India’s National-Security Stakes In Nepal
India’s National-Security Stakes In Nepal
By Dipankar Biswas
The recent communal violence in the southwestern Nepalese plains was a stark wake-up call for India. Deep-seated tensions between Nepalis from the hills and the plains adjoining the Indian border have been simmering for a long time. The rapid political changes since April 2006 have only exacerbated those tensions. Unfortunately, for India, the worst may be yet to come. The rest of the world can continue to relish in the triumph of the Nepali people over the autocratic monarchy. Indians cannot afford to do so. New Delhi led the crucial effort toward peace and reconciliation by facilitating the anti-monarchy alliance between the mainstream opposition parties and the Maoist rebels. After King Gyanendra’s capitulation, New Delhi went several extra miles to assure visiting Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala of India’s continued goodwill and support. Yet many of the same leaders who had camped in New Delhi during those crucial talks in November 2005 have reverted to the virulent strain of anti-Indianism so characteristic of the Nepalese polity
Etymologically, the term madhesis, as Nepalis native to the Terai plains are known, contains a geographical connotation. In reality, it has become a pejorative emblematic of their status as second-class Nepalis. Madhesis are excluded from the army and remain a disproportionately abysmal section of the police and civil service. Worse, their loyalties are constantly questioned, although many madhesi families can trace their presence in Nepal far back before than the many of the hills people subjugating them.
The 22 districts of the Terai are the breadbasket of Nepal. Industry is heavily concentrated in the region. If the overall contributions of the region and peoples were ignored in the past, one could at least blame the autocratic and exclusionary nature of the successive political systems.
Tragically, the democratic government has contemptuously sidelined the madhesis in the current campaign to restructure the Nepalese state. Superficially, the recent citizenship bill parliament voted into law aims to provide millions of Terai-based Nepalis recognition long denied them. Yet Nepalese parties, primarily the communist factions, have begun posturing. Nepal Sadbhavana Party, a constituent of the Seven Party Alliance government that draws its support from the Terai, has expressed serious reservations at the continued marginalization of the madhesis, especially over their representation in the new constituent assembly. The situation is complicated by the existence of two armed Maoist splinter groups pursuing a purely violent campaign of regionalism.
There is a more insidious aspect to the communal violence. Nepal’s Muslim population is a ripe constituency for anti-Indian forces. Pakistan and the Gulf monarchies have invested heavily in Nepal’s Muslims. Today, Al Qaeda-linked outfits are active in the country. Specifically, India needs to take seriously the recent statement of Ayman Al Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s chief ideologue, calling on supporters to enter new conflict zones to consolidate the international jihadist movement. In some recent statements, one must recall, Al Qaeda leaders have identified India by name as a major target.
Here it becomes pertinent to point out that the palace-led regime between October 2002 and April 2006, for its authoritarian nature, was able to check anti-Indian activities originating on Nepali soil. It was no mere coincidence that the masterminds of the Mumbai train bombings could find safe haven and succour on Nepalese soil after the restoration of democratic rule.
India is paying the price for its folly of not having integrated Nepal in the early years of the union. Sardar Ballabh Bhai Patel was prescient in explaining how China and other forces inimical to India could use Nepal against the nascent republic. He was a proponent of absorbing Nepal or at least closely integrating the kingdom into the Indian security perimeter. Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru rebuffed his counsel. He must have been guided by an idealism that saw China and India as natural allies. By the late 1950s, Nehru recognized the real motives of China. But by that time, Nepal was already flirting dangerously with India’s rivals – China, Pakistan and the United States.
The history of Indo-Nepalese relations is a testament to the failure of New Delhi’s policy. The Nehru-Gandhi penchant for appeasing the palace emboldened Nepali leaders to deliberately spite India at every opportunity. India’s post-1990 preference for democracy as a moderating influence stood discredited two years later when a genuine effort to bolster bilateral cooperation in water resources bred a level of anti-Indianism even the palace could never foster.
During the complacency fostered by Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral’s doctrine of non-reciprocity in foreign policy, anti-Indianism gained enough momentum that became conducive to the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Kathmandu to Kandahar. The greatest symbol of India’s failure in Nepal is the fact that relations with the world’s only Hindu state hit their nadir during the rule of the avowedly Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
A section of the Indian establishment is currently gripped by the illusion that they can make friends out of the Maoists. Indeed, Maoist leader Prachanda has been going to great lengths to win over India. Yet Indians must not forget that not too long ago Prachanda was claiming that the real purpose of the Maoist “people’s war” was to draw in and bog down the Indian military in Nepal in order to foster revolution across the region.
The Maoists’ 40-point charter, the justification for their insurgency, begins with a series of anti-Indian demands. Moreover, Prachanda and other Maoist leaders have not retracted their pernicious claim that RAW, together with the CIA, masterminded the 2001 massacre of King Birendra’s entire family, virtually guaranteeing the enthronement of the current monarch.
The Nepalese Maoists give the impression that they have renounced any form of ideological or material ties with Naxalite groups in India. This is merely a ploy. The Nepalese Maoists, one must not forget, were signatories to the latest affirmation by South Asian Maoist groups, to set “revolutionary flames” across the region.
Then there is the China factor. For all the hype Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India produced last year, it is clear that Beijing has only decided to prevent bilateral political disputes from blocking economic cooperation. China has made clear that it does not see India as an equal and torpedoed New Delhi’s bid to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Beijing singlehandedly thwarted Shashi Tharoor’s candidacy to become U.N. Secretary General.
In Nepal, Beijing has long supported the monarchy. Now it has been warming up to the Maoists to checkmate India. Officially, China has not said much. But Chinese media and academics – clearly reflecting government policy – have gone overboard toward embracing the Nepalese Maoists as ideological soul mates. Their consistent emphasis that Beijing had never considered the Maoists terrorists is primarily a swipe at India. Knowledgeable people claim that China is quietly pressing for a Maoist-palace alliance in the model of the Khmer Rouge-Sihanouk front in Cambodia.
The stark truth is that India must prepare to exercise its right to self-defence in Nepal. A republic of Nepal, the most likely outcome of the current political process, is simply unviable as a peaceful and stable state. There are too many fissures and fault-lines the monarchy has managed to suppress or subsume. The best hope is the emergence of some form of tenuous balance in the form of warlordism, which would prove costly for India.
Indian security interests cannot be served without the full and formal absorption of Nepal into the union. Currently, Nepalese public opinion may not be conducive to that objective. If events spiral out of control in this way, to the detriment of Indian national security, Nepalis may have no choice in the matter. Indian leadership and diplomacy are on trial. Time is running out for India in Nepal.
Date: Monday, January 08, 2007
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