South Asia

Indian Diplomacy is Being Tested by Nepal's Realities Once Again

If Delhi fails to follow through on its declared policy of insisting Nepal make its constitution more inclusive, the relationship may slide back to the level of the 1980s when Kathmandu tried to counter every Indian overture with matching notes to Washington and Beijing.

Nepal's deputy prime minister and freign minister Kamal Thapa with India's external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj. Credit: PTI

Nepal’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Kamal Thapa with India’s external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj in New Delhi. Credit: PTI

Kathmandu: Last week, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement welcoming the decisions taken by the Nepalese cabinet “to address and resolve demands regarding the constitution raised by agitating Madhes-based parties.” Welcoming the decisions “as positive steps that help create the basis for a resolution of the current impasse in Nepal”, the Indian side urged “all Nepali political forces to now demonstrate the necessary maturity and flexibility to find a satisfactory solution to the Constitutional issues through constructive dialogue in an agreed timeframe.”

In a nod to Nepalese criticism of an “unofficial Indian blockade” of the country, the MEA – which has always denied any contribution by India to the evident disruption in border trade that is now into its third month – noted: “We are confident that a return to normalcy in Nepal would create a more secure and predictable climate for unimpeded commerce between our two countries.”

One week later, nothing on the ground has changed. Madhesi activists and leaders have dismissed the Nepalese cabinet decisions as a “drama” and have vowed to continue their agitation.

Which begs the question: Does India have a strategy to resolve the current impasse?

Proconsul, Resident, Viceroy

Among the dozens of diplomats who regularly whizz past serpentine queues of vehicles lining Kathmandu’s thoroughfares for their turn at designated petrol pumps, the limousines of the Chinese, Indian and American envoys never fail to attract attention. Unknown to them, they have acquired sobriquets that ambassadors can hope to get only in extremely insecure countries paranoid about their sovereignty.

After the Second World War, the ruling elite of Nepal began to consider the United States to be its possible patron and saviour, in place of the fast disintegrating British Empire. US envoys emerged as powerful players once Lyndon B. Johnson’s Ambassador-at-Large, Ellsworth Bunker married Ambassador Carol Laise in Kathmandu in January, 1967, and the hawk began to home into Kathmandu every month in a special aircraft after his tireless hunts in Vietnam.

Like provincial governors of ancient Rome, the US ambassador in Nepal is perceived to be a proconsul who can use imperial authority to bestow legitimacy upon the local elite. Ambassador Alaina B. Teplitz, the current envoy, is more circumspect than her predecessor Peter W. Bodde, but differences in personality don’t diminish the influence she exercises upon decision-makers of Nepal.

The Chinese like to maintain a low profile but seldom fail to have their way. Since the 1970s, Chinese envoys in Kathmandu have been playing a role similar to that of residents of the East India Company. Like his predecessors, China’s ambassador to Nepal, Wu Chuntai is a supportive friend, a considerate counsellor and a trustworthy guide to the ruling elite in Kathmandu. In addition to all that, perhaps he also considers himself to be the political agent of the new empire in a strategically located country.

Indian ambassador Ranjit Rae has the most unenviable role to play among all the three diplomatic heavyweights. Communists, communalists and chauvinists of all hues in Kathmandu decry the fact that the Indian envoy behaves like a viceroy exercising authority on behalf of the external sovereign in a colonial outpost. However, the same lot also expects him to resolve the political issues of Tarai-Madhes, solve problems along the Indo-Nepal border that have constricted supply lines into the country, and remain a sponsor of trips by government functionaries and social dignitaries to New Delhi.

United front of Hindutva and Communists

A career diplomat, Ambassador Rae dealt with the susceptibilities of the ruling elite of Kathmandu a decade ago when he looked after the Nepal desk in the Ministry of External Affairs. Since public opinion in India back then was strongly in favour of the republican aspirations of the people of Nepal, he faced little difficulty in preparing the ground for the 12-point understanding that was signed in Delhi between mainstream parliamentary parties and the Maoists under the aegis of Indian interlocutors in November, 2005. In a political conflict that involves Madhesis – the indigenous people of the southern flatlands of Terai-Madhes – Rae probably realises that he has little support for the Indian position in his home country.

The Communists of India have maintained fraternal relationships with their Nepalese comrades for over half-a-century. Sitaram Yechury played an important role in the mainstreaming of the Maoists and the CPI (M) has party-to-party relations with the CPN (UML) in Nepal. Little wonder, leftists in India have lumped Nepal into the basket of foreign policy failures of the BJP government. Communists of the world do unite internationally even when they fragment frequently on the home turf. Today, the Indian left stands with the strange coalition of monarchists and Maoists led by Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli.

The Hindutva forces of India – including the Viswa Hindu Parishad, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal and their political front presently in government in New Delhi – have always had very close ties with monarchists in Nepal. There has been no formal confirmation, but it is being rumoured in Kathmandu that the Hindutva lobby of India wanted Nepal to revert to being a Hindu kingdom by retaining some form of symbolic monarchy in its new constitution. This lobby resents the emergence of Madhes as a factor in what it had conceived in terms of a monarchist-Maoist binary. There is an apparent lack of enthusiasm among Hindutva elements for the diplomatic position of their own government.

Even though unofficial trade flourishes and the bazaars of Bihar bordering Nepal continue to do brisk business, commercial enterprises with sizeable stake in the Nepalese market are unhappy with blockages in supply lines. Trading houses of India have been campaigning against the policies of their own government through local agents, dealers and fixers in Kathmandu.

The ‘blockade’

India's man in Kathmandu, Ranjit Rae. Credit: YouTube

India’s man in Kathmandu, Ranjit Rae. Credit: YouTube

Liberals in  Delhi are understandably upset. Nepal had not yet begun to recover from the Gorkha earthquakes. Blockages have created severe shortages of petroleum products, construction material and other essentials in Kathmandu. The suffering of the people is real. So what if the ruling elite of Nepal wanted a constitution that sought to perpetuate their complete control over every organ of the state? The BJP government in New Delhi had no business interfering in the internal affairs of another country in the name of some godforsaken Madhesis. Or so seems to be the logic of the Indian intelligentsia that has been lampooning the “Himalayan Blunder” of the BJP government.

The intentions of intelligence and security agencies are never very clear, but a section of the establishment in Kathmandu believes that they have the goodwill of their Indian counterpart. It is their belief that the security agencies in New Delhi will be unwilling to risk jeopardising longstanding contacts just to humour some Madhesi politicos.

There is a reason Ambassador Rae appears apprehensive even when he aggressively defends the stand of his government in the Nepali media. Unlike the ‘proconsul’ and the ‘resident’ that speak through their strategically placed mouthpieces in the Kathmandu media and intelligentsia, the ‘viceroy’ has a position to take which lacks buy-in back home and buy-out in the assigned territory. It’s indeed difficult being a diplomat in a country with intimate cross-border relationships.

Ambassador Rae has been visibly approachable to the local media in recent days. He has been interviewed by newspaper editors, television talk-show hosts and radio presenters in quick succession. Last month, he even went to the extent of addressing rookie reporters at their popular haunt. However, the harder he tries to explain the Indian position, the more interfering an impression he ends up making.

Apologists of the exclusionary regime in Kathmandu have been using the term blockade – the act of sealing off a place to prevent goods or people from either entering or leaving a place – in a haphazard manner. Though vastly reduced in number, petrol tankers and container trucks have been entering Nepal through various entry points in the east and west of the country on a regular basis. Trucks freely move out of the country through most check-posts except Birgunj. There has been absolutely no known restriction upon movement of people through land or air between two countries. However, it would be stretching credulity a little too far to believe that protestors of the Joint Madhesi Front have been able to disrupt the normal flow of goods into Nepal completely on their own without any support from the Indian side.

The Indian intelligentsia will perhaps have to acknowledge that blockages at the border are a symptom of the strained relationship between the two countries rather than its cause. Without such a realisation, it will be very difficult for the Indian establishment to stay the course in Nepal and garner domestic and international support for its stand. It’s not necessary for everything to be made public, but complete secrecy is impossible in the age of the internet.

Madhes factor in history

Anti-India sentiment is not new in Kathmandu. It dates back to the Gorkhali warrior-king Prithvi who laid the foundation of the Shah Dynasty (1769–2008) through military conquests and counselled his successors to be wary of people from the plains. The suspicion deepened after the Anglo-Gorkha wars and subsequent Treaty of Sugauli in 1814-16 that established the ‘dominator-dominated’ relationship between the East India Company and the Gorkhali court. In the following years, the control of Terai flatlands beyond the Shivalik Hills passed from the East India Company to the court in Kathmandu, which reneged upon its promise of treating Madhesis fairly after receiving the bequest of these territories.

Indifferent to the plight of their own people, the courtiers of Kathmandu competed with each other in winning the trust of the East India Company. Court intrigues of the early-1840s culminating in the Kot Massacre of 1846, which saw the emergence of the Rana clan as de facto rulers of Nepal, further strengthened the role of the British Residency. Jang, the first Kunwar soldier to become Rana, won the trust of the East India Company by helping crush the Indian Rebellion of 1857 with his Gorkhali troops. The dominator-dominated relationship of the Sugauli Treaty turned into that of master-servant as British India bequeathed some territories of conquered Awadh as bakhshish to Jang for services rendered in the sack of Lucknow. After Prithvi, Jang became the second warrior-ruler to fan anti-Indian sentiments to strengthen his position in Kathmandu.

Giving continuity to Rana tradition, Chandra offered full support to the British in the First World War. Juddha did the same during the Second World War. The relationship of the Kathmandu court with British India had turned into one of client and patron by the time of Indian independence.

Among all the accords that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru designed to be signed with neighbouring countries in the 1950s, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship with Nepal was perhaps the most prudent. It sought to establish a protector-protectorate relationship without explicitly mentioning any such term in the actual agreement. Intensification of Cold War rivalry undermined the fundamental premise of the Friendship Treaty of 1950 — Indian consent for Nepal’s relationship with any other country — as Kathmandu began to reach out to the world.

After the flight of the Dalai Lama from Lhasa, the Indo-China border skirmishes, and the rise of the United States’s activities in Nepal, Beijing began to take keener interest in Nepalese affairs. Bolstered by their connections with Western powers on the one hand and Chinese back-up on the other, the rulers of Nepal began to downgrade the Indo-Nepal relationship to that of neighbourly friendship between equals. Even that started to sour when US-China rapprochement began and King Birendra said Nepal should be declared a ‘Zone of Peace’ in an indirect violation of provisions of the Friendship Treaty.

Undercurrents of anti-Indian sentiments have always been there in Kathmandu. After the 1970s, it was allowed to come out in the open and spread throughout Nepal. The independence of Bangladesh and the annexation of Sikkim fuelled the fire of xenophobia as India began to be portrayed as an expansionist power. Along with Premier Oli, at least five of his six deputy prime ministers in the cabinet cut their teeth in politics by shouting slogans against India and Indians in the street.

For the Permanent Establishment of the Nation (PEON) in Nepal, Madhesis have always been possible challengers to their hegemony. In order to keep the establishment in good humour, New Delhi too chose to ignore the concerns of Madhesis. It neither did much for the benefit of Madhesis nor allowed other international donors to step into what it considered to be  ‘sensitive territory’ along the Indo-Nepal border.

Nepal's prime minister, KP Oli, shakes hands with his predecessor, Sushil Koirala. Credit: PTI

Passing the Baton within the Establishment: Nepal’s prime minister, KP Oli, shakes hands with his predecessor, Sushil Koirala. Credit: PTI

It will be futile to expect that anti-India sentiments in Kathmandu will disappear with the passage of time. On the contrary, the PEON has been fanning fears of Indian aggression. Parliamentarians openly call for expulsion of the Indian envoy. Deputy prime ministers claim that Indians wants to dismember Nepal. At least two deputy prime ministers seem to have nothing else to do other than coin slogans against India. Even school children are fed anti-Indian rhetoric in state-sponsored protest programmes in Kathmandu. The Indian establishment has discovered once again that there is little appreciation of their role in helping to bring peace, stability and development in Nepal.

The diasporic Nepalese have been outspoken in anti-India protests in places as diverse as Sydney, London and Washington. The Lhotshampas (Nepali-speaking ethnics of Bhutan) carry a grudge against the Indian establishment, which did nothing to ameliorate their suffering when they were forcibly expelled from their homes and found shelter in the refugee camps of eastern Nepal. Lhotshampas are now scattered all over the world and are often more jingoistic than other Nepalese in denouncing Indians.

Madhesis and Indian policy

Sushma with Madhes leaders Dec 2015 pti

Sushma Swaraj with Madhes leaders in New Delhi, December 2015. Credit: PTI

There is a slight change in the PEON-India face-off in Nepal as compared to the 1970s and the 1980s in favour of New Delhi — the Madhesis. Over the last 25 years since the restoration of democracy in 1990, a critical mass of Madhesis have emerged inside as well as outside Nepal that considers India to be a natural ally in its fight for dignity, equality and justice.

There may not be any quid pro quo, but just as Madhesi protestors have given the Indian establishment convenient cover to advance its strategic interests in Nepal, the Joint Madhesi Front has benefited from overt or covert support from across the border in continuing its political struggles despite immense odds. However, lack of trust between the two isn’t too difficult to discern.

There is a reason protests are most effective in Birgunj, a city not too well known for progressive politics: It’s the only place outside of Kathmandu where there is a permanent Indian diplomatic mission.

Madhesis fear that Indians will dump their political agenda once it has achieved what it wants from the PEON in Kathmandu, which could be a stake in the control of water resources or priority rights in business and security contracts. The Indian establishment knows from experience — it was instrumental in breaking up Madhes-based parties in 2010 to build and bolster an anti-Maoist coalition through inducement and coercion — that not all leaders of the Madhesi movement are trustworthy. There is a reason protests are most effective in Birgunj, a city not too well known for progressive politics: It’s the only place outside of Kathmandu where there is a permanent Indian diplomatic mission.

There have been unconfirmed rumours of late that the Indian establishment is contemplating a change in its Nepal policy. Reportedly, Minister of External Affairs Sushma Swaraj has been impressed upon by the Hindutva and business lobby to make peace with the PEON instead of staying the course and seeking constitutional corrections to address Madhesi, Tharu and Janjati grievances. The fear of Beijing has no sell-by date in New Delhi and Sinophobes in South Block may have begun to wonder whether they have ended up ceding considerable space to the Chinese in Kathmandu. The PEON has done all it can to accentuate the longstanding rivalry by sending ministerial deputations to Beijing.

Why India must stay the course

A section in New Delhi also probably feels that the Madhes agitation isn’t going anywhere. Two constitutional amendment bills tabled in the parliament this week and a couple of promises are being bandied about as a face-saving formula. Such a proposal, however, negates everything that the Madhes movement has championed for four months.

It is hard to see how India can save face with a flimsy package that promises nothing and offers even less to address four core demands about citizenship, proportionate inclusion, population-based representation and demarcation of provincial boundaries based on previously agreed principles of dignity and viability. Anti-India sentiments have always been strong among PEON communities, New Delhi runs the risk of losing its influence in Tarai-Madhes as well by ignoring their concerns in any new deal in the name of diplomatic compulsions.

Should India manage to keep the trust of Madhesis, neighbourly relations between India and Nepal will grow towards familial ties in future. However, if New Delhi fails to follow through its declared policies of insisting that Nepal make its constitution more inclusive, there is a risk that the relationship will slide back to the level that existed in 1980s when Kathmandu tried to counter every overture from New Delhi with matching notes to Washington and Beijing.

Diplomacy in line with cultural affinities is a necessity rather than choice. Despite temporary setbacks, this is a reality that Kathmandu and New Delhi will have to keep in mind. History and society can change with time, but geography is destiny. India will need to be patient and keep trying to drill some sense into the short-sighted, self-serving and prejudiced permanent establishment of Nepal. There is no shirking of responsibility that comes with being one of the most powerful players in the domestic politics of a neighbouring country.

C.K. Lal is a journalist and political commentator from Nepal