India wants to keep Nepal confined to 1950 treatyNepal and India share a long history of mutual support and cooperation.
Nepal and India share a long history of mutual support and cooperation. Given its size and the fact that it surrounds Nepal on all three sides, India pulls considerable weight in Nepal’s internal affairs—often with mixed results. The two countries’ modern relationship is anchored on the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty that makes it mandatory for both countries to consult each other on issues related to defence and foreign affairs—perhaps an anachronism of sorts in today’s world. Nepali officials often complain that India interprets this provision selectively. To review the whole gamut of India-Nepal relations, including the treaty, the two countries in 2014 agreed to form an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) to submit recommendations. Formation of Nepali side of EPG took place this past week. Anil Giri and Shashwat Acharya spoke to Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, former foreign minister, and a curent member of EPG, about the state of Nepal’s diplomacy, Nepal-India relations in light of the unofficial blockade, and the way forward.
How would you describe the current state of Nepal’s diplomacy?
A country’s politics and security have a direct impact on its diplomacy. The political transition that we are undergoing has made our diplomatic practice challenging. The constitution was promulgated amid the desire for political stability after a long period of conflict. Some internal disputes and external opinions that the constitution generated have made diplomacy both important as well as complicated.
Complicated in what sense?
The pressure created by the international response to the constitution, particularly that of our neighbour’s, and the hardships in daily life it generated, especially in the context of a post-earthquake situation, have added to diplomatic complications. As a result, there is a sense of despair and uncertainty in the country. Everybody’s focus is on figuring out ways to overcome this difficulty.
Based on your interactions with Indians of all hues, why do you think that a democratic country like India resorted to blockading a friendly neighbour?
I lived in India as a student, and later for six years as an ambassador. I not only witnessed and endured three Indian blockades, but I was also involved in the attempts to resolve them. A blockade is not something that a friend imposes on a friend. Putting pressure is a process. Despite Indian denials, Nepalis have had to suffer the consequences of a blockade. How it will benefit India is hard to say. It will take a long time and serious efforts to lessen the resentment of Nepalis against India that this blockade has caused. Even after the blockade ends, considerable diplomatic efforts will have to be exerted from both sides to restore normalcy in the relationship between the two countries.
Do you think India’s policy on Nepal is informed by its perceived bias towards a particular community?
India achieved independence in 1947. Democracy dawned in Nepal a few years later in 1951. In a way, India seems to have continued the imperial mindset of the British. Back then, Nepal was weak and not well-known in the international community. It was not well-versed in international law. While India saw the 1950 treaty as an instrument to further its interests, Nepal expressed its dissatisfaction with it from the very outset. Whereas India’s attempts have been to keep Nepal confined to the treaty, Nepal’s attempts have been to escape it. The resultant tensions have produced the ups and downs in our relationship.
Nepal has moved much ahead. It spread its international relationships widely and established a foundation for cooperation with other nations. It opened itself up to its northern neighbour. Yet this has been a challenging process for Nepal. It has had to face a blockade for the third time.
Now, Nepal is a democratic republic, which in a way is the last stage of political evolution. Although the rest of the world welcomed its new constitution, India perceived it differently. Nepal has been trying to overcome the conflict and compulsion that the situation has generated. No constitution is engraved in stone. It is the duty and responsibility of Nepalis to amend Nepal’s constitution and make it inclusive without letting its internal political practices be influenced by external opinions.
India has to look at Nepal as a whole. Favouring one particular segment will invite conflict. And a conflict in Nepal will not be in the interest of either Nepal or India. I do not think even Indians think that pushing Nepal towards conflict will be in India’s interests.
During their visits to Nepal, Indian Prime Minister Modi and Minister of External Affairs Swaraj acknowledged that the two countries shared a political relationship. Does that mean then that Indian political leaders lack influence when it comes to conducting India’s external affairs?
India’s administrative and security concerns are very complex and grave. More than India’s politics, it is its administrative and security mechanisms that determine its relationships with its neighbours and the remaining world. This is something we have witnessed and dealt with. The way we carried our internal conflicts over to the outside world since 1951 also made us weak. But Nepalis, having learned from their political journey of living under all kinds of regimes, finally came up with their own constitution for the first time. Although some people boycotted the process, it is hardly ever the case that a constitution is approved by a cent percent of the members. After Modi came to power, he showed the willingness for a harmonious relationship with Nepal. Although that memory is alive, an unpleasant episode in the relationship unfolded.
It would be wrong to assume that the holder of the highest political office in India would be unaware of the hardships in Nepal or that the decision that led to the hardships did not have his tacit blessings. But in India’s bureaucracy or security agencies, there is minimal or no politicisation. So if India’s bureaucracy or security agencies decide that something is against India’s national interest, the political class has no choice but to accept that decision.
By contrast, there has been increasing politicisation in Nepal’s bureaucracy. Few attempts have been made to strengthen the bureaucracy. The internal weakness and external pressure have rendered Nepal an unstable nation. In order for Nepal to occupy a respectable place in the international arena, there has to be progress, transparency, accountability and a people-oriented government. Until this happens, our bargaining position with the rest of the world will remain weak. Our abilities will be more or less limited to begging for aid.
Regarding the low point in India-Nepal ties, is the dispute essentially a matter of misunderstanding that some commitments Nepali leaders made to India were not kept?
There are reasons to believe that there has been a deception. The questions about who committed it and with what intentions have their own place. But eminent Indian personalities have expressed their dissatisfaction to me about the tendency of Nepali leaders to seek India’s help to further their interests but to remain ignorant of India’s interests and not do what they promised. So the resentment is not one-sided. Both sides may have made mistakes and both should put in efforts to keep talking with each other. There is no alternative to improving the relationship. Causing hardships to Nepalis will not benefit India. Nepal should also be sensitive to Indian interests and be a helpful and friendly neighbour.
Where would you pin the Indian resentment?
It is like the tale of a number of blind men touching an elephant and trying to figure out what it looks like. Some may see the cause behind India’s resentment to be its hydro interests, others may think it is religion; yet others may think it is Nepal’s growing proximity with the rest of the world. But I do not think it is centred on one particular issue. There are many factors. Trying to single out one particular factor is merely guesswork. As far as our inability to tap our hydroelectric potential, we have to blame ourselves and our neighbour and the rest of the world.
What is the way forward? How can we mend the fraught ties now?
Our internal progress rests on having a transparent and accountable government, a liberal economy and robust institutions. After PM Modi’s visit, both sides envisioned an experts committee to analyse various facets of the relationship and facilitate a friendly and harmonious relationship in the long run. That was a year and half ago. Now, Nepal has taken an initiative and formed the Eminent Persons Group. Hopefully, India will follow suit soon. Only time can tell where that will lead the relationship.
As a senior member of the newly formed Eminent Persons Group, what changes in the relationship would you suggest?
Nepal’s relationship with India is extremely close as well as extremely challenging. It affects all aspects of life. Nepal should not develop the mindset of over-dependence on India and India should not look down on Nepal. Media and communications are extremely vital. Nepali media give plenty of space to the happenings in India. But unless there is a major catastrophe in Nepal, most Indian citizens are unaware of the happenings here. Indian media do not give due attention to Nepal. But when it comes to fostering mutual respect in the relationship, both sides should put effort.
A fresh initiative is about to start, but let us not talk about it before it begins. However, let us hope that it is the beginning of a change leading towards greater understanding and the closest cooperation between the two countries.