Matrix of Indo-Nepal Relations, the SRS Conundrum: Sovereignty, Resources, Security

ssBy Shambhu Ram Simkhada–

With their usual “myopic misjudgment” Nepali and Indian politicians and officials managed to once more turn the magical roti and beti India-Nepal relation to a maddening mess of dhoti and topi confrontation. In the process they subjected the Nepali nation-state to one of the worst crisis in history, give the Nepali people and their sympathetic Indian brothers and sisters unbearable pain (clearly reflected in the anger against those blocking the Raxual-Birgunj border). What did both side gain from this, besides fulfilling some vested interests? How will the two sides now heal the relations and deal with the long term issues during the reported imminent visit of Prime Minister Oli  to India?

Ideas Deficit: The edifice of contemporary International Relations (IR) is built on the foundation of national interests, best expressed in state affairs by British scholar-statesman Benjamin Disraeli when he said “nations have no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests”. This idea was more clearly articulated by one of his illustrious successors Lord Palmerstone in the context of British Foreign Policy.

As two sovereign nation-states trying to protect-promote their national interests Nepal-India relations too are guided by this idea propounded long ago. But how should national interests be pursued in the context of profound changes taking place within each nation state and collectively the effects of globalization and regional integration forced by the dynamics of time and technology? When many problems affect the interests of several countries and can only be resolved with collective cooperation, harmonization of national interests with regional and global good has now become essential. This is particularly important for “the smaller and the weaker” in difficult geo-strategic space, at times of shifting global paradigms and power equations. Despite the dire need, high hope and much investment, no national think-tanks, regional structures or global super-structures have been able to make collective peace, dignity, security and prosperity for the whole of the human family work. So the 21st Century global village muddles through multiple crises.

Matrix of Indo-Nepal relations: Ideas deficit profoundly affect Nepal-India relations, two countries with vast asymmetry in size and power and yet intimate in many ways. Contrary to classical thinking permanent interests of both countries are best served by perennial peace and permanent friendship. Enmity does not fit in the matrix of Indo-Nepal relations. But why do Nepal’s desire for permanent peace and India’s demand of permanent friendship create controversy?

If understood well Indo-Nepal relations are magical from the perspective of classical IR, foreign policy and diplomacy. Nepal and India are linked by unalterable bonds of geography, history, culture, language, religion best characterized by the “roti and beti” (bread and bride) idea and the open border. Holy rivers flowing from Nepal to India symbolize the magical prospects of harnessing them into mega projects of drinking water, irrigation, hydro power, trade, transport, tourism, fishery, flood control  etc benefiting both sides.

Unless managed well Indo-Nepal relations can also be messy as often experienced in charges of micromanagement, problems of transit, cross border smuggling and security, flooding on one side and inundation on the other as well as natural resources use. What happens on one side affects the other. That is why neighborhood relations need to be handled as a priority and with sensitivity. When one side gets hurt the other feels the pain. So, both should never try to hurt the other.

That is why the present state of relations perplexes thinkers on both sides. How did India-Nepal relation deteriorate to the current maddening mess especially under Prime Minister Modi who had mesmerized Nepalese with the prospects of transforming relations to magical heights? What happened to his neighborhood first policy? Even more puzzling, why are some Indian friends, instrumental in Nepal’s current transition, now vilifying the majority political and ethnic communities of Nepal for trying to take the transition to its logical end?

India’s response to Nepal’s overdue constitution promulgated by the Constituent Assembly, itself a product of Indian inspiration and support, is also surprising. Whatever the problems in the new Constitution, Indian action in support of the minority Madheshi leadership, hurting the overwhelming majority of Nepalese is shortsighted and counter-productive. Many Indians themselves have been saying so and the Parliamentary debate reflected this. With such behavior complain of heightened anti-India feeling in Nepal is strange. In reality, even with so much suffering qualms of widespread anti-India sentiment or “tilt to the other side” are over exaggerated.

On the other side of this matrix, some Nepali politicians, intellectuals and media have always misjudged the nature of Nepali nation-state and significance of relations of independence, interdependence and dependence with India. Blind nationalism is the cousin of undue submission to external interests. The result of both is indignity to the people, weakening of society, division in the country and dissolution of the nation-state. This is geo-political reality and lesson of history.

As the more aggrieved party, Nepal’s leaders should have focused on resolving the problem through better political dialogue and more effective diplomacy. Ignoring the genuine grievances of the Madheshi people, anti-India rhetoric and attempt to internationalize the problem only escalated Nepal’s internal Madhesh problem and the Roti and Beti relations into a Topi and Dhoti issue. This is not in the interest of both countries and certainly not the desire and in the interest of people on both sides. In such a context, Indian punitive actions and the baffling behavior of the Nepalese leaders escalating the problem rather than trying to resolve it quickly can only be explained as motivated by vested interests or make Nepalese realize how vulnerable, option-less and dependant they are.

Crisis, Pain, Heal and Deal: The current crisis can best be explained and way forward pursued by better comprehension of the four letters.

  • Nepal today is facing the most serious crisis in its history. Mishandling it could also change Nepal’s geography.
  • The longer the crisis continues more painful it will be for the Nepalese. This situation has also exposed the crisis of current Nepali scholarship, leadership and diplomacy.
  • The national crisis and people’s pain can only be relieved by healing relations with India. Nepal must move swiftly with serious dialogue at home to resolve the Tarai-Madhesh problem but also activate all channels of communication severed after the fateful visit of Indian Foreign Secretary Jaishankar as the envoy of PM Modi.
  • Counter-productive actions of some Nepali leaders firing “verbal bullets” against India-PM Modi and dangling unrealistic “cards” have now subsided. Nepali intellectuals and media too must help in the healing process.
  • The current crisis is affecting Nepal more and the pain is felt mostly by Nepalese. But it also hurts long term Indian interests. Obstruction of essential supplies has touched the Nepalese deep pushing “friends of India” to a corner and given a louder voice to those who see “the India hand” in all problems. The world may not criticize directly but international public opinion could not be blind on India’s use of national power towards its smaller neighbors.
  • Ultimately, India and Nepal must move beyond the current crisis and deal with the SRS Conundrum – Nepal’s pre-occupation with Sovereignty, viable strategy for utilization of Nepal’s natural Resources, especially water, based on principles of efficiency, ability, fairness and mutuality of benefits and Indian concerns of S

Combining knowledge and experience with wisdom and imagination is essential to decode the matrix of Indo-Nepal relations and deal with the SRS Conundrum. Swiftly resolving the current crisis is the essential first step. Learning from the messy experiences of the past work should then focus on the fruits of the magical relationship in the future.

Celebration of 67th Republic Day signals the maturity of Indian democracy. In these seven decades India has achieved a lot internally and in external relations. This should give India the confidence to build on its strengths but also courage to reflect on what need course correction. Relation with Nepal is one area needing deeper reflection.

For a win-win template of inter-state relations for the 21st Century with mega models of mutual cooperation not just for the benefit of Nepal and India but also contributing to peace, security and prosperity in South Asia and the world, can scholarship, leadership and diplomacy on both sides think beyond Sikkim, Bangladesh and Bhutan? PM Modi should reignite the mental lamp “man ka ujjyala” which he once sparked, by leading the short term healing and dealing with the issues for the longer term, starting from Oli’s visit.

(Writer is a Nepali diplomat. He can be contacted at [email protected])

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