Mainstream Weekly, VOL LVI No 15 New Delhi March 31, 2018
Nepal-India Relations: Need for Urgent Paradigm Shift
Saturday 31 March 2018
by Vijay Pratap
On March 18, when Rahul Gandhi spoke about the failure of India’s foreign policy, especially in the case of SAARC countries, he was not making a rhetorical allegation as an Opposition leader. All sensitive and patriotic Indian observers of the South Asian political affairs are unanimous that the stock of the Indian regime in foreign policy is the lowest ever today. Not just the Indian observers, even within the South Asian countries knowledgeable persons in high places hold a similar opinion. In a telephonic interview on March 26, 2018, a highly placed Nepali Foreign Office functionary, who would not like to be identified, said that the situation has become so bad that if we talk objectively about the elements of sovereignty of the Nepali people vis-a-vis China, or if we assert the rights of a landlocked Nepal vis-à-vis China, as we do in the case of India, it is not taken kindly by even non-partisan Nepali journalists. Any independent assertion of the Nepali people vis-à-vis China is seen as a propaganda or machination by Indian agents. This is a serious situation and the Indian establishment must take note of it. It will require a longer and rigorous exercise to go into the nuances and complexity of how Indian and Chinese leaderships have reached this degree of mess in our relations. But to clear this mess we need to initiate a public discourse on the Indian side at least regarding our major blunders both in our government policy and the stand taken by the cultural and civilisational ambassadors of our country.
Indian opinion-makers need to realise that a good part of the present low stock of the Indian establishment among the Nepali people is also because of the non-recognition of the sovereign aspirations of the Nepali people by the Indian establishment. One is not denying the tactical complicity of the Nepali political leadership in creating and constructing the anti-India sentiment. The anti-India sentiment provided the fulcrum for generating a ‘coherent’ Nepali pride and nationalism based on national interest. The active originators of this sentiment were also from the Nepali royalist elements and pro-China forces in Nepali politics. But their success was largely not of their doing but mainly due to the failure of the Indian political leadership to act in a statesman-like manner. Even the Indian civil society, especially those espousing Hindutva vis-à-vis the aspiring Nepali political class miserably failed on this score.
The disastrous watershed was when the draft Constitution had been laid in the Constituent Assembly of Nepal, the Indian PM sent his special envoy with a briefing of proposed amendments desired by the Indian Government. The most tragic part is that the brief was leaked in one of the leading Indian newspapers. Whether it was part of the typical Modi-style masculinity (56 inches chest) assertion or irresponsible leak by the bureaucracy cannot be ascertained, but even if it was discreetly done, how can any sovereign parliament tolerate such an intrusion? The result was obvious and the Constitution was passed broadly as it was drafted ignoring the Indian ‘inputs’. These inputs were mainly in support of the Madhesi demands around citizenship and representation. After this what followed was an agitation by the Madhesis and the Nepali Government dealing with it with a strong hand, and the death of several Madhesi agitators. During this agitation there was a blockade at the India and Nepal border, and an overwhelming majority of the Nepali population till date believes, and not totally without basis, that this blockade was sponsored by the GoI. Even those who see Nepal’s interest in building close political and economic relationship with India in consonance with the civilisational unity of these two nations were unable to deny or defend Indian complicity in the blockade. Unofficially it was widely claimed in knowledgeable circles that the blockade was for providing moral support to Madhesis and their legitimate demands. Paradoxically enough, the Madhesis themselves were not able to defend this blockade because they were fearful of the allegation of being branded as ‘fifth columnists’ by the anti-Madhesi elements in the Nepali polity.
Actually on the ground the Nepali-Madhesi opinion was shaped by three contradictory factors:
1. Madhesis had a long experience of exclusion and discrimination, having been described as Indian agents for decades, 1987 being the watershed point for this kind of cleavage.
2. At the rhetorical level the ten year-long ‘people’s war’ by the Maoist Communist Party led to the following response by the democratic parties: 2.a. a promise to Madhesi identity and aspirations; 2.b. a comprehensive agreement signed between the Madhesis and Nepali establishment in 2008; 2.c. assent to the posts of President and Vice-President being of Madhesi origin.
3.a. The third factor was seen as part-betrayal of the above agreement with the Madhesis, as well as continuation of discriminatory tendencies by the Nepali establishment. 3.b. An overwhelming section of the Madhesi leadership was of the conviction that the Kathmandu-Pahadi, Brahmin-Kshetri leadership across parties was not serious about fulfilling these promises made to the Madhesis.
A section of knowledgeable circles in India and Nepal believes that the RSS-BJP regime was not genuinely committed to the Madhesi aspirations. They were only using the Madhesis as a tool of forcing the Nepali leadership to go back constitutionally to declare Nepal as a Hindu Rashtra. This is attributed to a presumed assessment that if Nepal becomes constitutionally a Hindu Rashtra again, symbolically it will remain within the area of influence of India. The RSS-BJP establishment seems to forget the West Asian example where just religious identity does not guarantee a peaceful and friendly co-existence.
The high points of the anti-India sentiment are more a result of the ideological underpinnings of the RSS-BJP ideology than the Indian diplomatic leadership. The External Affairs Ministry and Indian security agencies do have positive achievements in the pre-Modi era. The Comprehensive Peace Accord concluded between the Government of Nepal and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) was signed in November 2006 in Delhi. This was primarily the midwife of the Indian security agencies in back-channel talks with various Nepali stakeholders. This agreement was signed during the UPA regime. Major negotiations took place at that time. It was a well-coordinated work among the security agencies, Foreign Ministry officials and Indian political leadership led by the Prime Minister. Unlike Narendra Modi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did not marginalise his Foreign Minister and Ministry and security agencies while leaning on external and non-constitutional players as the central actors. It was not just a team work at that particular point of time, but it picked up the threads from the work done by the predecessor NDA regime, led by Atal Behari Vajpayee. The remarkable feat of ice-breaking with the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) through back channels was achieved because of Atal Behari Vajpayee’s statesmanlike policies, wherein he was not actively destroying the past continuities and contemporary institutional arrangements.
The question is: India-Nepal relations have reached the lowest ebb; can the relations be restored to the earlier level by reviving the Atal Behari-Manmohan Singh model of diplomacy? As an Indian I am proud of the fact that our Foreign Office and security agencies were able to broker this peace agreement. But as an activist of our democratic polity and a part of the democratic socialist tradition of India, I am embarrassed that the political class had little role in contributing to the democratising process of restoring peace in Nepal. This is particularly painful if we compare how Indian political movements, both of the Right and the Left, have worked earlier in coordination with and support to each other. In the not very remote past, Madan Bhandari led the ideological churning to bring the underground Communist Party in Nepal to commit to the movement overground and to multi-party democracy in that country. This was around the time when a Communist ideologue of the Naxalite movement, Vinod Mishra, was leading a similar churning in India. These two ideologues constantly exchanged notes with each other and their respective parties were in sisterly relationship with each other. Similarly, the democratic socialist-oriented leadership from Nepal participated in India’s independence struggle and if we look at the correspondence of Jaya Prakash Narayan and Lohia with Jawaharlal Nehru, we shall realise how democracy in Nepal was integral to their political practice from the Indian side. Even today Justice Rajindar Sachar remembers Lohia’s and his arrest in 1949 for the cause of Nepali democracy while protesting before the Royal Nepal Embassy in New Delhi.
The Marxist and non-Marxist Left in Nepal and India, during their struggles till recently, were fellow travellers, while retaining the national autonomies of their parties and movements. And the Indian establishment did not place hazards in these relationships in a big way. If we move around with the senior leaderships of the Nepali Communist Parties and Nepali Congress, it is common to hear stories of their activities during their days of exile in India. In this manner there was a living relationship between the Communists and Socialists of Nepal and India. It does not mean that the Communists and Socialists were not in a competitive adversarial relationship and were only collaborating for the cause of shared ideals. In fact the Communists and Socialists say their goals and dreams had many fundamental differences with each other and not so much with their respective counterparts in India and Nepal. The Rightist Hindutvaforces as in India were always spearheading and organising people around a regressive perspective. The VHP-RSS workers from India used to be deputed to Nepal and worked in collaboration with the elements of the Royalty. They were never with the democratic struggles of the Nepali people. Even today their main concern is the Hindutva identity and not making Hinduism an inclusive and tolerant religious-cultural-spiritual movement.
This Indo-Nepal Hindutva relationship till 2014 was primarily confined to the civil society structures, mostly of the traditional variety. And the Indian diplomatic establishment did not actively promote or discourage this relationship. This may be because its political impact was not seen to be grossly overestimated. Even the previous NDA regime under the Atal Behari Vajpayee leadership did not actively patronise this tendency or aggressively curb the relationship of the polities of the progressive forces in the two countries. The dramatic departure came with Narendra Modi’s coming to power in India, although the first visit of Modi struck a positive chord among the Nepali people across the political classes and spectrum. But from the second visit onwards, India’s hegemonic mindset became obvious. We have mentioned how the PM’s special envoy’s visit to Nepal with suggestions for constitutional amendments was a direct affront to the Nepali people and their sovereignty. This government has not only offended the political sensitivities of the Nepali leadership, it has also actively undermined people-to-people relationship among the Left and democratic forces. During one of the visits of a Nepal dignitary, one RSS worker was heard telling Nepali journalists that now you don’t have to cultivate Sitaram Yechury, D.P. Tripathi or Vijay Pratap to shape India’s Nepal policy. ‘Now, we shall determine what India’s policy will be.’
Given Nepal’s geo-strategic situation and being a land-locked country between India and China normally it is not possible to take head-on either of the two giant neighbours. It is not only due the Indian leadership’s failure or the Nepali leadership’s opportunistic use of anti-India sentiments that the present mess has taken shape. All superpowers—the USA, UK, EU, China—have operated through their back channels to have pockets of influence in Nepal. Above all, China has actively acted in a manner that India and Nepal become distant neighbours. Many observers believe that during ‘India’s blockade’ China was only paying lip-service to Nepal. In fact it wanted the negative impact of the blockade to be felt by every Nepali so that they deeply internalise the anti-India sentiment. Otherwise how could you explain that China did not open even those conventional routes with Nepal which were functional and in use when Tibet had not been annexed by China? Even some of the Nepali diplomatic ideologues find it strange that Nepal talks about its rights as a land-locked country only vis-à-vis India and not vis-à-vis China. After all, it is land-locked by both. These ideologues are also of the view that China’s aggressive advocacy of the Belt Road Initiative (BRI) will not be of substantial benefit to Nepal. According to them, the real Chinese motive for the BRI is to get easy access to the Bengal, Bihar, UP markets of India. They also question the Chinese model of aid where they bring in their capital lying unused in their banks, their technology and even their workforce. So what does Nepal gain from this model of development cooperation? No employment growth, no stoppage of push factors in Nepali outmigration, no transfer of technology, and an additional danger of heavy burden of debt-servicing as in the case of Sri Lanka.
With the pervasive anti-India sentiment, where talking about assertion of genuine Nepali interests vis-à-vis China is seen as the handiwork of Indian agents, it becomes a free ground for pursuit of Chinese foreign policy objectives. The Chinese have been following a free check-book policy in Nepal. For example, the Chinese have no fixed quota for Nepali students who want to pursue higher studies in China.
In fact, the Chinese have a quota for all critical segments of the Nepali establishment, that is, journalists, political classes, bureaucrats and probably last come the meritorious students. The Indian establishment also had a slightly better and more professional mix of this policy. Like all other major global powers, the present Indian and Chinese establishments have great confidence in their power of patronage. The Chinese and present Indian establishments have different inspirational sources for their hegemonic tendencies. But the end result for the Nepali nation is the same: distorting and disorienting the indigenous democratic energies and contributing to a false battle of fighting the enemies of Nepal.
The relationship between the civil and political classes of India and Nepal was born and nurtured by shared struggles with fragments of the world perspective while being rooted in the two countries’ soil.
There was meaningful coopration among the authentic patriotic forces and not between pseudo-nationalists of the two states. The current contours of political discourse have elements of pseudo-nationalism on both sides.
The aggressive overtones of Nepali nationalism should be understood in the historical context with 1857 as the major watershed. In India’s first freedom struggle, the Ranas supported and fought on behalf of the British Army. Whatever advantages the ‘Nepali stooges’ got out of this is not very relevant for this discussion. What is important to remember is that since 1857, the British crown started ruling the Indian subcontinent directly, instead of through the East India Company. This created a sub-continental unity among the rulers of princely states who had surrendered their sovereignty in varying degrees to the British Crown on the one hand and the struggling masses on the other. So, the entire gamut of India-Nepal relations has to be understood in the civilisation framework of the state-society nexus of South Asia. The notion of the modern nation-state and sovereignty was not identical to the modern nation-state system. So in the initial period of post-independent India, the Indian political and diplomatic elite was almost always confusing the civilisation unity of India and Nepal with the oneness of two independent states. This is specially true of the Hindutva forces who, because of their ideologically ghettoised, siege mentality, are least aware of Nepali national identity.
The Indian and Nepali relationship was intertwined with hegemonic tendencies and confused state policy towards Nepal (from the Indian side) and opportunistic use of anti-Indian sentiments (by the Nepali political class). This contributed to the present mess.
Now, we go back to the initial poser: can the Atal Behari-Manmohan Singh model restore ‘normal’ Nepal-India relationship? My frank answer is: no, it cannot. The minimum we require is to immediately and unilaterally announce our adherence to the Gujral Doctrine of Neighbourhood Policy on the part of India. The Gujral Doctrine is necessary but it is not sufficient to restore normalcy in India-Nepal relations.
Nepal-India ties evolved in the great democratic struggles in the respective countries. Just look at some of the clauses of the Nepali Constitution, how they have tried to make their parliament inclusive. I think it must be a unique feature of the Nepali Constitution in the entire comity of nations.
PART-3, Fundamental Right and Duties
: Right to social justice: 42 (1) The economically, socially or educationally backward women, Dalit, indigenous nationalities, Madhesi, Tharu, Muslims, backward classes, minorities, marginalised communities, persons with disabilities, gender and sexual minorities, farmers, labourers, oppressed or citizens of backward regions and indigent Khas Arya shall have the right to participate in the State bodies on the basis of the principle of proportional inclusion.
ARTICLE 84: Composition of House of Representatives:
(1) The House of Representatives shall consist of a total of two hundred and seventyfive members, as follows:
(a)One hundred and sixtyfive members to be elected through the first-past-the-post electoral system, with one being elected from each constituency of one hundred and sixtyfive constituencies delimited in the country on the basis of population, and geographical convenience and specificity;
(b)One hundred and ten members to be elected through the proportional electoral system where voters vote for political parties, with the whole country being considered a single constituency.
(2) The Federal law shall provide that, in fielding candidacy by political parties for the election to the House of Representatives under the proportional electoral system, representation shall be ensured on the basis of a closed list also from women, Dalit, indigenous peoples, Khas Arya, Madhesi, Tharu, Muslims and backward regions, on the basis of population. In so fielding candidates, regard shall also be given to geography and territorial balance. Explanation: For the purposes of this clause, “Khas Arya” means Kshetri, Brahmin, Thakur, Sanyasi (Dashnami) community.
ARTICLE 86: Composition of National Assembly and term of office of its members: (1) The National Assembly shall be a permanent House. (2) The National Assembly shall consist of fiftynine membersas follows:
(a) Fiftysix elected members consisting of at least three women, one Dalit and one from persons with disabilities or minorities, from each State by an electoral college composed of members of the State Assembly, chairpersons and vice-chairpersons of the Village Bodies, and Mayors and Deputy Mayors of the Municipalities, with different weightage of vote by members of the State Assembly, chairpersons and vice-chairpersons of the Village Bodies, and Mayors and Deputy Mayors of the Municipalities, as provided for in the Federal law,
(b) (b) Three members consisting of at least one woman nominated by the President on recommendation of the Government of Nepal.
India and Nepal have to set out shared goals, the striving for which and whose realisation should become a global reference point.
Global agreement for implementing Sustainable Development Goals provides an interesting starting point for completely eradicating poverty and providing complete and dignified livelihood engagements to all the peoples of South Asia. But this will require that PM Modi does not erode the institutional capacity of his own party, other Opposition parties and, above all, those elements of civil society who have commitment to implement the SDGs and not implement the divisive agenda of the RSS.
In the end I venture to say that Rahul Gandhi has aptly pointed to the Chinese designs against India. But his think-tank needs to work out a comprehensive course-correction for South Asia in general and Nepal in particular.
Vijay Pratap is the chairperson, Solidarity Centre for South Asian Democracies, and Convener of the Socialist Front of India.