Nepal, India and South Asia

From The Kathmandu Post (21 June, 2013)

Sovereign societies should not allow foreign powers to get involved in internal matters; it can be all downhill if you don’t watch out

A month ago, accessing old South Asian catalogues at the British Library in London, I called up a copy of the 1923 treaty between the governments of Great Britain and Nepal. At a time when Nepal has been made geopolitically the weakest in its entire modern era, perhaps I was looking for reassurance on the nature, depth and resilience of Nepal’s sovereignty, to also try and explain it in the context of evolving South Asian regionalism.

The country finds itself at a moment of de jure sovereignty and de facto subservience. The former was confirmed by Chandra Shumsher in 1923 with a bilateral treaty among equals. As for the latter, Nepali politicians have sublimated themselves before the Indian jagannath (‘juggernaut’) to such a level, exhibiting such extraordinary levels of chakari, that the country has become practically unrecognisable.

Since the 1950s, there has been a predisposition to blame New Delhi for the failings of the Kathmandu polity and civil society. No doubt, Kathmandu players are primarily responsibile for the decline of Nepal’s international and regional stature. How could any Lainchaur ambassador take seriously the politicos whose first demand is a medical scholarship for a family member?

But the pusillanimity of the Kathmandu establishment does not justify India’s expanded adventurism. Questions are now being raised by Kathmandu moderates, those who have for decades argued against the automated anti-Indianism of the radical-progressive fringe. Today, with the rise of the Maoists as part of the Nepali state establishment, the radical-progressives have locked away their anti-Indianism in a deep almirah. Meanwhile, there is no pretense left in Lainchaur’s adventurism, to the extent that the leaders of the Nepali Congress and CPN-UML are reduced to repeating the refrain of badhyata (compulsion) every time they act against the national democratic interest.

There had long been murmurs about some kind of ‘southern indulgence’ regarding the Nepali Maoists in relation to the 1996-2006 conflict. There was hope and belief that perhaps this was the result of a rogue policy un-supported by the political class in New Delhi. Today, one has to pinch oneself to accept the reality of the micro-management of Nepal affairs by the embassy and its affiliates, from deep involvement in the enthronement of the sitting chief justice as head-of-government to the appointment of the head of the national anti-graft body and the setting of dates for elections. What is going on?

The ‘outing’

The revelations about New Delhi’s engagement with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) come from retired JNU professor SD Muni, proud mentor of Baburam Bhattarai. In an exhaustive chapter on the Maoist evolution in the book Nepal in Transition (University of Cambridge, 2012), Muni writes (p 321-322) that Pushpa Kamal Dahal and his deputy Bhattarai wrote a letter to Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as early as June 2002. In the letter, processed through National Security Advisor Brajesh Mishra, evidently with Muni’s facilitation, the Maoist leaders promised “not to do anything to harm (India’s) critical interests.” That was when the ‘people’s war’ was raging, and the duo were inciting their cadre to prepare for an imminent Indian invasion.

As directed by the Indian PMO, Dahal and Bhattarai then held discussions with the Intelligence Bureau (IB), to whom they “reiterated their position again in writing”. Writes Muni, “this was followed by more contacts and meetings between the Maoists and the RAW (Research and Analysis Wing).” As a result of these discussions between Dahal-Bhattarai, the Indian PMO, IB and RAW, “the intelligence surveillance and restrictions on the Maoists’ movements in India were relaxed”, and “Maoists could now move (in India) with greater ease…”

Muni is hardly a maverick scholar, and was trusted enough by the New Delhi establishment to serve as ambassador to Laos. He has done all South Asia, including India, a favour by ‘outing’ this distressing episode, which will help us get to the bottom of whether New Delhi was indulging—if not abetting—an insurgent force that was fighting a non-threatening neighbour.

High contracting parties

If only for reassurance, therefore, it became necessary to excavate the 1923 bilateral treaty. Signed on December 21, 1923 in Kathmandu between two high contracting parties “desirous of further strengthening and cementing the good relations and friendship”, the document declared in Article One:

“There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the Governments of Great Britain and Nepal, and the two governments mutually acknowledge and respect each other’s independence, both internal and external.”

Nepal’s independence did not arise from the magnanimity of the leaders of newly independent India, but was rather confirmed much earlier on paper with Great Britain (the predecessor sovereign power). No doubt, the friendship between Indian and Nepali freedom-fighters, including Jawaharlal Nehru and BP Koirala, would have kept the treaty from being dumped by New Delhi’s budding hegemons but the 1923 document has to be given its due.

South Asian blues

When a Saarc member country so involves itself in the politics and governance of another country, there are ramifications for evolving South Asian regionalism as a whole. While nation-state ultra-nationalism is to be discouraged everywhere, it is the nation-state unit that for now has to promote the idea of South Asian regionalism. This regionalism will deliver social and economic dividends to a population that makes up nearly a fourth of the world’s population.

A common South Asian future requires, firstly, that individual countries be left free to conduct their affairs without overt or covert external intervention. Only then can there be a lowering of ultra-nationalistic barriers, to allow the evolution of a common space marked by lowered trade barriers; economies of scale; cooperation on everything from climate change to control of tuberculosis; and the much-awaited domestic devolution of power and real federalism.

One can and must accept foreign involvement in the protection and promotion of human rights, social justice and democracy. But New Delhi’s heavy hand in Nepal seems arrayed against the geopolitical as well as economic, cultural and humanitarian ideals of Saarc regionalism. Kathmandu’s civil society must shake off its fatalistic stupor and challenge New Delhi’s scholars and observers to take notice.

Intelligence apparatchiks are by definition unaccountable—certainly, no one is counting the suitcases that are handed out. Unlike diplomats and bureaucrats, the sleuths (as Muni calls them) do not have to write memos to justify their actions. But before long, a government will have answer for every person and institution acting in its name.

Which is why New Delhi may want to consider deputing a special representative to study its relationship with Nepal, the friendly northern neighbour across the historically open border. A ‘white paper’ could emerge from the study of the liaison with the Nepali Maoists during and after the conflict, and also the ongoing activism in Kathmandu that is leaving very little to the imagination. It would be a great relief if everything were explained to satisfaction.

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