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Unraveling An Enduring South Asian Riddle

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For many across India, Nepal continues to be, to borrow Winston Churchill’s description of Russia, a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Despite a shared heritage and an open border, bilateral relations have never been easy. Over the decades, New Delhi has tried different approaches to building amity, but to little avail.


India’s articulation of “special relations” during the 1950s and 1960s further alienated the Nepalis. The quiet engagement of the 1970s and 1980s did not work either. The “non-reciprocity” model of the mid-1990s ended up with New Delhi offering concessions but obtaining virtually nothing in return with respect to its legitimate security concerns in Nepal. The installation of the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in the late 1990s was expected to inaugurate a new climate of trust and cooperation with the world’s only Hindu kingdom. But the history of distrust of India was far more deeply entrenched in Nepal.


With each experimentation, anti-Indianism has gone one to acquire greater potency as a factor in Nepali politics. Every move New Delhi makes to spur the bilateral relationship is immediately perceived as part of some hegemonistic design. On top of that, antagonism has at times taken on ugly forms based on outright falsehoods (such as the rumor in late 2000 that film star Hrithik Roshan had disparaged Nepal and Nepalis in a television interview that never really took place!)


Nepali political forces of all persuasions have exploited this deep-seated distrust for their narrow interests. Far more worrying for New Delhi is the space this deepening antipathy has provided for external forces to plot against India. This is the principal conclusion one can draw from the book “The Raj Lives” (Vitasta Pub. New Delhi 2008).


Authored by Sanjay Upadhya, a prominent Nepali journalist, the 350-page volume chronicles the evolution of bilateral relations from a purely Nepali perspective. At the same time, the book is a study of Nepal’s troubled domestic politics, where India seems to loom large at every twist and turn. Nepali public opinion, it emerges from the book, holds New Delhi complicit in propping up the monarchy, instigating the political parties and sponsoring the Maoist insurgency.


Admittedly, this notion baffles Indians who have come under fire from all three quarters. But perceptions, according to Upadhya, tend to guide policy on the other side of the border. In view of recent developments in Nepal, India cannot shrug off the factors that drive public sentiments there.


From New Delhi’s vantage point, the abolition of the monarchy earlier this year was a turning point. The monarchy had regained its traditional powers in 1951 from the century-long usurpation by the Rana oligarchy. While this happened through Jawaharlal Nehru’s active mediation, the palace turned bitterly anti-Indian in an effort to consolidate its powers. That Nepali voters finally saw the futility of shouldering this anachronistic institution was reassuring for Indians.


The Nepali Congress and mainstream communist party, the United Marxist and Leninist faction, have used anti-Indianism to promote their politics. But they also share close ties with Indian political parties, something New Delhi expects to exert a moderating influence. The Maoists, perhaps the most anti-Indian political force in Nepal, are at the helm in Kathmandu. But they, too, gave up their armed insurgency and entered the political process acknowledging that their totalitarian model was inherently incompatible with the times.

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Weeks after assuming office, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal arrived in New Delhi last month with a message of conciliation. Although he made India his second port of call, after visiting China to participate in the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games, his Indian hosts did not hold against the Maoist leader what was widely perceived in both countries as a break of Nepalese diplomatic tradition.


Indians across the board were impressed by Dahal’s refusal to let the past vitiate the climate. Yet days later, his defense minister went to China to conclude military cooperation agreements. Details of one such deal came out in the open when a Nepali Congress lawmaker accused the Maoists of trying to impose a one-time rebel commander as the chief of the Nepali military.


The Chinese government, according to the MP, has invited the ex-rebel commander to participate in a course explicitly developed for the higher echelons of the military. This is but the latest in a series of clear indications that Beijing is intent on using the Maoists to strengthen its foothold in Nepal and, through the porous India-Nepal border, the wider South Asian region.


The Maoists are not in a position to capture total state power, a goal it turns out they have not entirely abjured despite entering the peace process. But there is no doubt that the former rebels have thrived the most in the vacuum created by the dethronement of the king. The non-communist political forces are too weak and divided to mount a strong resistance to the Maoists.


For New Delhi, the strong strain of anti-Indianism has certainly constrained its options. Upadhya does enumerate a series of steps India could take to reassure Nepalis. But, again, most of them pertain to economic and commercial concessions New Delhi would be hard-pressed to yield without reciprocal reassurances on political and security issues from Kathmandu.

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In the less familiar half of his famous quotation, Churchill asserted that there was a key to understanding Russia. He determined that to be Moscow’s national interests. In Nepal, India must search more rigorously for that elusive key.


The Raj Lives: India In Nepal

By Sanjay Upadhya

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