India’s Nepal problem

Brahma Chellaney, Mint


Nepal is not just another neighbour of India but one that is symbiotically linked to it by close cultural affinity, overlapping ethnic and linguistic identities, and an open border permitting passage without documentation or even registration — an unusual arrangement. The Indo-Nepal relationship is deeper than between any two European Union states. Indeed, ever since the 1951 Chinese annexation of Tibet eliminated the outer buffer between India and China, Nepal has served as the main inner buffer. Political turmoil in Nepal directly impinges on Indian security.

Nepal’s current political and constitutional crisis, which has engendered violent protests and serious shortages of fuel and other essential goods, is just the latest chapter in a flawed democratic experiment since 1990. The experiment has yielded mostly political upheavals — from opening the door to a decade-long Maoist insurgency and facilitating the ouster of the country’s monarchy to the deepening of the country’s ethnic fault lines and the empowerment of communists. By fostering unending turmoil, the sputtering democratic transition has made Nepal a playground for powers hostile to India.

Still, Nepali nationalism usually takes the form of India baiting. India is again at the center of a blame game by Nepalese nationalists, many of them communists, including ex-guerrillas like Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli. Ultra-nationalism and communism tend to be two sides of the same coin, as is also apparent in several ex-communist countries and China.

Nepal’s latest crisis is linked to a new Constitution that was rammed through with controversial provisions that leave the Terai plains people politically vulnerable. Oli’s communist-dominated government, appointed in October after the Constitution took effect, has only fuelled the crisis with a hardline policy stance. Yet Oli has made India the scapegoat, accusing it of unofficially blockading essential supplies to landlocked Nepal — an accusation lapped up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Indian critics. However, anyone visiting the Birgunj-Raxual border point, through which much of the bilateral trade flows, can see that the blockade is by the ethnic-Madhesi protest groups.

With India mediating between the two sides, Oli has now grudgingly offered to accommodate some of the Terai people’s demands, including through two constitutional amendments. But Madhesi leaders, accusing Oli of being wedded to a divisive agenda, have rejected his offer as inadequate. If the crisis drags on, a failed Constitution will compound Nepal’s political disarray.

The serious challenge posed by a quasi-failed Nepal to India is unlikely to go away, especially given the long open frontier. New Delhi has yet to frame a credible, long-term strategy to deal with a problem that includes Nepal serving as a gateway for China and Pakistan to undermine Indian security. Nepal has also become a conduit for the flow of illicit arms, narcotics and counterfeit currency to India. Kathmandu, instead of cracking down on such activity with Indian assistance, has objected to India increasing the deployment of the Sashastra Seema Bal, a police force that patrols the Nepal and Bhutan borders.

To be sure, India’s missteps and neglect have exacerbated its Nepal problem. For example, it encouraged — in an intimidation-filled environment in Nepal and by ceding strategic space to outside powers and the United Nations — the 2008 election process, which brought the Maoists to power. Having sowed the wind in Nepal, India reaped the Maoist whirlwind in the red corridor from Pashupati to Tirupati.

Despite Nepal’s critical importance to India, Modi’s August 2014 visit was the first by an Indian prime minister to that country in 17 years. It came after China had strategically penetrated Nepal.

To his credit, Modi has sought to diplomatically recoup India’s losses over the years in its strategic backyard. Modi indeed visited Nepal a second time in 2014 to participate in the SAARC summit. The two visits created a groundswell of Nepalese goodwill for India. But as soon as political machinations in Nepal over constitution making triggered a new crisis, the powerful communist parties reignited the entrenched Nepalese suspicion about India’s agenda.

Today, with an India-unfriendly government in Kathmandu, New Delhi must vie with China for influence in a country that was its security preserve for more than half a century. Aided by Nepalese communists, Beijing wields increasing influence in Nepal, which Mao Zedong once described as one of the fingers of the Tibetan palm — the others being Bhutan, Sikkim, Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. It is not an accident that having tightened its grip over the palm (Tibet), China is exerting pressure on India through each of the “fingers”.

Nepal’s porous 1,751-km border with India, meanwhile, remains a boon for Pakistani and Chinese intelligence. India has been slow to institute a stricter border regime to choke illicit activities and halt entry of arms, explosives, opiates, fake currency and subversive elements.

Nations respect, and hold in awe, a neighbour that has power, strength and determination. A weak-kneed big neighbour, by contrast, comes in handy to a smaller state for pinning blame on for anything, real or imagined. Nepal, although adrift, has the gumption to bait India and publicly ask it to stop acting like a “big brother”, while paying obeisance to China. It has awarded China a $1.6 billion large dam project — the single biggest foreign investment in Nepal — while failing to revive long-stalled joint energy projects with India. If India cannot manage a state closely tied to it like Nepal, how can it effectively deal with adversarial China and Pakistan?

© Mint, 2015.