Nepal-India relations; some musings


Gopal Bahadur Thapa

By Gopal Thapa (KATHMANDU, October 6)-  Once again, Nepal-India relations are going through uneasy times, for no apparent and credible reasons.  Once again, Nepal is smarting under the unjustified obstructions of the movements of Nepal-bound goods and Petroleum products on several Nepal-India border points, apparently under inststructions from Indian establishment. When rest of the world welcomed the promulgation of the Constitution, in Nepal,   the magnanimous Modi’s India failed to rise the occasion and show its magnanimity.  India, the largest democracy of the world and one of the closest of Nepal’s neighbors chose to show  cold shoulder on  the  constitution, which came into fruition largely through its constant prodding and encouragement. Nepal is still trying to come to terms with such an unexpected and sweeping negative response!  How did such a colossal misunderstanding occur, when leaders of both countries were seemingly in constant touch to remain abreast of the ongoing constitution drafting and promulgation processes?

Causes

There may be many more underlying causes for these unfortunate developments than what appear on the surface. First, India’s request to postpone the voting process on the Constitution for a few days was refused. Even within and among influential political party members in Nepal, and also in the Nepali media, there was suggestion for postponement of the voting process for a few days.  Then again, as a last ditch effort, Indian Foreign Secretary visited   Kathmandu with a special request for a deferral on the promulgation date for a few days.  Ultimately, when things didn’t go India’s way, India unnecessarily felt miffed and humiliated.  Secondly, both sides failed to place discreet diplomacy on the frontline from the beginning. Nepal, too, failed to sufficiently mobilize its diplomatic presence in New Delhi to sensitize and inform Indian establishment well in time about the many good elements in the new Constitution. Within the country, the misleading information against the Government and the Constitution   which the disgruntled groups spread in the Terai -Madhesh were not countered by the Government in time.  Neither did our leaders, CA members and ministers care to visit the trouble-torn places to reach out to the people, after the people and the security personnel were killed. Such a callous approach further embittered the Terai-Madhesh people.  Meanwhile, violence began to escalate across Terai – Madhesh, and so also did India’s fear of it spilling across the border. As a result, the movement of goods and petroleum products from the Indian borders to Nepal were stopped and continue to-date, by Indian authorities, citing security reasons. However, the hardened attitude of the Indian establishment to end the deadlock, leads one to suspect that the misunderstandings are  much  deeper  and the  issues  involved  graver than what have been surmised.

Possible actors

Many Nepalese intellectuals think Indian diplomacy in Nepal is marked by elements of contradictions and confusions. Indian political leaders, bureaucrats and diplomats have been consistently found showing Nepal their twin faces, the public and the private one. In the public, they are smart to apply all the available sweet qualifiers that can best describe Nepal-India relations. Their conduct in private, however, has always failed to conform to what they say in the public. There are several examples, which may sound bland to cite them again. I would, therefore, refrain from being repetitive. One of the two constant actors believed to have held up Nepal-India relations graduating from the more than six decades of mistrust and apprehension has been such biased political leaders and the Indian bureaucracy, or Indian Establishment. The Indian establishment, in particular, continues to operate under the colonial mindset and hangover as far as their dealings with Nepal are concerned. The aspirations and expectations of the Nepalese people have never found true resonance, let alone favor.  Large-heartedness, tolerance and understanding are nowhere to be seen on the part of India, commensurate with its size. No wonder, late Jawaharlal Nehru, in his autobiography advises India to rise above its “Baniyagiri” mentality to be able to exercise its influence internationally!
Bureaucrats comprised of the Indian establishment and their attitudes have always been one of   intolerance, arrogance and overbearing toward any of its South Asian neighbors that wish to dare to exhibit independent thinking.  Skilled in diplomatic sophistry, these officials in the case of Nepal, when confronted, often have instant and one common response: A peaceful, prosperous and stable Nepal is always in India’s interest. What polity and form of government is good for Nepal, it is up to the people of Nepal to decide upon. But when seen in application, these promises end up becoming a mere lip service. Unfortunately, methods of workings of political of parties that come to power are slowly influenced by the advices of the wily bureaucrats. Clearly, in all these years, India’s arrogant and overbearing attitude in the conduct of its neighborhood policy has witnessed very little changes in all these years, regardless of change in government. The unilateral, unjustified and undeclared imposition of economic blockades upon Nepal in the past and the current undeclared blockade stand testimony to this overbearing conduct. Gestures of   Prime Minister Modi, in the beginning gave, in vain, the impression that he wanted to make a departure. The sudden stoppage of the movement of goods and Petroleum products from the Indian borders, which is ongoing now, has amply proven the point. This step is  seen by many nothing but the continuity of the punitive actions Indian establishment has always taken resort to as a punishment for Nepal, when things didn’t go their way. Nepal has been made to suffer this time round, for promulgating the constitution, apparently against India’s interest and instructions. Soon after the devastation of earthquakes, the poor Nepalese people have been made to suffer yet other inexplicable hardships, thanks to the magnanimity of PM Modi and the Indian establishment under him. Nothing can be more ironical than “an old democracy inflicting these hardships upon a new and fledgling democracy” trying to follow on the political system the former one has taken!

 The second actors are our hyper-active political leaders and highly politicized bureaucracy. Many of our political leaders in power are intellectually pauper and morally depraved and most of our senior bureaucrats enjoy working at their beck and call.  Praising India to the sky when things are favorable to them and condemning it when they lose favor has been the hallmark of our politicians, since the post-90 periods to-date. Their inability to rise above their personal interests and lack of a bold and informed engagement with India is also one of the principal factors. In private, most of our political leaders have been found more than willing to rub soldier with Indian diplomats seeking their favors, which make them morally weak and incapable of  bold decision in a moment of truth, such as the one now, showing courage of conviction,. For the last several years, Nepal remained like a house divided; characterized, as it was by prolonged political instability and constantly bickering and genuflecting politicians. This kind of unsettling political ambience in any country would provide a fertile ground for foreign meddling.

Dilemma

Nepal- India relations, just like now, have always alternated between high and low periods.   Our relations, because of their extensive and intensive characters, have had worst of times and best of times, if I may borrow the phrase from Charles Dickens-the famous 17th century, British novelist. India’s contributions to Nepal’s socio-economic development, including ushering in democracy are indeed immense. But it has to share equal blame for undoing the democratic process from taking roots.  This is mainly due to its dual character, that is saying one thing and meaning the opposite, there is as much bitterness and mistrust as the goodwill amongst the Nepalese people for India. This perhaps is one of the profound dilemmas of our bilateral relations. For this scribe too, having served for more than three decades in the Foreign Ministry and having had the opportunity of close interaction with the Indian diplomats in the Ministry, at the various bilateral meetings and negotiations and on assignments at our diplomatic missions abroad, understanding the India-Nepal relations in their true scope, meaning and   intensity has always been one of the biggest dilemmas. My mind always hovered between the two current of thoughts; is India our true and well-meaning friend as it always makes out to be outwardly, or does India want a Nepal of perpetual instability and volatility for it to hold its footage firmly on it? If India were genuinely committed to the promotion of peace, stability, democracy and prosperity of Nepal, which is also in its own larger interest then why has democracy been throttled time and again; including this time? Why do peace and stability and economic prosperity continue to remain a distant dream in Nepal in spite of tremendous goodwill and enormous amount of assistance that India has poured in Nepal’s overall development?

 Obsessions for multiple power centers

The current general public perceptions are that the dilemma of our bilateral relations began from the period of 1950 and gradually deepened as we moved on. The 1950 revolution put paid to the Rana oligarchy and democracy was ushered in Nepal. True, India’s role then was important   in facilitating Nepal’s maiden journey towards democracy.  It was hoped that Nepal would now march slowly but steadily toward the path of democracy, peace and progress with the help and cooperation of democratic India. But those hopes were belied soon. Contrary to the contemporary hope, the period that followed was one of uncertainty as far as democracy strengthening efforts were concerned.  In this context, the general public perceptions seem gravitating mainly towards these points; while the past Imperial power in India chose political stability and one regime as its preferred option, the post- independent India’s predilection appears for the opposite. The post-independence Indian establishment and its actions seem to confirm that  application of  the policy of  “controlled instability” in Nepal by  creating “multiple power centers” as one of the viable options to make Nepal dance to its tune, as and when required. One may call it the duplicity of the famous “divide and rule” policy that the British applied in India.  The present Indian establishment has been trying to faithfully walk through the same policy it has so loyally borrowed from the then British rulers in India. India is now an independent country, but the mindset of its bureaucracy or Indian establishment still continues to carry the legacy of its colonial masters! Late B.P Koirala’s intellectual vision and sharpness, his fierce nationalistic views and independent thinking and his outspokenness could never be palatable for Indian leaders and bureaucracy. He stood shoulder to shoulder with the contemporary Indian leaders intellectually and in political wisdom and thinking. He possessed in-depth and informed knowledge of the intricacies of Nepal- India relations, India’s genuine national interests, including also how best to promote and preserve Nepal’s independence as one of the closest neighbors of India. But what he resented the most was India’s penchant for gratuitously poking its nose into Nepal’s domestic issues, which he never was afraid of telling straightaway to any of the Indian leaders, including Nehru. In retrospect, perhaps no other political leaders in power are found to have similar guts and grits to those of B.P to talk straight to their Indian counterparts. Little wonder, therefore, he could never be the first choice for India to lead the post-50 democratic Nepal.

Critical thinking

The world has changed beyond recognition since 1990. The advent of internet, free flow of capital, knowledge and goods have empowered people from the rich and the poor countries alike. Knowledge has now not been the exclusive prerogatives of a select few from the affluent classes as was the case some decades back, be it in India or in Nepal. With the benefit of quality education, more and more of our younger generations have now been able to understand and interpret the value of democracy, equality, and individual freedom.  There is a saying” knowledge is nobody’s monopoly. Education facilitates empowerment. Quality education both empowers individuals and enlightens their minds.   It empowers one with the ability of critical thinking and forming ones opinion based on sound reasoning and logics.   The new generations armed with these critical thinking and analytical abilities have been closely observing and interpreting Nepal-India relations in terms of their merits and benefits for both countries. Consequently, general perceptions that India is Nepal’s closest friend, a friend that has always stood by Nepal’s side in troubled times are changing gradually. Similarly, the many similarities in culture, religion and way of life long regarded as strength of enduring natures in our relations are also slowly coming into critical examination. The inhuman, abrasive and arrogant conduct that the Indian establishment displayed, this time toward Nepal may have serious implications for the young and thinking generations in Nepal, who regard sovereign equality and mutual respect as the corner stone of international relations. They held India’s conduct toward Nepal this time round runs directly counter to those established international relations norms. I think the setting into motion of   this “critical thinking process” among our young and intellectual people to make an objective inquiry into our bilateral relations is very time-suited and it will ultimately prove to be in the best interest of both countries.

Conclusion

The present crisis may hopefully be over sooner than later. Nevertheless, whether we like it or not, India will continue to exercise its influence on Nepal, because of its size, growing economic and regional clout and also in the context of its vital national interest protection needs.  We have already suffered enough from the consequences of over economic dependence on India. It is high time we learnt a lesson from these repetitive punitive Indian actions. We must, therefore, think of, and work seriously towards, building viable alternative routes to economic self-reliance as an utmost national priority. Works on hydropower generation must be expedited. Greater connectivity with our another neighbor, China, through developing more overland infrastructure networks on our northern borders must also be one of our top priorities in the future, to minimize dependency on India.  In the meantime, our ability would also lie in understanding, India’s vital national interest and managing and balancing our bilateral relations in such a manner that we are able to win their confidence while protecting and promoting our   own national interest through the display of credible and consistent behavior.  For this, we must place our Diplomacy on the front.  Indian political leaders and the bureaucracy, on the other hand, need to discard their overbearing conduct, while dealing with Nepal. In his book, “The New International Politics of South Asia”, Mr. Vernon Hewitt, experts on South Asian issues rightly says, “The one dimensionality of Indian claims to regional and global power -an influence based on military capability and economic power-is a curious inversion of the Nehruvian view inherited at independence that influence was to be conveyed through diplomacy and high morals.” True to the “Nehruvian spirit”, India must display a high level of diplomatic honesty and sincerity in the conduct of its bilateral relations with Nepal. Therefore, the sooner  Indian establishment  under Prime Minister Modi puts an end to the difficulties created in Nepal, the better it is for both countries. The longer it is dragged, the more harm it will cause to Nepal-India relations. Internationally,too, it may dent into India’s aspirations and efforts  for building a global power image!

Thapa is Nepal’s Former Chief of Protocal.

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