real threats). These concerns have been continually raised by Indian officials with their Nepali counterparts. India is troubled about Nepal becoming a potential smuggling and crime hub. The Nepal-India open border is a constant source of distress for Indian security establishment as it fears they might be exploited by anti-Indian elements. Additionally, Nepal’s weak and fragile domestic political situation cannot prevent or protect Indian interests effectively. This has provided further impetus for India to work with Nepal Police and Nepal Army directly. Nation-states intervene in other states to protect their core national interests. History suggests that such interventions are often militarily, but realistically, that is not possible at present considering Nepal’s geo-strategic location. However, preventive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and recently in Ukraine provide precedent that countries with diplomatic and military power can invade another country to protect their strategic interests.

This factor is not foreseen in Nepal; however, it cannot be completely ruled out in the future. The other way of protecting national interest is through non-military ways. It can be argued that this is the traditional mechanism India has been adopting in Nepal; the 1950 treaty, unabated flow of Indian aid, deep political ties, engagement with domestic political parties, media, academia, security sector, and business houses can be seen in this light. A country can use its diplomatic and economic leverages to protect its strategic interest. Similarly, India has used these non-military mechanisms to support its core national interests. It could be argued that part of Indian strategic design is to create a political regime in Nepal conducive to its strategic and security interest. Clearly, this is indicative of India’s hegemonic policy to address its perceived and real threats in Nepal.

However, direct or indirect interference in Nepal’s domestic political matter has had a negative impact on Nepal-India relationship. But India’s hegemonic policy has not born any fruit. Indian premier think-tanks and strategic thinkers have also realized off late that India’s policy has failed in its immediate neighborhood. Indian scholars have clearly articulated that the challenge India is likely to face in from its close neighborhood within the coming decade.[6] It poses a legitimate question: if India has a neighborhood policy at all. The India-Nepal bilateral relationship, as argued by  Nihar Nayak, that it is at its ‘lowest ebb due to anti-India sentiments in Nepal, in reaction to the perceived political interference by India.’[7] Furthermore, he argues that Nepalese media, civil society groups and academicians have been very critical of what they call ‘India’s micro-management’ in Nepal. This important policy suggestion accepts the failure of India’s Nepal policy. There is no doubt, as argued by Nayak, that there is a growing ‘anti-Indian sentiment’ in Nepal, which is ultimately going to harm Indian interests. In fact, ‘anti-Indian sentiment’ is a primary challenge in Nepal-India relations, and addressing and minimizing would be key to improving the bilateral ties. In light of this it would be wise for government of India to formulate a comprehensive and long-term Nepal policy.

There is no doubt that there is a temptation to micro-manage Nepali politics by India’s South block. However, shaping of perceptions should be an integral part of any new strategy that is being formulated by Indian government. Instead of playing favorites amongst the Nepalese political parties, India should engage with all of them and with other stakeholders, especially with the Nepalese strategic community and academia. There is growing realization within Indian think tanks and at the government level that India need to rethink on its Nepal policy. The Prime Minister Narendra Modi recent policy has heeded to this concerns and hence his foreign policy has prioritized ‘neighborhood first’ policy. He is determined to rethink India’s hegemonic policy in order to reduce the anti-Indian sentiment, thereby improving India’s ‘special’ relationship with Nepal. If he could applied this in practice in a good faith, significant changes in bilateral relation among India neighbors and especially with Nepal could be attained. However, it would be too soon to draw a conclusion on change in India’s foreign policy under Narendra Modi as evident by recent ‘Lipu-Lekh’ event and Nepal needs to remain vigilant and treat India’s foreign policy under its new Prime Minister cautiously.

[1]            Srinath Raghavan, ‘Stability in Southern Asia: India’s Perspective ‘ in Ashley J. Tellis and Sean Mirski (ed.), Crux of Asia: China, India and Emerging Global Order, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington, 2013.

[2]           Vijai K Nair, The Chinese Threat: An Indian Perspective, Jamestown Foundation.

[3]           Ashok K. Behuria, Smruti S. Pattanaik, and Arvind Gupta, ‘Does India Have a Neighbourhood Policy?’, vol. 36, no. 2 Strategic Analysis, 2012, pp. 239-42.

[4]                 See 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

[5]           Baral, ‘Nepal’s Security Policy and South Asian Regionalism’, p. 1209.

[6]           Nihar Nayak, ‘Issues and Concerns in India-Nepal Relations’ in Rumel Dahiya and Ashok K Behuria (ed), India’s Neighbourhood: Challenges in the Next Two Decades, Pentagon Security International, New Delhi, 2012.

[7]           Ibid, p. 142.

Rohit Karki is co-editor along with Dr. Yubaraj Sangroula of the book ‘Geo-Strategic Challenges for Nepal’s Foreign Policy and Way Forward’. He can  be contacted at [email protected]

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