By Mukunda Raj Kattel (KATHMANDU, 9 June 2020) – India-Nepal relations are again at the lowest ebb. The latest downturn curve began on 8 May, when India’s Ministry of Defence inaugurated a road connecting Dharchula of Pithoragarh to Kailash Mansarovar of Tibet through Nepal’s Kalapani area, including Lipulek. This was India’s second breach of the border status quo that Nepal and India have reportedly agreed not to alter until a negotiated settlement is worked out in relation to a few disputed areas. The Kalapani area is one of them. The first breach had occurred six months ago, in early November 2019, when India published its map including the disputed Kalapani area in its territory in violation of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty that delineates borders between India and Nepal.
The encroachment of Nepal’s territory follows hard on the heels of the four-and-a-half-month blockade along Indo-Nepal in the south in 2015-16. The blockade cut off all essential supplies, including basic medicines and construction materials that Nepal was in dire need of to reconstruct communities ravaged by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake – and hundreds of its aftershocks – six months earlier. India officially denied having a hand in the blockade. However, the official version found little resonance among the people, who had to live with the blockade’s ugliest impact day in and day out.
Four years down the line, the encroachment saga unfolds contrary to bilateral commitments to the respect for the status quo and negotiated settlement. India’s lack of interest in dialogue is evident by its persistent delay in releasing the report prepared by the bilateral Eminent Persons Group (EPG). The EPG is believed to have reviewed all disputed issues and recommended resolutions that can arguably reset India-Nepal relations.
However, the Indian leadership has shied away from dialogue and taken the missteps one after another despite Nepal’s repeated requests for a negotiated settlement. Why?
It is hard to demystify this vexing question. A possible explanation can be the policy paralysis besetting the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. As soon as Mr Modi took an oath of office in 2014, he tried to give the impression that his neighbourhood policy would he different from the Nehruvian architecture crafted in the 1950s. He called it ‘neighborhood first’ policy. However, in effect, he ended up exacerbating what was in place. Let’s see it in a context.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the incumbent prime minister and the policy architect of independent India, laid out his policy on Nepal, on 6 December 1950, while initiating a debate on foreign affairs in parliament. “From time immemorial,” said Nehru “the Himalayas have provided us with a magnificent frontier [which] we cannot allow to be penetrated because it is also the principal barrier to India … much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened…”
In this Nehruvian interpretation, Nepal’s sovereignty is qualified, not absolute. It is dependent on India’s satisfaction that there is no security threat from beyond the Himalayas.
Historical occurrences, they say, should be interpreted in the context they have occurred and not be judged with hindsight biases. Nehru surely had numerous domestic challenges to fix. He had to undo colonial legacies, including the aftermath of partition, and settle India’s geopolitical concerns. Some of the policies he advocated might have been dictated by the exigencies of the day. However, the Indian exceptionalism that Nehru institutionalised has become the norm of India’s foreign policy in the region.
With the rise of VP Singh and Chandra Shekhar in late 1980s and early 1990s, Indian establishment seems to have felt the need for recasting the policy. However, it was IK Gujral, the 12th Prime Minister of India, who gave a push to the policy shift with ‘non-interference,’ ‘respect for a country’s territorial integrity’ and ‘bilateral negotiations’ being underlying features of inter-state relations in the region. The ‘Gujral Doctrine,’ as some observers call it, could not find practical expression as Gujral’s tenure was short-lived. However, he left his mark on subsequent prime ministers, particularly on Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, as seen in their inclination towards accommodative politics on matters of regional concerns.
The tide of change has completely reversed with Mr. Modi’s ascendency. Instead of Gujral, with whom his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy would resonate, he tried to emulate Nehru of the 1950s. However, unlike Nehru’s persuasive reasoning and critical engagement, which would help demystify nuances and clear out confusions, Modi has preferred to talk through proxies. On May 15, he did so through General Manoj Mukund Naravane, the chief of the Indian Army, who reduced the historical agony of Nepali people to a China-triggered ploy against India. “Being nice does not pay,” writes Sushant Sareen of the Observer Research Foundation, a premier Indian think tank, and advises India to “bare her fangs if she wants to remain relevant in Nepal.” Modi’s tolerance of such expressions suggest that he wants to ensure what psychologists call as ‘fear frozen compliance,’ a state in which one gives up rational arguments and surrenders to fear.
Nepal of 2020 is not the Nepal of 1950. We are a free nation in its fullest sense. We are sovereign-equal with any other nation in the world, not to speak of South Asia. And, we are a democracy that believes in – and lives by – the power of evidences, reasons and ideas.
Colonialism has bequeathed the legacy of ‘divide and rule’ to the region. Nepal was not a colony, but could not remain untouched of its influence. It is incumbent upon us all in South Asia to untangle the colonial legacy and right the wrongs imposed on us. As the largest country in the region, which also prides to be the largest democracy, India is expected to take a lead on this front. Leadership, put simply, is dialogical conversation. It is the ability to listen to differing voices and responding to the nuances as critically as possible.
The ‘neighbourhood first’ policy – if it is not just a hyperbole – can still be revived and recast to mean what it appears to mean. It requires turning to the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ and espousing its undercurrent principles of ‘bilateral negotiations,’ ‘non-interference’ and ‘territorial integrity’ in relation to inter-state engagement in the region.
Prime Minister Modi has an opportunity to leave a mark, as did IK Gujral.
(A PhD on human rights and peace, Kattel is a human rights professional who writes on political and social issues.) This article first appeared in The Rising Nepal.