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Nepal: Ominous Activism Across The Southern Border

Nepal: Ominous Activism Across The Southern Border


By Krishna Singh Bam

With the Indian government energized over recent developments in Nepal, this is a time for heightened vigilance in the kingdom. Reminiscent of the pretext it used in the early 1970s to intervene militarily in what was then East Pakistan, New Delhi has started voicing concern over an increase in the number of Nepalese coming across the border, mainly due to the escalation in Maoist violence.

Leading Indian newspapers, long known to reflect official thinking, have started underscoring what they call deterioration in the political and economic situation since King Gyanendra took over full executive control of the government on February 1.

These reports are circulating at a time when former Nepalese prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala, the leader of the recently formed seven-party anti-palace alliance, is in New Delhi lobbying Indian leaders for support. Former deputy prime minister Bamdev Gautam, a leading member of Nepal’s main communist party, the United Marxist-Leninist, is also in the Indian capital for the same purpose.

Their consultations follow India’s decision to open direct talks with the Nepalese Maoist rebels. Dr. Babu Ram Bhattarai, the chief Maoist ideologue said to be close to New Delhi, met senior Indian leaders under the auspices of Indian intelligence agencies last month. He is reported to have met Koirala and Gautam to work out a broader alliance against the monarch.

Considering Nepal’s long porous border with India and the traditional religious, social and cultural ties between the two countries, New Delhi’s interest in the kingdom should not arouse much concern. In recent years, the Maoist movement has emerged as a serious threat within India as well. At least nine out of the country’s 28 states are experiencing strong extreme left-wing insurgencies. Some Indian analysts have described the Maoist insurgents as a greater threat to national security than Kashmiri separatists.

A Maoist takeover in Nepal would energize fraternal groups in India, seriously challenging the internal security of a vast and diverse country. Recently, New Delhi decided to almost double the size of security forces along the border, from 25,000 to 40,000 men, over the next three years.

This spurt in Indian interest in Nepal would have been laudable had the motives not been in doubt. In the past, India has used political instability in Nepal to further its own political, economic and security interests. In 1950, New Delhi promised to back the tottering hereditary Rana regime in exchange for a treaty that would firmly place Nepal within India’s security grip. Once the treaty was sealed, India wasted little time in undermining that regime, which was eventually displaced in a New Delhi-backed plan.

Over the next decade, India manipulated successive Nepalese governments for its own interests. Indian diplomats were known to be present at cabinet meetings and to convey sensitive decisions to New Delhi. An Indian mission arrived in Kathmandu to integrate Nepal’s military more closely with India’s. Indian military personnel were posted on key locations along Nepal’s northern border with China.

In 1960, King Mahendra dissolved Nepal’s first elected government, led by the Nepali Congress, and disbanded parliament because of, among other things, its failure to challenge Indian interference in important affairs of the country. For nearly two years, India armed and trained exiled members of the Nepali Congress and actively backed an insurgency against the royal regime.

India’s defeat in the war with China in 1962 forced New Delhi to change strategy. It then sought accommodation with the royal regime, to prevent the kingdom from veering closer to China, while continuing to host exiled Nepalese leaders. During the next 28 years, King Mahendra and his son Birendra moved to build Nepal’s international profile. Alarmed by India’s annexation of the Himalayan kingdom of Sikkim in 1974, King Birendra proposed that Nepal be declared a zone of peace. The Indian establishment, which saw these developments as part of an egregious royal attempt to pull Nepal out of India’s exclusive sphere of influence, had little leverage to block them.

In 1988, Nepal decided to buy several consignments of Chinese arms at bargain prices. India, which saw the move as a clear violation of Nepal’s treaty obligations with India, reacted strongly. Calculating that China would be disinclined to spoil recent improvement in ties with India over Nepal, New Delhi imposed a crippling trade and transit embargo against the kingdom.

Recognizing that the embargo only served to stoke patriotic fervor among ordinary Nepalis, and strengthen the royal regime, New Delhi engineered a pro-democracy movement. The fall of the Berlin wall and the burgeoning wave of democracy across the world provided the perfect cover.

India’s purpose was not to overthrow the royal regime per se – perhaps not even to ensure the restoration of multiparty democracy. It was to build sufficient pressure to force King Birendra to sign an 80-page treaty that would have, among other things, placed Nepal firmly within India’s security umbrella and guaranteed India’s exclusive rights on Nepal’s vast water resources.

King Birendra’s decision to lift the ban on parties came as a shock to India. Making the best out of the situation, it presented a version of the same treaty to Nepal’s new leaders, who then perhaps recognized the real motive behind New Delhi’s support for their movement.

Between 1990 and 2002, India found it easy to manipulate political parties to further its interests. Some of the new leaders, like Koirala, were born in India. Others had participated in the Indian independence struggle. Still others either studied in Indian cities or had spent decades there in exile. Once in power, these leaders amassed wealth and invested it in property, banks and businesses in India. This gave India another tool.

>From the mid-1990s, when the Maoist insurgency began with a ragtag band of disgruntled yet ideologically motivated members, India served as a safe haven. The Indian government maintained that the Nepalese rebels were benefiting from the long and open border and were being sheltered by fraternal groups. It is clear, however, that the rebels could not have bought arms and trained on Indian soil without official government backing.

After King Birendra and his entire family were killed in a palace massacre in 2001, officially blamed on a drunken Crown Prince Dipendra, Indian television channels sought to sow confusion against the new monarch. When King Gyanendra dismissed the last elected government the following year, for its failure to hold elections, India sought to use the newly marginalized political parties to breed instability through perennial street protests.

During this same period, India tried to pressure the palace into signing an extradition treaty covering third-country nationals, which Nepal considered an infringement on sovereignty. New Delhi also sought rights to develop hydroelectricity plants in the kingdom at highly disadvantageous terms for Kathmandu. King Gyanendra’s visit to India kept being postponed for one reason or the other. Clearly, there were some key assurances India wanted before the royal trip. Instead, the monarch stunned India by taking full control of the government for the following three years.

India reacted by imposing an arms embargo and pulling out of a South Asian summit in Bangladesh the Nepalese monarch was to have attended. Over time, New Delhi began reconsidering its knee-jerk reaction. During a meeting on the sidelines of the 50th anniversary of the Afro-Asian summit in Jakarta in April, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh reassured King Gyanendra that arms shipments would resume very soon.

Over the following weeks, there was much confusion over India’s actual policy toward the kingdom. This was often blamed on the resistance mounted by communist parties supporting the Singh government. Behind the scenes, however, much more was going on.

For the Indian establishment, Nepal falls strictly within its zone of influence. In recent months, the royal regime has been working to lessen Nepal’s economic dependence on India by, among other things, seeking to expand trade and commercial relations with China.

The first direct passenger bus service linking Kathmandu and Tibet began last month. Efforts at developing Nepal as a transit point between China and India have received a fresh impetus. Nepal expects to provide the transit facility with the objective of expanding its service sector and physical infrastructure development.

Nepal expects China's modernization of Tibet will assist the development of its own mountainous northern districts. Specifically, the kingdom hopes to benefit from a railway project linking China with Tibet’s heartland, which Beijing plans to complete this year, two years ahead of schedule. Recent reports say the Chinese government plans to extend the railway line to the Nepalese border. Chinese officials say the railway will bring in 5.64 million tourists to Tibet over the next five years. The Lhasa-Kathmandu bus service is likely to benefit. Nepal and China have taken special interest in developing the kingdom’s vast hydroelectric power potential.

With its economic dominance in the kingdom under threat, the Indian government is faced with another reality. Nepal’s military has been developing close links with the United States. Since September 11, 2001, Washington has armed and trained the Royal Nepalese Army in its fight against the Maoist rebels, which the State Department has designated a terrorist group.

Despite the upswing in Indo-U.S. relations in recent years, New Delhi sees Washington’s involvement in Nepal as a direct challenge to its role. With the U.S. military bogged down in the quagmire of the war in Iraq, the Indian government has evidently concluded that Washington would be unwilling to intervene more forcefully in Nepal. India feels assured that it could fulfill its interests by pressuring the royal government. The Koirala-led alliance and the Maoists have become useful tools.

In reality, little of substance has changed in Indian policy toward Nepal. Over the last 58 years, India has been pitting the monarchy and the political parties against each other. Whenever one has gained ground, New Delhi has stepped in to shore up the other. From the Indian establishment’s point of view, perpetual instability in the kingdom is the best guarantor of its dominance.

Indeed, direct Indian military intervention in Nepal – a possibility the Maoists have been pointing to from the start – would have been the best solution. However, Nepalese public opinion, given the sordid legacy of bilateral relations, is stacked heavily against India. For the Indians, the political, military and human costs of subduing such an embittered populace would surely rival those in Kashmir. Moreover, a country coveting permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council cannot be seen invading another country.

New Delhi, furthermore, is still reeling from its bitter experience in Sri Lanka in the late 1980s. Indian soldiers were dispatched to the island nation to protect the minority ethnic Hindu Tamils from the depredations of the Buddhist Sinhalese-dominated government. The Tamil Tiger rebels, fighting for a separate homeland for Sri Lankan Hindus in the north and east, later joined hands with the government to chase out the Indian soldiers. Some 1,200 Indian troops were killed in the ill-fated peacekeeping operation and the Tamil Tigers went on to assassinate former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, who had dispatched the force.

India has embarked on a slightly different route this time. From reports leaked to the Indian press, the core of New Delhi’s roadmap is becoming clear. It seems to involve the formation of a coalition government assembling the parliamentary parties and formally dividing the Maoist party, already facing serious rifts. New Delhi will then nudge the king to call for national consultations with all political parties, including those Maoists who are ready to talk. The outcome of such a dialogue could be a national government in which the king would have a formal presiding role.

The next phase of New Delhi’s plan involves the mobilization of the Indian army against the Maoist faction outside the peace process. For this, India will seek the full cooperation of the United States, Britain and China. The crisis in Nepal would be raised at the United Nations Security Council. If a resolution mandating an international stabilizing force were to be adopted, India’s insistence would be that the bulk of the peacekeepers come from South Asian nations with experience of international peacekeeping operations.

What is being proposed, in effect, is a major Indian military intervention in Nepal to further New Delhi’s geopolitical interests under the United Nations flag.

ENDS

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