Lead

Letting Nepal be

It is time for New Delhi to decide to what extent it is in the interest of India to deepen its intervention in the political affairs of Nepal. There is much to do bilaterally on the environmental, cultural, economic fronts, and the dangers of keeping Nepal constantly insecure and on the boil open up the possibility of societal instability leaching to adjacent Indian States.

One doubts whether New Delhi think tanks have considered the economic impact >political stability in Nepal would have on the dispossessed northern regions of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. The open border creates such an interconnected sociocultural web that a stable and prosperous Nepal will be a catalyst for this region. The weakness of Nepal Studies in Indian academia is astounding, and can only be the result of overwhelming preoccupation with geopolitics, with little interest in the welfare of India’s own peripheral populations.

The attention of South Block seems focused entirely on ‘correcting’ Nepal’s new Constitution through amendments, mainly relating to the configuration of federal units. Given the lack of active interest amongst Indian politicians, academia and civil society, the field has been left open for diplomats and intelligence operatives to determine the course of action, the latter having enjoyed increasing leeway in Kathmandu over the past decade.

The level of interference claimed by the writer is confirmed by authors and analysts celebrated in New Delhi circles, but there has been no pullback perhaps because of an unspoken acknowledgement of India’s ‘right’ to intervene in the neighbourhood.

Micro-meddling

Few independent observers in Kathmandu (or New Delhi, for that matter) would doubt that Indian interlocutors had a hand in the cobbling together of the present coalition government of the Maoists and Nepali Congress, headed by the Maoist Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’. The government of K.P. Oli had aroused displeasure in New Delhi corridors for standing up to the economic blockade and signing trade and transit agreements with Beijing (themselves made possible by the economic blockade).

Despite all this, the visit of Prime Minister Dahal to India is important to get the relationship back on track after the train wreck of the past year. His Cabinet is also well-placed to hold out an olive branch to the irate ‘Madhesbaadi’ politicians, whose participation is needed for a stable polity.

New Delhi must now internalise the lessons from its unfettered show of displeasure regarding Nepal’s adoption of the Constitution of 2015, by a Constituent Assembly elected through democratic, representative elections. Meanwhile, the larger Indian polity must pay heed to the fallout of micro-meddling on Nepal.

There was a time when Nepal’s polity was supported at the highest level in India because of the respect and clout of top-rung political leaders who had fought for Indian independence alongside Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad et al. The last of these statesmen was G.P. Koirala, after whose passing in 2010 Nepal’s governance came under the influence of little men willing to kowtow even to junior personnel at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, or any passer-by who claimed to speak for ‘India’.

Kathmandu’s politicos are the primary culprits for this erosion of the bilateral relationship, and their inability to stand up to pressure has been well-exposed. There is also not a little confusion in Kathmandu as to who speaks for ‘India’ besides South Block — the intelligence operatives, the Bharatiya Janata Party/Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, assorted godmen, and so on.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) will hopefully deepen its own study of Nepal. An understanding of the geography, demography, economy, the democratic urge of the citizenry, as well as the history of the oldest and non-colonised nation-state of South Asia makes Nepal (comparatively) a different kind of country within South Asia.

For now, MEA-India’s focus seems exclusively geo-strategic, to do with ‘controlling’ Nepal and its natural resources and countenancing China across the Himalayan range. This exclusive preoccupation must be reviewed because of the transformed ground realities where much has changed in terms of aspirations and access to information on all sides.

Geophysical sensitivity

The transforming economy, terrain and geopolitics of the central Himalaya demand an evolved doctrine of engagement with Nepal, even for India’s own self-interest. A new world is beckoning, far different from when India’s doctrine on the Himalayan rimland was encoded in the early 1960s.

Environmental stresses have increased right along the Himalayan chain over the past half century, and human intervention is drastic, as seen in the violence done to the Teesta’s flow in Sikkim or the madness in the construction of hill roads in Nepal. The entire Himalaya and the plains of the Ganga make up one ecosystem, requiring geophysical even more than geopolitical sensitivity.

Certainly, it will not do for South Block to act like an imperial directorate on Nepal, foisting a uniform and unchanging vision of Himalayan security. It is past time for New Delhi’s commentariat to get over the perfunctory tags of who is ‘pro-Indian’ and ‘pro-Chinese’, a simplistic formulation which hurts only oneself vis-à-vis the need for nuance in international relations.

At a time when the railway has arrived on the Tibetan plateau, there is no need to deny Nepal’s need to ease its landlocked-ness by extending highway connectivity northwards — especially when the Indian economy itself stands to benefit.

Terai-Madhes fixation

But as Mr. Dahal arrives, the main focus of the Indian authorities is disappointingly narrowed down to amendments to the new Constitution, mainly having to do with altering the demarcation of the announced seven provinces to make them more plains-oriented and stretching east-west from end-to-end. Whereas this is purportedly at the behest of ‘Madhesbaadi’ politicians, it is not at all clear that this will benefit Nepal’s Madhesi people of plains origin and whether the demographic make-up of the Terai-Madhes plains will allow the proposed reconfiguration.

Since the Indian interlocutors are so openly pushing the amendment agenda, almost as if to teach Kathmandu a lesson, let them consider that the final formula must perforce benefit the Terai-Madhes plains, where there is both density of population and concentration of poverty. The Madhesi people, citizens suffering historical discrimination at the hands of the Kathmandu state, should not be penalised by geopolitics and the all-too-evident weaknesses of the Nepali national leadership.

Tourism-without-borders

There are myriad other pressing issues beyond constitutional amendment where the Nepal-India relationship is presently wedged. Vitally, there is the need to plan cross-border linkages and projects related to natural resources — whether and what kind of dams and reservoirs are to be built; evaluating embankments along the main rivers for the silt they trap; the environmental dangers to both sides from excavation of the Chure (Shivalik) hills to feed India’s need for rocks and boulders; or the meaning of receding glaciers (mainly the result of the South Asian ‘brown cloud’) for the entire downstream region.

Nepal and India need to discuss regulating the open bilateral border without compromising its status as the most ‘naturally evolved’ frontier of the region. Kathmandu needs to consider social security of the uncounted but more than three million Nepali citizens working in India, while New Delhi must address the vulnerabilities of Indian citizens of Nepali origin, as well as Indians working north of the border. How will the introduction of biometric ID cards in India impact the status of Nepali citizens working legally under the umbrella of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, and can Nepal’s own upcoming national ID card help in the managing the movement of citizenry?

From public health to shared economic growth, promoting tourism-without-borders to developing mutual academic depth, Nepal and India must work as one. But the future cannot be built by ‘controlling’ Nepal through planned build-up of a pliant political class in Kathmandu.

There has to be a rebuilding of empathy and trust between the two governments, which must start by rolling back the hyper-activism of the bureaucracy and rebuilding of relationships between the politicians of two sides. Despite his problematic past, Prime Minister Dahal must be perceived as a representative of Nepal’s polity rather than a leader in trouble with vulnerabilities to be exploited.

Nepal is hardly a paragon nation-state, and historical prejudices and inequities have percolated down to the present. But one daresay that Nepal should be allowed to make and learn from its own errors rather than evolve as a client state that will forever be a canker on the side of India. Nepal must move on, starting with local government elections in the spring (they have not happened for 18 years), which will also indicate the start of the Constitution’s actual implementation.

It should be in India’s interest to leave Nepal free to sort out its own challenges. It would also help if New Delhi would consider the need for economic growth in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar when it sits down to strategise on Nepal.

Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.

Related Topics