By Anil Chopra (3 October 2015) -India has been calling for an institutional course correction to address the grievances of the large Nepalese population, mostly ethnic Indians, who feel politically under-represented in the new document.
Erstwhile Hindu kingdom Nepal is sandwiched between two geo-political giants, China and India. Having given itself a ‘secular’ Constitution on 20 September after years of turmoil and strife, the country is today unsure if it is at a crossroad or being viewed through the crosshair.
The demand for a Constitution had begun way back in 1950. In a fractured polity, Maoists began a people’s war in 1996, but in 2006, the Seven Party Alliance led by GP Koirala and Maoists agreed on a ceasefire. The Constituent Assembly was set up in 2008. Getting political consensus among the 601 members and 25 parties dominated by caste and class was a tall order. An inclusive Constitution had to cater to concerns of all the ethnic nationalities and the political and social aspirations of the people. The powerful Nepal Army was traditionally loyal to the pro-India erstwhile Monarch. But the rise of China-backed Maoists who wanted to control all institutions and have a one-party rule, resulted in political fissures. Integration of their sympathisers in the Nepalese Army also became an issue. In view of the trust deficit, there was low consensus on core issues of federalism. The split was wide open.
Yet, Nepal accepted the new Constitution with a 507-25 vote. Madhesis, the Indian-origin inhabitants of the Terai plains bordering India, and some other smaller groups, are opposed to splitting Nepal into seven provinces and want larger states. India has been calling for an institutional course correction to address the grievances of the large Nepalese population, mostly ethnic Indians, who feel politically under-represented in the new document. Indo-Nepal ties witnessed unease even though a committee has been formed to initiate dialogue with groups agitating against the new Constitution. Protestors in Nepal have blocked all supplies entering Nepal from India, thus creating an acute shortage of food, fuel, medicines and other essential supplies. Violence has so far taken 45 lives.
For India, there are geo-strategic implications. Historically, the two Hindu majority states have had close relations. India and Nepal have a 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. A “special relationship” between the two countries grants the Nepalese the same economic and educational opportunities as Indian citizens in India. The Indo-Nepal border is open. Three million Nepalese cross over every day for jobs in India. India has been reportedly providing Nepal with military weapons free of cost. The Indian Army has many Regiments of the Nepalese Gurkhas. During the 1962 Sino-India war, Nepal maintained neutrality. The relationship thereafter thawed somewhat. Bilateral trade is around US$ 5.0 billion, mostly imports of essentials from India. However, sex trafficking is an issue with as many as 5,000-10,000 women and girls trafficked to India each year. Unfortunately for India, Nepal’s internal political situation and continued environment of distrust is limiting any strong mutual cooperation. Also India continues to be wary of the growing Sino-Nepal engagement.
Nepal’s northern neighbour, the ascending global power China, has been making political and economic inroads. In 1988, Nepal’s acquisition of Chinese weaponry was a departure from the normal. Lower cost was reportedly the decisive factor. Increasing dominance of Maoism and economic and political influence of China started making a wedge in ties with India. In 2008, PM Prachanda visited India only after visiting China, breaking a long tradition. The Maoist-led government conveyed its intentions to scrap Nepal’s 1950 treaty with India. Then in 2008, China began construction of a 770-kilometre railway, connecting Lhasa in Tibet with a Nepalese border town, thus connecting Nepal to China’s national railway network. Beijing’s bigger ambition is to use Nepal as a corridor connecting China to enter the huge markets in the Indian plains and de-stabilise security in the region with its military forwardness. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is also going to set up two mobile hospitals for the Nepalese Army. Beijing is pushing to displace India as the epicentre of Buddhism by promoting Nepal’s Lumbini as a Buddhist pilgrimage site.
The bilateral relations between Nepal and China are defined by Nepal’s policy of balancing the competing influence of China and India. Despite sharing its religious and cultural background with India, Nepal’s domestic politics have recently shown a sudden inclination towards Beijing as China is helping it reduce its considerable trade deficit. Nepalese military now receives substantial aid from Beijing. The recent Nepal earthquake saw both giants pulling out all cards to win over the local population through relief operations. PMNarendra Modi made a well-publicised visit to Nepal immediately after assuming office. However, Nepal was taken aback by India’s reaction to the new Constitution. On the other hand, China welcomed Nepal’s democratic process. An extended road blockade could force Nepal to seek essential supplies from China and complicate things further for India. Even though Beijing is still far behind New Delhi in terms of overall investment in Nepal, officials in Kathmandu have hinted that it will soon catch up. India has to watch the developments closely and calibrate a response.
The author is a retired Air Marshal of the Indian Air Force. This article has been originally published in dnaindia.com on 3 Oct 2015.