The entire world turned a blind eye during the blockade, which further disrupted Nepal’s earthquake-ravaged economy. The right of a sovereign country to survive was lost upon all big democracies. The outcome of Oli’s recent China visit should be seen in that light.
Nepal, Tibet and Bengal have seen sunnier days together. The trade routes connecting Lhasa, Kathmandu and Kolkata were akin to regional arteries facilitating the exchange of culture, commerce, and ideas. Nepal was an important player in the regional political power balance. This exchange of at least 2,000 years was disrupted when the British came to the subcontinent in the 18th century, and especially after the rise of China and India as independent – and nationalist – states about 60 years ago. All three regions were simultaneously relegated to lesser status.
Historically, Nepal’s identity has been that of a strong state, both able and proud. History has a sometimes cruel way of ignoring short-term alignments of months or years, and adjusting to its long-term tendencies. Many wonder what makes the Nepali people tick despite their hardships. It is only through history’s long strides that we can understand Nepal’s geography and the unique Nepali psyche.
Nepal struggled, but still maintained a dignified presence after the British came to the subcontinent. Recently, one giant neighbour to the South was complicit in an inhumane blockade on Nepal; and some agreements to facilitate trade and transport were made with another giant neighbour to the North. Following this, India was quick to play its familiar China card, in which New Delhi would use the Beijing bogeyman to convince Western powers and get its way in the neighbourhood. The joint statement after the India-EU summit in Brussels this week included a point that echoed India’s line on Nepal:
“[The two sides] also agreed on the need for a lasting and inclusive constitutional settlement in Nepal that will address the remaining Constitutional issues in a time bound manner, and promote political stability and economic growth.”
In a display of hitherto unfamiliar diplomatic confidence, the Nepali side took strong exception to the statement. But it is the background of the recent events that is of special significance.
Kailash, Kathmandu, Kolkata
A few months ago, researchers discovered clues pointing to the existence of an ancient silk route in the Tibetan region of Ngari. Findings suggest commercial activities going back at least 4,000 years. Many parts of Tibet and Nepal have remained unexplored. Their rich history remains hidden because of terrain and lack of research. Ngari was part of Nepal’s powerful Khas empire for a long time. Many parts of Nepal, including the western areas of Mustang, Kaligandaki valley, Jumla, and Dailekh had close relations and commercial exchange with Tibet. Several ancient structures outside Kathmandu have likely disappeared because of frequent earthquakes in the region, as well as by war or neglect. But the Kathmandu valley’s riches hint at how other commercial centres in Nepal would have fared.
Today, some are saying that Nepal’s trade with the north is impossible due to the high mountains and the long distance to the sea. They might need to adjust their watches. In the past, we lacked the technology to shorten geographic distance and connect places. But the same country in the past had a proper strategy and a lot of confidence. Ancient Nepalis knew how to make economic sense of their strategic geography and to distribute the dividends properly. Is it too much to expect modern Nepal to learn a bit from its own history?
Nepal was the leading exporter of products like textile, wool and tea in all of South Asia. The silk route and the maritime trade route transported products to Central Asia and Europe. Nepali coins were the official currency of trade in Tibet. Tibet’s only contact to the sea was through the Bay of Bengal and most major trade routes connecting Lhasa with the Bay of Bengal passed through Nepal.
China is a rising power today. There’s a big market to the south as well, in Nepal, and in India, if Nepal becomes a transit route. Even today, Nepal is Tibet’s largest trading partner. Tibet’s international trade has suffered following last year’s earthquake damage in Nepal. If one adds southern and western China to this mix, it is easy to see how a door of huge opportunity exists for Nepal to its northern border.
Nepal utilised similar opportunities in the past during the period of her historic prominence and prosperity. History could make a full circle in this geography, as the future trade routes linking Bengal and China could pass through Nepal, like they did in the past. The recent agreements made between Nepal and China regarding railways, transit, and power transmission lines in the north are very significant. Nepal was not able to take such firm diplomatic steps in the past 50-60 years. However to be able to cash in on the new possibilities, its capacity and economic volume need to grow too. The day Nepal starts behaving confidently like her historic self and getting her act together, the benefits of the new possibilities will not be far.
During Prime Minister K.P. Oli’s visit to Beijing, the two countries signalled stronger ties and cooperation. In contrast to Oli’s visit to India earlier this year, the feelers and the vibes were all around – both Nepal and China seem eager to embark on a new level of friendship, with Chinese President Xi Jinping even calling it “strategic”. If Nepal continues the momentum, acting firm and mature to protect her interests, the country’s historical position can be restored again.
Attempts to paint Nepal-China friendship as something that is against India’s interests should be discouraged. China will not want to appear as antagonising her other partners and Nepal should take care of such sensibilities. The resurgence of Nepal will benefit both of its neighbours, and Kathmandu should try to convince them of this. Nepal will need mature leadership, strategic planning and a homegrown commitment to move forward with her own interests in mind. Nepal’s resurgence will also be in the best interest of the entire pan-Himalayan region, from Tibet to the Bay of Bengal.
Blockade and the international community
To be sure, there will not be immediate wonders. The Nepali people have moved from villages to towns and all over the world to escape poor governance and tough times. After a decade lost to a civil war, and another spent over endless political squabbles during the constitution drafting, Nepal faced devastating earthquakes last year. Outside observers are often surprised by the level of resilience Nepali society has demonstrated in the face of economic hardships and prolonged political instability. Many comparable societies would descend to utter chaos, communal warfare or complete breakdown of social structure.
There are many on both the Indian and Nepali sides who actively cheer-led or maintained a mysterious silence during the half-year long blockade. Now they are saying that Nepal-China agreements are meaningless or only symbolic. It is understandable as their business was to sell the utility of the inhumane blockade; now that it has backfired they must be under pressure to justify their original selling points.
The entire western world turned a blind eye during the blockade, which further disrupted the earthquake-ravaged country’s economy. Great powers who often remind others of their moral obligation to liberal democratic values seemed not to be bothered by what was happening on the India-Nepal border. The right of a sovereign country to survive was lost upon all big democracies. The outcome of Oli’s recent China visit should be seen in that light.
Small countries all over Asia, the Middle East and Africa must have taken heed of this lesson from Nepal – that they need to fend for themselves. Powers-in-waiting, including China would be surely watching this with interest. Economies whose scales are not big enough to deter such blockades should drop any illusion that the international community will take a moral stance in their favour.
The Nepali reality
Over the past century, while almost all the hill states in our neighbourhood have ceased to exist or been made dependent on others, Nepal stood remains a viable country full of hope and dreams. Sadly, its leadership has failed to work on issues of economic prosperity, focusing only on political slogans. People feel betrayed and frustrated as a result. The recent blockade was the source of great stress for them. But it couldn’t defeat the harmony and unity among the people.
Nepal is not an artificial country and Nepali-ness is not an imaginary creation. The Nepali state and nationhood are the results of historical continuity, a sense of place, unique culture and way of life, and a tradition of endless struggle for survival. It will not simply disappear. After a long period of stagnation, there’s an opening once again to rekindle the Nepali dream of being an economic centre of the pan Himalayan geography and create a modern identity. The only natural result of this spirit is the resurgence of Nepal as a responsible member of the South Asian polity.
Bibek Paudel is a Nepali writer who comments on technology and the societies of Himalayan region