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Nepal: Managing A Merger With India

Nepal: Managing A Merger With India

Sandeep Pradhan

Contemporary discussions on Nepal’s existential crisis lack a serious dimension: the possibility of the country’s absorption into the Indian union. The options here range from the transformation of Nepal into an autonomous region of India to gaining full statehood of the most populous democracy on the planet.

The prospect is not as outrageous as it might sound so some. An influential section of the international community may already have led us down that inexorable path. The United States and Britain have assigned to the Indian government the lead role in resolving the crisis in Nepal. There is little evidence to suggest that these two western governments would do much to stand in the way of India’s fulfilling its own strategic interests in Nepal.

If outright annexation would prevent the first communist takeover of any country in the post-Cold War era, Washington or London would hardly be in a mood to resist India. Of course, they would face a greater challenge in seeking certain geo-strategic guarantees from New Delhi.

China, on the other hand, has been the most energetic guarantor of Nepalese independence since the 1950s. At least that is the perception in the kingdom. Beijing’s own warming ties with New Delhi have perceptibly changed regional dynamics. China’s recognition of Sikkim’s annexation by India is the latest in a series of fast-moving events.

Contrary to belief, China’s security interests could be served by Indian dominance of Nepal. Of course, Beijing would seek firm guarantees from New Delhi on Tibet. If the Dalai Lama’s government in exile were to be expelled from Himachal Pradesh to, say, Hollywood, the Chinese might be more welcoming of Indian dominance of Nepal. The Chinese, moreover, understand that a Nepal firmly within the Indian grip would be better able to keep the Americans out.

Before I unleash a massive outpouring against what many of my compatriots may consider a treasonous agenda, let us consider the background. Nepalese politics has always thrived on deals struck among major domestic players through the mediation, arbitration or facilitation of Indian leaders. In 1951, the “New Delhi compromise” saw Mohan Sumshere Jang Bahadur Rana the Autocrat succeeding himself to become the first prime minister of democratic Nepal.

Virtually all of the major political crises between 1951 and 1960 were settled through the good offices of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Between 1960 and 1990, the partyless panchayat system, which strove to diversify foreign-policy options to include China and both superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union -- did not have to rely too much on India’s role.

When it came to the crunch, though, panchayat apparatchiks chose to play their cards carefully. A prime example was the kingdom’s response to India’s imposition of a crippling trade and transit embargo. If India’s real objections were to Nepal’s import of Chinese weapons in violation of treaty provisions with New Delhi, Nepal could easily have cited the same provisions to ask why the Indian government never consulted the kingdom before finalizing the Bofors guns deal.

The political change of 1990, too, was largely a product of Indian maneuvering against the backdrop of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Senior Indian politicians of all persuasions arrived in town to persuade Nepalis to rise up against the monarchy – the purported source of all our troubles. Their real intention was to pressure King Birendra to accede to hefty concessions to India in exchange for preserving the palace’s direct rule.

Once the Indians’ shock over the monarch’s decision ward off New Delhi’s pressure by announcing a liberalization of the political system wore off, multiparty politics took its own course. Of course, it reflected the ancient ties subsisting between Nepal and India and their shared social and cultural heritage.

Even the Maoist rebels who went underground to present themselves as advocates of total revolution against the monarch and Indian hegemony, have now expressed their willingness become part of the system they want to dismantle. This is in no small measure because of the good offices of India, which had been training and arming the rebels from the start anyway. Since the New Delhi confabulations earlier this month, which brought the principal political forces together, speculation of another grand compromise has been rife.

An influential section in India, in the illustrious traditions of its colonial forebears, has always regarded the Himalayas as the country’s northern border. The world’s only Hindu kingdom’s hobnobbing with Pakistan, the hotbed of Islamic terrorism, has only heightened Indian concerns. Now the Nepalese monarch’s moves to pry the country out of India’s sphere of influence by boosting ties with China has enervated many an expert in New Delhi. The prevailing view in such quarters is in favor of drastic pre-emptive action.

Indian absorption of Nepal would not prove that difficult. As for assimilation, there are already millions of Nepalis living across the eastern, southern and western borders. Many Nepalis speak better Hindi than most south Indians do.

What are the benefits for Nepal? For one thing, our sense of nationalism would be disentangled from anti-Indianism, as we strive to maintain Nepal’s geographical and linguistic identity within a larger federation. We can avoid the spectacle of Indian security agents making cross-border forays with impunity. Nepal can claim subsidies from the federal government in New Delhi every time its finances dip dangerous low.

Nepalis can still continue blaming India for submerging tracts of the lowlands each year. Entire Indian states, it is worth recalling, are fighting each other over water. As for the monarchy, King Gyanendra and his heirs may be deprived of a country, but they would still probably have a ready constituency of followers among India’s influential Hindutva fraternity. An Agha Khan-like role cannot be ruled out for the Shahs.

For long, Nepalis have taken great pride in how our forebears preserved their independence during the colonialist onslaught in the region. Little thought has been given to whether this may be one reason why we are among the most backward people in the region.

Ultimately, we must allow the Indians to weigh what they stand to gain by absorbing an insurgency-battered impoverished country whose only natural resource they covet flows their way anyway. Personally speaking, I feel we might not be as lucky as the Sikkimese were. India is more likely to maintain a façade of independence under a republican Nepal. That way they can continue playing the president and prime minister off against each other. Less clear is whether we may still have the China card to play.


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