From Nepali Times, (7 Nov, 2020)
Imperious ambassadors, eager princelings and invasive spy-masters — Kathmandu has seen, and survived, them all
When Kathmandu Valley was still known as Swoniga (three cities), back in the medieval Lichhavi-Malla era, the Ganga plains did not send diplomats or spies here, they sent rulers. The Lichhavi arrived from nearby Vaishali, and later the dynasty of Mallas from Tirhut/Karnataka.
The unifying king Prithvi Narayan Shah instructed his followers and successors to be wary of the East India Company, which was then galloping across the Indo-Gangetic plain in conquest and about to swallow Avadh. He chastened the British with devastating defeat at the battle of Sindhuli Gadi in 1767, and it was only after the Kathmandu Durbar under Bhimsen Thapa became territorially ambitious in its eyes that the Company Bahadur waged war. The guerilla tactics of the Gorkhali fauj were no match for the heavy ordnance deployed by the Viceroy, and Kathmandu sued for peace.
The Treaty of Sugauli (1815) not only reduced Nepal to its present size and shape, but it also extracted concession in the form of a residency in Kathmandu, and that is when, for the first time, the consolidated southern power became a player in the Nepali polity. The political actors were in thrall of the British Resident at Lazimpat (from ‘lodging part’, according to some) and Lainchaur (‘lain’ from ‘civil lines’) and the sheer military power he represented. And the kings and bhardar nobility were not above using it to benefit when it suited them.
This proclivity continues, with Nepali politicians cosying up to Indian interlocutors (diplomats, spies) while in power, and turning virulently anti-Indian when out. The best example is the Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal, always taking matters to an extreme, who wrote supplicatory letters to Indian intelligence agency heads, and yet dug trenches to ward off an Indian invasion.
In the mid-19th century, the polymath diplomat Brian Houghton Hodgson was the resident Machiavelli of Kathmandu, playing a delicate game of supporting and warning various factions in the Durbar, even while treading a fine line with the Governor-General in Calcutta. One tool often used was safe passage to Banaras for Durbar dissidents, and their upkeep in the holy city as a useful political pawns.
Hodgson supported the rise of Jang Bahadur who, following his 1850-51 visit to Queen Victoria’s England (and then France), decided that siding with the Company was geopolitically the best option for Kathmandu. Hodgson, by then retired to Darjeeling, persuaded the East India Company to accept the military support offered by Jang to quell the ‘Sepoy Mutiny’. The Kathmandu satrap led a military detachment to Lucknow and Banaras, and returned with Company favours that included the return of the Naya Muluk lands of the Tarai, besides looted Avadh jewelry. The Rana oligarchy begun by Jang Bahadur evolved a policy that simultaneously included implacable xenophobia, and distanced subservience to the colonial power.
During the remaining Rana era, the Resident was left with relatively little to do, because the ruling clan had ensured fealty to the British, and sending Nepali soldiers to fight in the two world wars, besides the second and third Afghan campaigns. Meanwhile, Nepal’s rulers made an easy shift in focus from Banaras to the capital of British India in Calcutta.
The political economy
Since medieval times till the late Rana era, the Valley’s economy was overwhelmingly north (Tibet) oriented, while the geopolitical radar pointed both north and south. After the British built a narrow-gauge railroad starting in Siliguri which hugged the border and ended up in Agra, India began to replace Tibet as Nepal’s main trading partner. Following the Younghusband invasion of Tibet of 1903-1904, in which the British deployed their 8th Gurkha detachment, and also took the support of yaks and porters provided by Chandra Shumshere, Kathmandu was forced to pivot almost entirely to the south in terms of commerce and political relationships. The British became even more central to the Kathmandu Durbar’s worldview.
The lasting gift of the Ranas to Nepal, utilising all the goodwill they had amassed with the British colonial powers, which enriched them beyond belief, was to negotiate and sign the Nepal-Britain Treaty of 10 December 1923, under which the British accepted Nepal’s sovereign status. The country was lifted above the level of princely states of the Subcontinent which were much richer than Nepal and potentially more powerful, and made Nepal a one-of-a-kind power within the otherwise colonised Subcontinent. This, in turn, would provide protection when the point of acquisitive Indian Independence arrived.
The shift of the colonial capital to New Delhi in 1938 pushed Kathmandu into an era of uncertainties, with the security of Calcutta’s cosmopolitanism overtaken by the New Delhi’s unabashed imperium, whoever the rulers may be. Thereafter, India’s transition from colony to self-rule meant that the nuanced relationship informed by culture and history was dumped for a power relationship.
Young political activists from Nepal saw that Rana rule would not end unless the British were pushed out of the Subcontinent, and enthusiastically joined the struggle for Indian Independence. In the process, they developed deep links, as equals, with India’s emerging political class. Little did they know Independence would make the new Indian rulers – politicians as well as members of the civil service – don the mantle of the departed colonials. The haughty posture of the Indian interlocutor is matched only by the obsequiousness of the later generation of Nepali politicians, which continues to give many Delhi-wallahs today a sense of empire.
One turning point in the relationship between Indian and Nepali politicians can be said to have occurred in 1950 at a meeting between the newly anointed Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his erstwhile fellow-revolutionary Bishweshwar Prasad Koirala, still a freedom-fighter against the Ranas. When a DC-3 aircraft loaded with money looted from the Rana customs point at Birganj landed at Safdarjang Airport in Delhi, Nehru had the aircraft surrounded by security and the cargo confiscated. Later, at Teen Murti House, the livid prime minister confronted Koirala. BP understood that the ‘bilateral’ dynamic between the two comrades had changed, and from a fellow revolutionary Nehru had transformed into a head of government with attendant interests and responsibilities.
Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s attitude towards Nepal has since been adopted by successive prime ministers right down to Narendra Modi (except the internationalist and regionalist I K Gujral) and the ambassadors, diplomats, visiting and resident spooks. The modern Indian state got its taste for intervention through Nehru’s example, including Ambassador CPN Singh, a Bihari aristocrat and civil servant. Much of the rushed movement between New Delhi and Kathmandu at the time was conducted through ‘Dakota Diplomacy’ which had brought the Rana regime to a close. My great grand-uncle Narendra Mani Dixit, a foreign policy adviser of the Ranas, writes of this in his unpublished memoir.
In the Rana era, the super-elite of Nepal nurtured the image of a ‘forbidden kingdom’ and to a large extent succeeded in keeping the colonial officialdom wowed, much as Bhutan does today in its dealings with New Delhi. While Nepali politicians and diplomats alike are from plebian backgrounds, perhaps the most effective Nepali ambassador to India was Bijaya Shumshere, about as ‘elite’ as you could get in the mid-20th century, who was there for the tightrope walk when the Rana regime fell to the Nepali Congress democrats.
While Nepal’s sovereignty was left intact in the course of India gaining Independence, this did not mean that New Delhi’s influence waned. The Ranas were so weakened that in formal ceremonies the Indian ambassador had an elevated place in the dais. Nehru made a charade of three-way talks between himself, the Ranas and the Nepali Congress, while foisting an interim government on Nepal with a Rana as Prime Minister and the revolutionary Nepali Congress in secondary position. Indian bureaucrats attended and guided Nepal’s cabinet meetings, and India went on to place more than a dozen listening posts in the mountains to monitor Chinese activities.
The severely weakened Rana regime, just before it fell, signed a treaty of peace and friendship with India on 31 July 1950. The treaty has rankled Kathmandu’s political class, starting with the fact that it was signed by a Nepali prime minister and an Indian ambassador. However, the treaty did lay out reciprocal obligations among equals, such as mutually acknowledging ‘the complete sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of each other’.
The document commits New Delhi to allowing Nepal to import weaponry from third countries through Indian territory, but then it blockaded Nepal in 1989 on the excuse of Nepal having imported ordnance from China. A letter subsequent to the treaty allowed Nepal exception on the clause confirming equal treatment by each country of the citizens of the other, as a concession to the difference in the size of the two economies and respective population sizes.
The one that got away
Nehru continued to micromanage Nepal, often at the behest of the Nepali leaders who kept reaching out to him to resolve issues much as earlier rulers in Kathmandu used to approach Hodgson. This can be seen in published letters between Nehru and BP’s half-brother and competitor Matrika Prasad Koirala.
Several factors played a part in protecting the country’s sovereignty and New Delhi began to flex the muscles of Independent India: the strictures of the 1923 Treaty which were difficult to skirt, the pre-existing camaraderie between the Indian leaders and Nepali revolutionaries which provided a security umbrella, as well as the liberal leanings of Nehru. Despite the misgivings of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, all of this meant that Nepal’s sovereignty was respected even as Junagarh, Goa and Hyderabad fell.
Till today, there is little-disguised amazement among Indians visiting Nepal, with the unstated line, “How did you guys manage to get away?” Indeed, Nepal provides a refreshing change from the larger nation-states of South Asia, for being a country of heterogeneous population and a size that ensures the citizens are not too far removed from the fount of political power. While there are enough inherited and extant issues of mal-development, marginalisation, exploitation and Kathmandu-centricism, Nepalis have the possibilities of making the ‘nation-state’ work more than elsewhere – and not just because it is the oldest in the Subcontinent.
As long as Nepal was an absolute monarchy, the understandings and adjustments were made at the highest level between Narayanhiti Royal Palace and 7 Race Course Road, so there was little for diplomats – or espionage agents – to do. The Royal Nepal Embassy at Barakhamba Road was little more than a post box of the royal family, and government secretaries negotiating with Indian counterparts never had much leeway, always waiting for instructions from the Royal Palace Secretariat.
The fall of absolute monarchy in 1990 was a demand of the Nepali people. But the show of political solidarity by Indian politicians including Chandra Shekhar was important, and is used by many kneejerk analysts to cry Indian heavy-handedness. It was the People’s Movement which ushered democracy and the new Constitution of November 1990, but it is also true that the new polity with its multiple power-centres provided more opportunity for Indian diplomacy to engage as well as for the spreading tentacles of the Indian intelligence, particularly R&AW and IB.
How these external and internal espionage agencies divided (and continue to carve up) the Nepal turf between themselves is a matter for some scholar/researcher to pick up in the days to come, for nothing that is done so openly should remain unremarked or un-analysed.
Right hand, left hand
Nepal became a playground for all kinds of Indian actors, and in hindsight, it becomes clear that so many roadblocks in bilateral relations have to do with the fact that one hand of the Indian state often did not know what the other was doing. Down the timeline this is seen in the rise of the Maoists (when some agency seems to have been involved in training the rebels), the Indian blockade of 2015 (when someone in a darkened New Delhi cubbyhole decided to teach Nepal a lesson for going its own way in adopting the new Constitution) and the latest India-Nepal tangle on the ownership of the Limpiyadhura-Lipu Lek stretch north of Kumaon (where the Indian Army’s plans to inaugurate the road to the Lipu Lek pass was not communicated to South Block).
In the democratic era since the 1990s, India got active in influencing Nepal in various ways, from relatively benign to nefarious. One surefire tactic was to send the children of Nepal’s politicians and senior bureaucrats to Indian colleges and institutions of higher learning, from college to medical studies to ayurvedic studies, depending on the influence and importance of the supplicant. Medical treatment of political leaders has been a potent tool for New Delhi to try to get its way, except when individual politicians emerged more wily and slippery than expected. India also exercised enormous soft power across the open border, from being an aspirational democracy that Nepalis looked up to for decades, to an India was the destination for the youth seeking quality higher education.
As Lainchaur’s influence grew in Kathmandu, gradually a rock-solid point of view developed with the political class that you had to have ‘New Delhi dahina’ if you wanted to move ahead in politics. Within its own geopolitical space, with the rise of Chinese interest and activity in Kathmandu still years away, Nepal was in a unipolar space where New Delhi’s goodwill became essential for success in national politics. While Nepal had evaded the fate of Sikkim and inherited a better historical deal that Bhutan vis-à-vis New Delhi, India managed ever-stronger lock-hold on the Kathmandu polity.
However, in equal and opposite measure, India’s tight embrace helped develop an anti-Indianism among the intelligentsia, also to be used by politicians out of power. It would seem that India was all-power and all-capable in pulling strings and levers on Nepal, often getting ‘credit’ for things it had no role in. For some in Kathmandu it seemed as if India’s entire foreign policy had nothing better to do than destabilise Nepal. The more likely scenario was that New Delhi’s rulers were so preoccupied elsewhere that the diplomats – and intelligence agents in particular – ran amok, with the policy-makers in New Delhi completely oblivious until after the damage was done.
When things get difficult, Nepal’s politicians relied on their links among the Indian political class. Indian princelings and royal families connected to Nepal’s Ranas or Shah royalty have always been for lobbying: from the Scindias of Gwalior to the Mayurbang royalty of Orissa, to Karan Singh of Jammu and Kashmir. Very few Nepalis had access to the higher echelons of power in Delhi, and one of the few who cultivated the top rung was the sagacious businessman with royal connections, Prabhakar Rana, whose passing in May 2019 has been a loss in terms of links to the Delhi establishment. The rise in power of the BJP/RSS combine has also added to shrinking connections between Nepali politicians and New Delhi.
Jai Prakash Narayan’s followers, Lohiaites, CPI-M leaders, all were active at one time or the other, maintaining links to Nepal and acting as go-betweens as and when required. At times, the rest of the population cringed as Nepal’s Parliament gave standing ovations to visiting Indian personages, such as Sitaram Yechuri after the end of the conflict in May 2006 and Narendra Modi in August 2014. During the 2015 Blockade, while there was goodwill all around from Indian politicians including Mani Shankar Aiyar and the just-departed DP Tripathi, it was the urging of the Indian Army (with its large contingent of Nepali citizens in the Gorkha battalions) that is said to have been effective the PMO having second thoughts.
Maoists approach Delhi
The unique and historically evolved open border between Nepal and India made New Delhi look at the northern neighbor from a security perspective. The fact that Nepal made up half of the strategic Himalayan ‘rimland’ meant that New Delhi was bound to pay inordinate attention to Nepali politics, which is probably why India is said to maintain its second largest embassy in Kathmandu.
The rise of the Maoists in Nepal gave different Indian functionaries further room to frolic. While at least some entity in the Indian security establishment seems to have worked to impart training to Maoists, other parts of the Indian establishment sought to take advantage of the weakening of the Nepali state during the conflict. When challenged on Maoists having a free run of India to make forays into Nepal, Ambassador Shyam Saran told this writer back in the day: “We can’t locate our own Maoists, how do you expect us to keep track of yours? India is a big country!”
The decisive entry of Indian intelligence into Nepal happened at the hands of the Maoists. The Nepal Army, which had kept out of the fray for six long years after the start of the conflict in 1996 while the Nepal Police very inadequately tackled the Maoists, finally picked up the gun, and after a few debacles gradually got the upper hand. The rebels felt the heat and began to look for a way out. Once a schism between the supreme Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) and chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai (Laldhoj) had been patched up, it is said with the interlocution of Indian intelligence, the two leaders wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asking for a hearing.
National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra, directed the Maoist duo to write to the Intelligence Bureau, an instruction they dutifully complied with. Before long, the Dahal and Bhattarai had a deal with India’s spy-masters, and thereafter the Maoists had the run of India without having to face harassment, and they found it easy to make forays across the length of the Nepali border. Meanwhile, the Maoist leadership holidayed in Gurgaon and Noida.
This deal between Indian intelligence and Nepal’s Maoists meant that the leaders of the democratic parties of the Nepal, too, were forced to deal with Indian spooks in order to make contact and conduct negotiations with Dahal and Bhattarai, even as King Gyanendra was developing autocratic tendencies in Kathmandu. Indian intelligence thus got into the inside track of Nepal’s polity.
The 12-point deal with the Maoists that led to the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006 was negotiated between the Maoists and UML and NC leaders in and around Delhi. It was obvious that the Indian authorities were in the know, but it would be excessive to say that India brokered or directed the deal, as some self-flagellating Nepali analysts would have one believe. The reason the 12-point deal was vital, even if it was negotiated in a foreign land, is that in 2005 an average of 7-8 Nepali citizens were dying every day at the hands of fellow Nepalis.
Before long, the activism of the apparatchiks evolved from ‘handling’ Maoists in India to overt dealings in Kathmandu. Lainchaur’s diplomatic function was eclipsed by all manner of micro-management of politics by the agents even as the country got into the difficult phase of constitution-writing, where too they pushed and pulled. When we say India was micromanaging affairs in Nepal, it rapidly came to mean micro-manipulation by Indian intelligence officials.
Having made themselves comfortable in Kathmandu, the apparatchiks realised that they had a handle on the running of a good-sized country, not possible anywhere in the world. And so, with the blessings of the PMO in New Delhi, the spies went outward, and wayward. Perhaps the leadership felt that the perceived security threat represented by the open Nepal-India border required ‘handling’ Nepal differently than any other country, but again and again the adventurism has come back to haunt India. For example, the Blockade stiffened the spine of Nepalis and hence the state, and made Nepal look for the northward passage for commerce and connectivity, and elevated K P Oli to the prime ministerial seat with overwhelming mandate.
The question that has not been answered to satisfaction is why the spy agencies have been allowed to function so openly in Kathmandu. The utility of a spy agency is said to optimum when its work remains hidden, with full deniability. Yet in Kathmandu the only thing the agents do not do is give out visiting cards saying ‘Station Chief’. The intelligence-wallahs are by the very nature of their calling not accountable for what they wreak, forcing the political and diplomatic forces to pick up after the mess they create.
The agencies have access to slush funds for which they are not accountable, which itself should be a problem, but then there has been talk of plots and flats being purchased in Chandigarh and Lucknow from disbursements meant for Nepali ‘recipients’. Amongst all the shenanigans, a Nepali may be forgiven for taking solace in the fact that the spooks are above ground and very visible – something to be said for transparency.
In India’s engagement with Kathmandu, the Nepali side has been increasingly confused by who to believe, where the buck stops. They have had to decipher from the plethora of acronyms – MEA, NSA, IB, R&AW, PMO and so on. Who is in the driver’s seat? Lately, at the very least there has been evolving clarity, that it is not the behemoth MEA but the personage of the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval with shoulder-to-shoulder proximity to Prime Minister Modi who calls the shots.
As the Constitution-writing got underway in 2008, one can imagine that the Indian diplomatic corps was perturbed by what was being done by the agencies on the ground and in corridors of power in India’s name. In the meantime, the Nepali politicians had no choice but to engage with the intelligence fellows, either the station chief, or the R&AW or IB bosses who came on secret visits without doing much to hide their presence. Is a spy agency that does not bother to be undercover actually more benign?
Ever since the predictability and stability of the royal regime was ended, first with constitutional monarchy in 1990 and once-and-for-all in 2008 as Nepal transformed into a republic, the Indian establishment has been seeking a surefire means to control Nepal’s rollercoaster politics. When they got to make policy, the so-called spies thought the Madhesi fold could be used to control Kathmandu. Thus, somewhere along the way, Indian intelligence got it into its head to ‘utilise’ Madhesi politicians of Nepal, doing the great injustice of regarding the entire cohort as made up of fifth columnists. The possibility of violence across the open border, hard cash and ratcheting up of populist narrative made sure that many plains-based politicians and activists got in line.
During the term of the first Constituent Assembly, some extraordinary mind in New Delhi decided to use the opportunity to create a ‘buffer’ for India by proposing a One-Madhes-One-Pradesh formula for federalism. Any demographer, geographer, anthropologist or sociologist – let alone a politician – would have said that this was a crazy idea, to have a strip that is 500 miles long and less than 20 miles wide along the stretch of a Tarai so full of demographic, linguistic diversity, and which were connected economically to the hills and to the south across the border. This was made the main plank of Madhesi politics of the time, picked up by civil society and politicians alike. A lot of energy was used up before the first Constituent Assembly collapsed in 2013, to neutralise this odd demand that would have done injustice to the Madhesi populace of Nepal.
The Indian consulate in Birganj was a hub for politics rather than commerce, and the liaison office in Biratnagar that was opened after the Kosi embankment breach of August 2008, was kept open for years after its use was over and ignoring Kathmandu’s demands for closure. The injustice done to Madhesi politics by overt Indian intervention has not been remarked enough, but the repercussions are evident to this day. While there is no doubt that the Madhesi fold suffers the ‘double-whammy’ of identity-loss as well as economic marginalisation by the Kathmandu-centric state, equally, New Delhi policy-makers were trying to exploit the Madhesi disgruntlement for their own geostrategic purposes. This has hurt the Madhesi cause.
Back in Kathmandu, the Indian Embassy became a player even in the mid-level appointments to government positions, the police, and elsewhere. Lainchaur was able to utilise its influence over the less-than-dozen Indian multinationals in Nepal, who are the primary advertisers, to indirectly influence the mainstream media. In the meantime, during the last term of Surya Bahadur Thapa as prime minister (2002-04), India even got the go-ahead to directly provide development aid to recipients across the country without going through the Ministry of Finance, which all other donor governments and INGOs were required to do.
While many have remarked that during the 2000s, the US began to outsource its Nepal policy to India, the more egregious reality was that Indian establishment itself had outsourced much of its Nepal policy to the intelligence agencies. From my time as a law student in Delhi University in the late 1970s, I knew that the best and the brightest applicants to Indian officialdom joined the IFS, IAS and IPS, in that order, and not the intelligence agencies. What would Nepal have to bear, being thus saddled with spies who were neither capable nor accountable?
Indeed, who but the most unaware would think of something as outlandish as one province along the entire stretch of the Nepal Tarai, or the enthronement of Lokman Singh Karki at the CIAA? What to do when fools wade in where the more circumspect among the diplomats fear to tread? Besides the attempt to co-opt Madhesi politics, Indian intelligence in coordination with the Embassy tried to control Nepali politics through the appointment of Karki, a defrocked former bureaucrat and power-broker. At that time when the influence of Indian intelligence was at its peak, and the entire political class from the opposition leaders to the prime minister and president blanched. The term they all used when challenged as to why they agreed to Karki’s appointment was “badhyata”, that they had no choice. The last chapter on the Karki episode has yet to be written.
To give them due credit, the politicians of Nepal were responding to reality when they rolled with the punches that the Indian political, diplomatic and intelligence establishments threw at them. Besides, for all the pressures to kowtow to India, the careers of individual politicians required that they not to be seen as doormats for India – only the Madhesi politicians were not given that privilege.
The idealised world for a Nepali citizen is one where India sheds its imperial attitude and evolves into a benign neighbor, to be dealt through regular diplomatic and political channels, rather than an interventionist with ‘big brother’ delusions who cares little for Nepali realities and sensitivities. Incongruously, it was New Delhi itself that helped correct the situation and led to an evolution in bilateral relations, through its overreach during Constitution-writing, and the slapping of the five-month Blockade in 2015 and into 2016.
When the time came, after the failure of the first Constituent Assembly, and for the second one to adopt the Constitution in September 2015, the New Delhi establishment decided unilaterally that the date should be pushed back to accommodate what it stated were Madhesi concerns. Then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was sent as personal emissary by Prime Minister Modi to stall the proceedings in 2015, he arrived with a viceregal attitude only to be roundly rebuffed. When the final negotiations were happening on the constitutional text, the key political players kept their mobile phones switched off so as to avoid frantic calls from Lainchaur.
The Constitution was promulgated, but New Delhi did not take it well. In a press note, South Block merely ‘noted’ the adoption of the document, and it would be another four years before it would deign to congratulate Nepal on Constitution Day. To show its displeasure, and indicating the lack of knowledge or caring about Nepali society’s sense of self and its resilience, New Delhi imposed an economic blockade on Nepal starting 23 September 2015. A narrative was sought to be created that the closure was actually the handiwork of Madhesi activists blocking off the rest of the country and fellow-citizens.
Due to understandable pressures, some Madhesi politicians and activists brashly insisted that it was indeed they who were at the Raxaul-Birganj bridge blocking traffic, which did not explain the miles of trucks stranded across the border in Bhairawa, Biratnagar, Nepalganj and Kakadbhitta. Indian media went along with the fiction of a Madhesi blockade, and so the world was made to believe, and it took another couple of years before New Delhi analysts began to concede the reality.
Excesses of the Kathmandu-centric state, and the harsh response of the security agencies against the demonstrators who were part of the Madhes Movement and the scores of deaths which resulted, are yet to be properly investigated and accountability assigned. Similarly, the Blockade was imposed by New Delhi for its own supposed ends rather than for any category of the Nepali population. The Indian mainstream media once again became a readymade ‘force multiplier’ for the Indian state, given its proclivity to speak from government handouts when it comes to foreign affairs, particularly in South Asia. One reason that the world did not understand Nepal’s predicament enough is that the news out of the country has always been filtered through the New Delhi lens.
The response of Nepalis to the Blockade was a turning point in modern Nepal’s geopolitical stance and status. Whereas Nepali citizens had often risen to preserve or restore democracy, the Blockade was the first time the people were expressing themselves on an international, geopolitical affair with such mass-based conviction, and their decisive message emboldened the politicians. The public was willing to suffer nearly half a year of extreme hardship which came quickly after the devastating earthquake of April 2015 – because they knew that New Delhi was conducting extreme, unfair action. Yet another turning point had been reached in the bilateral relationship, this time directed by Nepalis at large.
The Indian Blockade helped accelerate Nepal’s moves to open up its northern border for commercial connectivity, including third-country transit. The resistance to the action in Nepal proved to a surprised political class in New Delhi that the manhandling would not work, and one hopes that this lesson would become part of institutional memory. On the whole, Nepal as a country emerged stronger for having passed the test with resolve, and unity among most demographic categories, a collaboration between the people and selected political leaders and selected civil society stalwarts. The question that remains till today is whether the ‘operational wizard’ who leads India’s foreign policy, the NSA’s Doval, has internalised the sea change that occurred in Nepal.
K P Oli, Chair of the UML party, stood his ground unequivocally at a time when some leaders of his own party and those of the Nepali Congress were not even willing to utter the term ‘Indian’ in tandem with ‘Blockade’ – such was the fear of New Delhi’s long hand, and the many ways it could affect their life and career. For the stand taken by Oli and others, the unified Communist Party of Nepal (with the Maoists by now in tow) was rewarded resoundingly in the elections of 2017.
After the Blockade was lifted, the relationship was gradually rebuilt, and Modi and Oli began having easy telephonic conversations. But then in May 2020, the two countries were again taken to the brink with the Limpiyadhura crisis. It was a comedy of errors with serious geopolitical outcome, once again indicating the Indian establishment’s lack of knowledge and concern for Nepali sensibilities, even though the country evidently carries such a vital strategic importance for India.
Above ground, underground
Last year, the Survey of India published a new official political map so as to display the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir, but even as it angered China with regard to Aksai Chin, the publication highlighted once again for Nepalis the fact that the area where India kept its Kalapani garrison as well as the entire Limpiyadhura Triangle was shown to be in India. But matters only took a strident course in Kathmandu after Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on 8 May inaugurated a track built through the territory claimed by Nepal.
Not to be outdone, the Indian Chief of Army Staff M M Naravane piped up to imply publicly that Nepal was being put up by China to raise the Lipu Lek issue, setting off an uproar in Kathmandu. It has taken nearly eight months for things to cool down enough for the general to make the traditional goodwill visit this week to Kathmandu, long delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the fallout of his remark.
Interestingly, at the time that the Limpiyadhura crisis flared up, Nepal and India are said to have been close to agreement on the withdrawal of Indian forces from Kalapani, a smaller area in the same region that is also claimed by Nepal. Riding the controversy sparked by the Indian map, Nepal’s political forces arrayed against K P Oli (led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal) insisted that Nepal publish a map showing the Limpiyadhura Triangle as its own. With his back to the wall, Oli published the map and had the Constitution amended to indicate the change on the national seal. Even as bilateral relations plummeted, and as Modi prepared to lay the foundation stone at Ayodhya on 5 August 2020, Oli raised the ante by ruminating publicly about the true birthplace of Ram being in the Chitwan region of the central Nepal plains.
One would have been forgiven for thinking that there could be no going back after the series of setbacks, but it turns out the Indo-Nepal bilateral relationship is made of sterner stuff. With the passage of time, emerging global alignments, and the skirmishes with the PLA on the Ladakh frontier, Modi seems to have decided it was important to make up with Kathmandu. The ice was broken with Oli picking up the phone to greet him Modi on the occasion of India’s Independence Day on 15 August. In reply, Modi said he would be sending a special emissary to Kathmandu to talk things over.
When the emissary did come on 21 October, it turned out to be Samant Kumar Goel, head of the external intelligence agency R&AW, leading a team from various wings of the Indian government. Modi had pulled a fast one, and sent his top spy-master. Oli could not possibly refuse to meet this designated emissary from New Delhi. In Kathmandu’s over-charged political cauldron, it became a matter of glee that Oli had been openly embarrassed. Cutting off the nose to spite the face has been a longtime preoccupation of the Kathmandu intelligentsia, as remarked by observers as diverse as the leader B P Koirala and the essayist Kamal Prakash Malla. A matter that undermined the state of Nepal was projected as one which only undermined the sitting prime minister.
The deputation of the R&AW Chief to Nepal was a decision of Narendra Modi, and it reflects upon his exclusive way of conducting foreign policy out of the PMO via his security adviser, Ajit Doval, rather than through India’s foreign service superstructure led by Foreign Minister S Jaishankar that has been left twiddling its thumbs. Modi could have sent Doval himself as emissary, or one of any number of political leaders, but he decided to send the intelligence chief – albeit on an above-ground foray.
The fact that the Goel delegation arrived while Vinay Mohan Kwatra, Indian Ambassador to Nepal, was in New Delhi for consultations may or may not be significant. But it has been suggested that the deputation of Goel has less to do with an intention to deliberately demean Kathmandu, and more the result of a power struggle in New Delhi between the various agencies on who is to take the lead on Nepal. That is hardly a suggestion to take heart from.
Under the circumstances, having been dealt an awkward hand, Prime Minister Oli opened up about the meeting with the R&AW chief through a statement issued by his press office. Other leaders who did meet Goel were busy putting out press notes denying any such meetings.
One could say that because the R&AW Chief came as a special emissary of the Indian Prime Minister, and that he came openly on a special Indian Air Force aircraft, showed that he was conducting diplomacy rather than espionage. However, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the trip has damaged the fabric of bilateral relations, the Nepali public has once more been made wary.
Oli has enough to answer to the Nepali public in terms of poor governance despite a unique opportunity to govern a full term – which has not happened in Nepal since the Ranas were ousted in 1950. However, it is inappropriate for Kathmandu commentators to saddle him with the blame for meeting an emissary of India’s prime minister, whatever may be the person’s day job. Indeed, they must try and distinguish between the state and the government-of-the-day, and decide which entity was harmed by the RA&W chief’s choice as special emissary.
Whenever India intervenes, sooner or later Nepal reacts. Nepali citizens have developed a razor sharp political sensitivity, one which is missed by most outsiders because the political discourse is conducted near-exclusively in Nepali. It would do good for the Delhi imperium – including the politicians, diplomats, bureaucrats, politicians, media commentators – to understand that sending a spy chief as emissary has not gone down well with public here.
The unique India-Nepal bilateral relationship across the open border must go back to being managed by political and diplomatic players, and not to be intelligence agency-driven. New Delhi should have already learnt the dangers of allowing spooks of questionable competence to run rough shod over the Nepali polity. If they would only focus on Nepal, a country they obviously perceive as important, New Delhi’s opinion-makers would concede that the main problem they have with Nepal – the evident tilt towards China, the anger towards India by common citizens – had to do with the Blockade of 2015.
Nepal is a natural friend of India and the cultural bonds are strong, and they go deep. But Nepal is also an independent, sovereign nation-state and that cannot be changed. In the suddenly fraught international arena, India should want to keep Nepal as a natural friend. When there is transparent communication between the two countries based on the conduct of politics and diplomacy, Nepal will have the space to develop its democracy, make its own mistakes and to learn from them.
India itself needs a politically stable Nepal for its security as well as the economic growth of the border regions, which happen to be among the most densely populated and poorest parts of South Asia. If New Delhi regarded the regions of Purvanchal and north Bihar more sensitively, it would find that it is in its interest to let Nepal develop without interventionism being allowed to rise as the guiding principle of bilateral relations. But if New Delhi looks at Nepal only through the geostrategic prism rather than include the economic, cultural, social and environmental lenses, it can only be hurting itself.
What seemed like a genuine attempt to update and lift bilateral relations to reflect modern-day realities, was the empaneling of the Eminent Persons’ Group of India and Nepal, which worked over two years to produce a report, one which evidently contains fine recommendations to the two governments. The group was formed with individuals selected by the two sitting prime ministers Modi and Oli during their first terms in office. And yet, because Prime Minister Modi does not want to open the report, it has gathered dust for nearly two years.
New Delhi’s lack of attentiveness to Nepal and the repetition of its mistakes have added to grievances in Kathmandu. When will India learn that it is only hurting itself, as it knowingly or unknowingly hurts Nepal?