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S. Upadhya: Don’t Ignore Real Sovereignty Issue

Don’t Ignore The Real Sovereignty Issue

By Sanjay Upadhya

Fifty-five years after Nepalis were introduced to democracy, we are still debating that old debate. Where should the nation’s sovereignty reside? It looked like the democratic constitution of 1990 had settled that question for good. The drafters explicitly formalized the transfer of sovereignty from the palace to the people. A worse revelation was to come. Nepalis still do not seem to be able to resolve our problems internally.

The democratic leaders of the 1950s sojourned to the Indian capital during critical crises. As the principal architect of the compromise that ushered in democracy, New Delhi considered itself a legitimate stakeholder in the kingdom. After all, the king, prime minister and young revolutionaries had met for the first time under the auspices of the Indian prime minister.

For an influential section of Nepalis, however, the embrace was too tight. The emergence of northern neighbor from decades of civil war changed domestic dynamics. Ideology was no bar to cooperation between the world’s only Hindu kingdom and the officially atheist monolith.

India was hardly out of the picture during the palace’s three-decade non-party rule that began in 1960. The premium was on quiet diplomacy. It turned out that many agreements and memorandums – some supposedly inimical to Nepali interests -- were concluded in secret. Critics claim the royal regime in effect gave away the territory of Kalapani to India – by allowing Indian troops to retain military posts in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian war of 1962 – in exchange for New Delhi’s support.

Kalapani and other issues have been used in recent years to question the palace’s nationalist credentials. The record shows that, during the same period, the royal regime sought to defend the kingdom against infringements on sovereignty by heightening its international profile. Nepal became a member of the United Nations Security Council, for instance, which extricated the country from the category of Himalayan kingdoms India claimed fell within its exclusive sphere of influence.

With the restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990, the “India factor” became a more prominent part of the political lexicon. For many, the Indian Embassy emerged as a fourth power center, after the palace, Nepali Congress and communists. Few know for sure whether the Indian ambassador really had such a dominant role in creating and destroying governments. But the perception stuck and many politicians capitalized on it in different ways.

Following King Gyanendra’s takeover of full executive control, a new movement to restore democracy has gripped Nepal. Leaders have promised a fight to the finish this time. Despite all the heat and dust generated on Kathmandu’s streets, Nepalis have discovered that the political parleys with real significance are being held in New Delhi.

Former prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala and ex-deputy premier Bam Dev Gautam may represent opposite poles of mainstream politics. Today both are camping in New Delhi to seek Indian imprimatur on the roadmap to democracy. Surya Bahadur Thapa, the royalist most closely identified with India -- and who does not seem to mind – is scheduled to arrive later this month.

A careful reading of the Maoists demands shows that they have greater substantive grievances with India than with the monarchy. They, too, are in the Indian capital awaiting a compromise. (Too bad they are too young to join their colleagues in professing “medical treatment” as the purpose of their visit.)

King Gyanendra, for his part, is scheduled to meet Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the sidelines of the G-77 summit in Qatar. The optimism generated by their first meeting in Jakarta in April, on the sidelines of an Afro-Asian summit, proved short-lived.

To be sure, democracy, human rights, freedom of the press are too sacrosanct not to be universal. If foreign governments or entities extend any kind of support toward those goals, should that be construed as harmful intereference? You don’t have to be a xenophobe or isolationist to resent the groveling, though. The country, moreover, has recognized the price of external support.

The cardinal truth is that democracy is in the eye of the foreign beholder. The partyless panchayat system was democratic enough for India as long as it didn’t overtly challenge New Delhi’s version of the Monroe Doctrine. When Nepal tried buying Chinese arms at bargain prices in 1988, it was clear India had no room for economics in its geopolitical calculations. A crippling trade and transit embargo propelled the movement to restore multiparty democracy.

Those with the greatest propensity for cross-border consultations should be the first ones to recognize the perils. The prime ministerial system had begun to take hold in Nepal under Girija Prasad Koirala between 1991 and 1994. New and more contentious issues between Nepal and India burst out into the open. The opposition regularly stalled parliament and took to the streets against Koirala’s “sell-out” of Nepal’s water resources. Spokesmen for high-level Indian delegations in town would give reporters a wink and whisper that the real bilateral discussions were going to be held at the palace.

After a point, blaming Indians for brazen interference won’t do much good. Indian politicians and diplomats are not paid to advance Nepal’s national interest. Eventually, the ability of Nepalis to resolve differences within the country will determine our national resiliency.

How ready are Nepalis to believe that other Nepalis are as good as they are? Casting mainstream politicians as a corrupt crowd of degenerates craving power under the garb of civil liberties is as dangerous as castigating the palace’s roadmap as a trajectory to a feudal past. Or denouncing the Maoist rebels as misguided murderous marauders.

Clearly, Nepalis today face three competing visions for the future and these must be debated on their merits. Maybe – just maybe – then we could get past the real sovereignty debate.


Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist based in the United States, has been a Fulbright Scholar at New York University

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