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Sanjay Upadhya: Embrace Of Estrangement

Embrace Of Estrangement

By Sanjay Upadhya

When a group of prominent Indian politicians arrived in Nepal on a fact-finding mission last week, supporters of the royal government greeted them with volleys of stones and a bevy of black flags. They saw the visit as an overt Indian attempt to bolster the seven-party opposition alliance against the palace.

The fact that the delegation was led by the Indian politician most closely associated with recent efforts to build a broader mainstream-Maoist alliance against King Gyanendra's Feb. 1 takeover of full executive powers was certainly not lost on the protesters. The aggressive reaction had deep roots in Nepalese grievances against Indian interference – both perceived and real -- in the kingdom.

For many Indians, on the other hand, Nepal has always represented a riddle. Despite a shared Hindu heritage and a vast open border, among other things, Indians are baffled by the virulent anti-Indian strain roiling beneath the surface in their tiny neighbor to the north.

Sometimes these sentiments have taken forms bordering on the absurd. Five years ago, rumors of anti-Nepalese remarks a prominent Indian actor was said to have made left the capital smoldering for days. The actor kept on denying ever having made such comments. No one to this day is on record of having seen or heard the actor say the things attributed to him. Indian businesses and anyone looking Indian were attacked. Four Nepalese were killed as police sought to control riots. How could a nation suddenly go so berserk?

Some Indian analysts dismiss such sentiments as an extension of a "persecution complex" gripping the smaller nations of South Asia. If India looms too large and too strong, well, too bad for those who feel threatened. A precious few Indians have acknowledged the need to delve deeper into the Nepalese psyche.

At the root of these grievances is the extent to which India views Nepal as an independent and sovereign nation. Over the decades, quite a few Indian politicians have expressed regret over their independence leaders' failure to acquire Nepal when they had a chance to do so. Furthermore, the literature of right-wing Indian groups – many of them steadfast supporters of the Nepalese monarchy -- refers to a Greater India encompassing Nepal, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

The tendency to club a nation that was never colonized together with two countries that were part of British India is scarcely the problem. Indian pressure is something Nepalese have experienced the hard way. In 1989, India imposed a virtual trade and transit embargo on the kingdom. Although New Delhi's official explanation was Kathmandu's failure to agree to new agreements, India aimed to punish Nepal for having purchased a few consignments of arms from China at bargain prices.

It turned out that under a secret 1965 deal, which New Delhi conveniently leaked to the press three decades after it was signed, Nepal was obliged to buy arms from its southern neighbor. The revelation dealt a major blow to the Panchayat system, which, for all its democratic flaws, claimed to have safeguarded Nepalese sovereignty. The Nepalese government's refusal to interpret the 1965 accord in the same way failed to elicit much attention in India. Publicly, New Delhi maintained it had upheld its responsibility by keeping open two transit points, instead of one required under international law.

Seeking to place Nepal firmly in its exclusive zone of influence, the Indian government prepared to open another front against a beleaguered palace. Amid shortages of essential commodities, anti-Indian sentiments were beginning to simmer among the people. New Delhi astutely checkmated that by backing the Nepalese opposition parties' campaign for the restoration of multiparty democracy. Indian officials, meanwhile, presented the palace with a draft treaty that contained political, security and economic provisions that would have severely compromised Nepalese sovereignty.

When New Delhi presented many of the same proposals to the new democratic government, Nepalese suspicions of Indian motives intensified. For the rejuvenated parties, the "India factor" served a useful political purpose. Strong India critics like the Unified Marxist-Leninists become "pro-Indian" once in power. Former prime minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai of the Nepali Congress – the most India-friendly political grouping in the kingdom – startled many by unleashing a diatribe against India during a by-election campaign.

Over time, even the Maoist rebels, who began their insurgency on an overtly anti-Indian platform, toned down their rhetoric. They came around to acknowledging India as a more benign adversary than the monarchy. It was a matter of self-preservation. Dependent on Indian soil and allies for training and weapons, the Maoists' rhetoric was a ruse. Many Nepali Congress activists refuse to believe that the Maoists' organizational skills alone were responsible for the spread of the current rebellion, whereas their insurgency in the 1960s failed to pick up.

There are deeper dimensions to Nepalese perceptions of India and its intentions. Cooperation in Nepal's vast water resources is a highly emotive issue. There is a palpable feeling that Nepal has always been "cheated" by India. Successive governments have been accused of "selling out" Nepal's rivers to India, where they flow anyway.

The Mahakali Treaty, signed in 1995, was ratified by the Nepalese parliament amid much rancor. Under treaty provisions, a detailed project report was to have come out within six months of ratification. Ten years later, it is nowhere in sight. The Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the site of the project, has since been bifurcated. Uttaranchal, the new state on the border, has its own disputes with Uttar Pradesh. This has effectively thwarted the project.

Noting that the treaty provides India's prior rights on the Mahakali River, one commentator had this wry observation then: "It looks like India got all it wanted – water for irrigation – while Nepal was left with all the hydropower dreams." Now the nightmares continue to haunt the kingdom.

As Nepal was engrossed in tumultuous political exercises during much of the 1990s, the Indian media portrayed a picture of the kingdom as a den of Pakistan-backed anti-Indian saboteurs. That characterization reached its apogee in late 1999 following the hijacking of the Indian Airlines plane from Kathmandu. Indian media went to the extent of accusing a Nepali passenger of being one of the hijackers. The poor gentleman fumbled for words when Indian TV reporters asked for his response once the hostages were freed.

In fairness, Indian political organizations have had strong fraternal relations with Nepalese parties. Many Nepalese leaders took part in India's independence movement as students. Over the decades, senior Indian politicians have offered words of support to their Nepalese counterparts, most of them in the anti-palace camp between 1960 and 1990.

These links proved useful for Panchayat politicians to bolster their accusation that Nepalese parties were mere appendages of India. This deepened suspicion among communities already wary of Indian motives and brought the desired political effects.

In a philosophical sense, over time, it helped trivialize the spirit of patriotism. At a practical level, it masked Nepal's real problems vis-à-vis India. Although never fully incorporated as a colony, Nepal has paid a high price for its integration with the political economy of the British Raj and, subsequently, of independent India. This tight embrace helped ensured a degree of forced stagnation in production and productivity, which led to increased population pressure on marginal land, emigration and ecological decline.

Admittedly, Nepal's options were limited by the constraints forced by the kingdom's dependency on India. The Nepal's efforts to articulate such constraints with any degree of candor during the non-party regime were inevitably brushed off by India as a ploy to divert attention of the palace-led polity's democratic flaws. The result: the monarchy is being asked to bear full responsibility for the kingdom's poverty and backwardness.

Now Nepal has seized the opportunity. King Gyanendra's takeover has exposed tensions within the Indian polity. For decades, the conventional wisdom was that Indian parties and institutions shared a basic consensus when it came to issues of foreign policy and defense. That perception, cemented when India was under the dominance of the Congress party, has largely survived the rise of coalition politics in New Delhi in the 1990s.

It is unclear whether the inclusion of India-friendly politicians in the royal regime would have toned down India's response to the takeover. The development nevertheless was seen by some in official New Delhi circles as a useful opportunity to win over the Nepalese masses. The External Affairs Ministry, ignoring the fact that New Delhi was engaged with unsavory regimes in Pakistan and Burma, pushed for full democracy in Nepal. The mainstream parties went wild.

When it came to India's lobbying for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, however, India's junior foreign minister ended a visit to Kathmandu with uncharacteristically warm words for the palace. This came as a jolt to the mainstream parties, which took for granted India's support for the democracy movement. Two of the seven constituents of the mainstream anti-palace front saw the need to deny media reports that the Indian delegation was visiting the kingdom at the alliance's invitation.

The Indian Home Ministry, for its part, has responded to the royal takeover within its own concerns – a posture shared in large part by the Indian Army. Any appeasement of the Maoist rebels to the detriment of the palace would overtime embolden Indian Maoist groups active in at least nine Indian states. The monarch may be a difficult person to deal with, the argument from this quarter goes, but the Maoists at the helm would be infinitely worse. In thinly veiled references, Maoist publications denounce this particular section as "reactionaries" and a major obstacle to peace and reconciliation in Nepal.

In the words of Sukh Deo Muni, a leading expert on Nepal believed to carry considerable influence in official New Delhi, Indian policy on the kingdom has been in a state of "suspended animation". That is a charitable description. To varying degrees, India has disaffected the monarchy, mainstream parties and the Maoists.


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