India-Nepal dissonance could not come at worse time; New Delhi must seize opportunity to mend fences
To assume that the current communist government of Nepal is intrinsically wed to the Chinese CCP, is puerile fallacy
The curse of the debilitating COVID-19 pandemic and the scorching summer notwithstanding, the India-Nepal relationship has been burnt with each party accusing the other of 'unjustified cartographic assertion'. The breakdown was in the making for some time and the inauguration of the link road from Dharchula to Lipulekh (above Kalapani Valley) by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh made the Nepalese immediately dig out the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, to register protest.
Murmurs of dissonance and disquiet were brewing much earlier, as earlier New Delhi had issued revised political maps to show the newly bifurcated Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh, along with the inclusion of Kalapani tract as part of Indian territory. This disputed issue (formally since 1998) has been fished out and postulated whenever domestic politics have got the better of the usually engaged and business-like nature of the India-Nepal relations.
This time too, more than any real sovereign or expansionist threat from India (as the said tract has been under the control of Indian Armed Forces since 1962) — it was the potent combination of poor diplomacy, indifference, bad timing and competitive domestic politics within both dispensations, that led to the recent flare-up. The is especially regrettable, since the India-Nepal Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee had already resolved up to 97 percent of the border, but for Kalapani and Susta. The sheer mismanagement of the current situation despite many early warnings, is symptomatic of lazy assumptions, disdain and over-simplifications that beset the increasingly public perceptions about each other.
Serendipitously, the Chinese who are forever waiting-in-the-wings for India to falter, encouraged the narrative of India’s ostensible 'interreference' and 'big brother attitude', that has always subliminally lingered in Nepal. On the rebound, Nepal teased India by going into the willing arms of China.
First, to assume that the current communist government of Nepal is intrinsically wed to the Chinese CCP, is puerile fallacy — the Communist movement of Nepal owes its genesis, inspiration and even at times the tacit support of India, as opposed to Chinese beneficence. Most of the then-underground Communist leadership had sought refuge and succour in India, during their anti-monarchy movement, and not in China. Even though the principal Opposition party of the Nepali Congress is popularly believed to be 'pro-India', it was actually members of the Nepali Congress who exerted maximum pressure on the ruling communist regime to assume strident stands against India, on the recent border issue — basically, competitive nationalism that is the wont of domestic politics.
The Nepali Congress was the first political party to officially advocate for diplomatic relations of Nepal with China, supported China (including, into the United Nations Security Council), and for all its supposed 'pro-India' perceptions, has maintained a neutral stance on Kashmir, as opposed to tilting towards India. From time to time, The Nepali Congress has been at the forefront of protesting against India's 'interferences' in the landlocked but socio-economically bound India-Nepal framework, and therefore the political value of 'anti-India' sentiment is always available for political opposition.
So, neither is the Nepali Congress necessarily 'pro-India', nor are the Nepali communist parties necessarily 'anti-India', but wilful posturers of the political circumstances, that be. India too, asserting its own religio-nationalism by positing the road that substantially reduces the time for Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, inadvertently stepped on the toes of Nepali sentiment by bringing the disputed territory to the forefront. As internal politics warrants, the hitherto dormant issue flared up again and the communist regime issued revised political maps of Nepal — this time claiming the disputed area as its own, for the first time.
As both sides dug in their heels, petty politics that aim to further sully the situation, ensued. As if to disassociate itself from the umbilical cord of co-religiosity, the Nepali prime minister KP Oli claimed that the 'real' Ayodhya, birthplace of Lord Ram, was in Thori in southern Nepal. The reality of New Delhi having spurned Kathmandu's repeated requests for foreign secretary-level talks to sort out the disputed territory claims, had preceded the birthplace salvo. The underlying sentiment in Kathmandu was that India was yet again playing muscular diplomacy owing to the asymmetric power balance and leverage between the two nations, and the only way to get back was to dangle the Chinese option, as also spike co-religiosity with competitive politics.
The option of co-opting the backchannel through the RSS or the Shankaracharyas was also checkmated in the melee. The two other traditional routes of engagement via the army-to-army relationship have been diminished considerably given the decreasing role of the Nepalese Army in the national governance and the role of the former-royals, who have familial links in India, has been made redundant over time.
The timing of the India-Nepal dissonance could not have been worse, as it coincided with the India-Chinese unrest.
Now, there have been at least three high-profile visits by the chief of R&AW, Indian army chief and by the Foreign Secretary of India to mend issues. The optics of reciprocal 'generalship' on the chiefs of both armies and Foreign Secretary Harsh Shringla, charmingly speaking in Nepali at Kathmandu (he is from Darjeeling) notwithstanding, there are fundamental issues that both New Delhi and Kathmandu need to recognise. Most importantly for Nepal, irrespective of the dissonances with India, is that China can never be trustworthy or a viable replacement, given its intrinsically expansionist, domineering and calculated moves that brook no morality or sovereign dignity, other than its own.
Nepal was soon embarrassed by the recent Chinese encroachment of its own territory, and its sheer inability to do anything about it.
Whereas, India too must recognise the psychological impact of its approach towards Nepal that routinely veers from indulgence, condescendence to treating it like its backyard — often forgetting that the average Nepali has a deep-rooted sense of history, valour and never having been colonised (not unlike the Afghan). Even though ruled by the powerful Rana prime ministers since 1846, it was recognised as an independent country, as early as 1923. This sense of historical dignity militates against appropriations like Akhand Bharat or even cavalier talk of affording livelihood to the Gorkha soldiers in the Indian Armed Forces — especially since the Gorkha has more than distinguished himself on the battlefield for India.
The sense of arm-twisting as heightened in the run-up to the framing of the new Nepali Constitution, 'blockade' or having its sensitivities routinely ignored, has led to a foreboding and overarching feeling of being taken-for-granted. What is required is a political outreach at the highest levels that is bereft of any 'preferences' within local politics or societal appropriations — one that suggests a patient and dignified hearing of each other's concerns without assuming simplistic suppositions.
If there are any misgivings on the streets of Kathmandu owing to a treaty signed by the now-ousted Ranas in 1950, the 'Treaty of Peace and Friendship' — then perhaps the contentious elements of the same could be discussed and allayed. It is important to recognise that both sides have sacrificed the long-term bilateral relations and the security of their own nations by getting seduced by domestic politics and their own electoral considerations. Each side has given fodder to the other to sustain the vitriol and lead the age-old relationship to its current abyss. There is enough common sense and awareness on both sides to know that the other is irreplaceable to each other’s needs, and that flirting with China on the rebound, has incalculable dangers.
The havoc unleashed by COVID-19 and the locational advantage of India manufacturing the bulk of potential vaccines, has offered a timely opportunity to mend fences. But India must handle the same graciously, magnanimously and without condescending tones, which has been the leitmotif of its recent diplomacy with Nepal. First and foremost, the ghosts of the 'big brother' must be buried, thereafter there are enough civilisational-cultural-economic-societal-security considerations that can drive the positive momentum. Both countries can ill-afford the continuance of dissonance, especially with so much in common, both in terms of potentiality and concerns.
The author is former Lieutenant-Governor of Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Puducherry
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