Nepal: In India’s interest

For Indians, Nepal remains a favoured ‘holiday and honeymoon destination’. It comes into our radar as ‘the world’s only Hindu kingdom’. Visitors come away with experience of a gentle and happy people, pristine beauty, the majestic Himalayas and the stunning temples with intricate artistry in wood and stone. It is cheaper, by almost half, to travel from Bangalore to Kathmandu than from Bangalore to New Delhi. It does not require Indians to have passports. It accepts the Indian Rupee in all transactions. In the popular mind there is still a lot of respect and warmth for India—and Bangalore, the land of Sai Baba.

With the Communist Party of Nepal [Maoist] reportedly in control of 68 of Nepal's 75 districts, the police force withdrawn from almost the entire countryside and only about 100 out of 1,135 police stations functioning, India needs to rethink its relationship and perception of Nepal. It is demonstration enough that war should not be left to generals. Instead of addressing the root causes, or reading the signs of revolution, a dangerous escalation has taken place. We need to acknowledge that Asia’s last revolution from the barrel of the gun is taking place.

With a per capita income of just US$220, Nepal is termed one of the poorest countries in the world. That is a misconception. Nepal is rich in natural resources. In terms of water resources it is one of the richest with about 200 billion cubic metres of water flowing though its rivers every year. It has the capacity to produce electricity equivalent to that of Mexico, the USA and Canada combined. Yet, unequal treaties force Nepal to sell much of its water to India at give–away prices. Meanwhile, 40% of the rural population in Nepal lack regular supplies of potable water. Only about 10 percent of the country has access to hydro–electric power.

With predictions of water wars looming, Nepal has to be factored in even more into India’s defence and strategic planning. Otherwise, India will find itself outflanked and facing a Nepal of ‘water Sheiks’—just as the west found to their dismay regarding petroleum in 1973 regarding the ‘oil Sheiks’. The WTO negotiations presage a time when water will be sold to the highest bidder, with global corporations willing to buy and sell the water at commercial rates, and willing to invest their money in infrastructure for the purpose.

India has for long treated Nepal as its ‘backyard’ and within its ‘hemisphere of influence’. It has been generally disdainful of the Nepalese. India cultivated the Nepali elite, bribing them when possible, coercing them when necessary. Several unequal treaties were foisted on the Nepalese. Indians have ensured monopoly businesses there. This has resulted in a lot of resentment against India at the ground level in Nepal.

The 1990 restoration of democracy has seen the expectations of the Nepalese rise. There is a new class coming up that sees Nepal not as a protectorate of India, but as an equal. They now know that they can be the buffer between China and India, a conduit for trade, and their strategic value. They are still angry at being blockaded during the boundary dispute. Token ‘assistance’ such as the 22 friendship bridges are no substitute for friendship based on equality.
Today the Indian state is on the wrong side of history. While the monarchy and the elite were firmly on our side—bought or coerced—our tactics worked. The last two years have seen a sea change on the ground. The Maoists now control about 80% of the countryside. In February 2003 they assassinated the chief of security in broad daylight right in Kathmandu. During the March 2004 blockade, they could cut–off all towns from the countryside for close to a month. Military aircraft had to be pressed into service used to ferry people between the towns and Kathmandu. In August 2004, they even blockaded Kathmandu for a week.

The rather short-sighted response to the Kathmandu blockade has been to send a convoy with supplies to Kathmandu—with air cover. This is a needless escalation. The Maoists called off the blockade soon after. They were certainly surprised, but gave the government a month to address their demands. But commonsense argues that it is a tactical withdrawal. It was a development that they did not expect. When they do return it will be with anti-aircraft weapons.

The government staff dare not enter the villages. But for the cities and district headquarters, virtually the entire countryside is under the jurisdiction of the Maoists, who do not allow government officials to go to the villages. Consequently, the active role of the government, and those who collaborate with it, are restricted to the district headquarters. The Maoists placed restrictions on all agencies collaborating with the US accusing them of supporting or spying for the government and working against their movement. They were not allowed to work in the villages. Staff of US agencies were not even allowed out of the district headquarters. All other agencies had to take permission from the Maoists.

India now has the policy of weakening the Maoists. We keep the pot boiling to keep the king—with his slight tilt towards Beijing—in check. This is a short sighted policy. Giving military aid to the hated royal army—together with Britain and the US ‘advisors’ a la Vietnam—will only turn the people against us. The king is a much reviled figure in Nepal, being suspected of complicity in regicide. With 80% of the people of Nepal in agriculture, and 40% in poverty, Nepal still reports that its rural development budget could not be spent. To top it all, the palace then appropriated 50% of the unspent amount to buy three luxury cars! The story of how the Maoists, a motley group of people with just two outdated rifles in 1996, can control a majority of the country in less than five years speaks volumes of their popularity.

The true friends of India are not the yes–men but the patriots. Just as genuine followers of a religion have respect and reverence for all religions, it is the patriotic Nepalese working for the best interests of their nation who will be an asset for India. Having allies who have sold out their country does not help in the long–run as the US has found to its cost in South Vietnam, Marcos in the Philippines, the Shah in Iran…

The republican movement in Nepal, promoted by the Maoists, is one such movement that calls for India’s engagement. They want a strong Nepal. They want a renegotiation of the unjust treaties. This renegotiation will help right historical wrongs, and will help the Nepalese see India as a country promoting justice. If possible, India should be the gentle nudge that promotes democracy in Nepal. The key demand of the Maoists is a constituent assembly, which is certainly a demand that India as a democracy can appreciate. It certainly cannot be equated with a ‘terrorist’ demand. At the very least, India should not take an anti–people stand and work against the Maoist movement—which is the only political formation that will keep the US out. India does not need another US client state on our borders.

A clear policy of either engagement or neutrality is best. A constructive engagement will ensure that India has a strong neighbour on our borders. The last thing we need is another failed state like Afghanistan or what Pakistan came frighteningly close to being. Or to have Nepal bypass us, as Bangladesh has done by building a road to China via Myanmar. Despite the rather niggardly treatment, the Nepalese have been very generous towards India. We must not dissipate that goodwill. Weak nations and weak individuals need support, and are a drain on the collective. Strong nations and individuals contribute to the upkeep of others and the health of the collective. Unjust ‘friendship’ treaties will be renegotiated, but a stronger friend will emerge. A strong Nepal is essential for a peaceful south Asia and a stable world. It is also in India’s interest.
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