By Babu Krishna Karki, Kathmandu
10 June 2020
The pettiness in India’s narrative is blaring and the puerility of the world’s largest democracy is becoming very pronounced.
The veiled and wanton threats admonishing Nepal through The Hindustan Times editorial is unbecoming of a country that boasts itself as the largest democracy in the world. Such attitude and tactics illustrate the vestiges of a colonial mentality. It reveals how ill-informed and deeply insecure the Indian polity is. Above all, such tactics demonstrate what a desperate India resorts to when its soft power leverage fails to deliver.
India’s deep insecurity is best illustrated by one incident which has been deliberately omitted from its national memory.
During a meeting between Nepal’s former King Mahendra and Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, the latter cunningly impressed upon the monarch about how India was providing a security umbrella to Nepal. The wily Monarch wryly looked at Gandhi’s bodyguard who had a Khukri emblazoned on his hat. Gandhi instantly flustered because she immediately got his witty response. From then onwards, Gurkhas were effectively removed from Prime Ministerial duty and replaced with Sikhs. Ironically, one of her Sikh bodyguards assassinated Prime Minister Gandhi.
Boastful big brother
India’s narcissism has been a conspicuous feature in South Asia. It gleefully propagates the narrative of being the “big brother” in the region. Nepal has relented to India’s infantile self-aggrandizement primarily because of its large landmass, population, ancient civilization but mainly due to its own land-locked geopolitical status. Nepal’s acceptance actually does not stem from India’s mature statecraft or its meritorious regional leadership.
Unlike India and the rest of South Asia that succumbed to various marauding conquerors and remained shackled for several hundred years, Nepal has remained the only independent state for the last 250 years. By simple virtue of its existence as an independent nation-state, it is obvious who stands where. Despite being one of the oldest states in the world, Nepal prudently tolerates India’s big brother self-entitlement.
Then, there is India’s clichéd narrative. India depicts Nepal as a privileged recipient of Indian benevolence. This is grossly erroneous. Despite having a billion population and widespread unemployment, India continues to recruit Nepalese nationals in its elite and fearsome Gurkha Regiment. Some 70,000 Nepalese nationals serve in various Indian armed services today. Thousands of others serve in police forces across India. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent proclamation amplifies Nepal’s contribution to India. During his first Nepal visit, he acclaimed how independent India had never fought a battle in which the blood of a Nepalese national had not been spilled. He further admitted that Nepalese nationals in its armed forces are not hesitant to defend and die to protect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Besides Nepal’s unmatched contribution in protecting India’s national boundaries, Nepalese nationals also play a pivotal function in India’s community security. The most desired and loyal watchmen (Chowkidar) in India today are undeniably the Nepalese nationals. One simple incident is telling. When Prime Minister Modi labelled himself a “Chowkidar,” in one of his tweets, one prominent opposition leader Hardik Patel blasted him saying, “If I wanted to find a chowkidar then I will go to Nepal.” Although Patel comments were clearly offensive and derogatory, it inadvertently highlighted Nepal’s towering role in India’s community security.
India also willfully attempts to conceal and distort the inexorable economic reality. In the last 70 years, India has maliciously imposed four economic blockades on Nepal totaling 39 months. The economic wreckage inflicted by the blockades exponentially outweighs Indian’s meagre economic assistance. Although Indian statistics rank Nepal as the 7th highest remittance contributor, this ranking is highly skewed. Nepal in actual terms is the first if not the second largest contributor. Due to the open borders between the two countries, more than 90% of remittance from Nepal travels in the pockets of low and unskilled Indian labourers. This amount is virtually undetectable and unquantifiable. Similarly, Nepal is officially ranked as India’s 10th largest trade partner. However, due to the open porous border, 70% of the Indian trade is trafficked and remains unrecorded. Most of the Indian goods are either trafficked in small amounts in bags and bicycles or exorbitantly under-reported to avoid incurring customs duties. Therefore, in actuality, Nepal’s rank is second if not third in India’s trade hierarchy. In essence, India has an unrestricted and unrivaled access to Nepal’s market.
Your threat our treat
Through The Hindustan Times editorial and multiple other formal and informal channels, India has been consistently issuing veiled as well as overt threats to Nepal. The lamentable instrument its brandishes against Nepal is another economic blockade. Both sides, however, know that this is a time-tested and failed instrument. The recent blockade on Nepal not only failed to generate the desired outcome but it also irreversibly damaged India’s global repute by searing an “inhumane” tag.
This time, however, Nepal is not only cognizant of India’s likely retribution, but it is craving for a blockade so that it too can respond befittingly and uncompromisingly.
India has warned Nepal of hard borders. In fact, Nepal for years has been clamoring for hard and regulated borders even to the extent of fencing it and manning it with security personnel on both sides. This would be propitious for the security of both countries. With rigid fences and tightly regulated border, Nepal can no longer blame India of land encroachment, bandits from India cannot pillage in Nepal, trafficking of Nepalese women into Indian brothels would cease and revenue into government coffers would increase with better managed imports. Similarly, flow of fake currency and militants into India too can be curbed dramatically.
India has further warned of imposing restrictions on Nepalese nationals working in India. That would actually be a blessing in disguise. In fact, it would greatly serve Nepal’s long-term national interest and fulfil a long-held Nepalese demand of requiring passports to enter in each other’s territory. It would also compel the Nepalese returnees to till their fallow fields and augment national production or explore other employment pastures. If India imposed such restrictions, Nepal too would be coerced to reciprocate. That in turn would mean it would free up hundreds of thousands of jobs for Nepalese nationals previously occupied by Indian nationals. Likewise, if India discharged all the Nepalese men serving in its various armed services, that too would be godsend for Nepal. Furthermore, the restrictions would also serve to sever the cross-border marriages. This in later years will be greatly advantageous for Nepal for obvious demographic reasons.
Cutting down bilateral economic assistance is yet another Sword of Damocles India keeps swinging over Nepal. If quantified in real terms, the bilateral assistance is too puny and hardly makes a dent in Nepal’s development. Maybe one major highway will be delayed. But, national dignity is no substitute to development. Hence, even if New Delhi slashes bilateral assistance completely, it would sever India’s economic leverage and will serve as an impetus for Nepal to compulsorily tread on a more self-sustainable route. Another blessing in disguise.
Just like it has done in the past, by overtly threatening to stoke political tensions in Nepal’s southern plains, India has directly admitted complicity. If any such untoward event does occur in the plains in near future then Nepal and the entire international community will know that it is an incited event with the sole purpose of destabilizing and coercing Nepal. That will also serve Nepal’s interest best because it will unmask the Indian pawns operating in Terai.
From rift to regional rancor
India’s unrelenting desire to assimilate Nepal into Indian territory like Sikkim or to subjugate it like Bhutan is hardly a secret. Innumerable senior bureaucrats and politicians on both sides have written and spoken about it publicly. But, the recent assertion from Surya Nath Upadhyaya – a member of Eminent Persons Group (EPG) representing Nepal is revealing. During a public programme, he explicitly mentioned that India was the gravest threat to Nepal’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Driven by that desire, ever since it gained independence from the British East India Company, India has been the root cause of Nepal’s political instability.
In the 50s, it funded and armed Nepali Congress against the Rana oligarchy.
Then again in 1990, Chandra Shekhar who eventually became India’s Prime Minister fired the salvo against the Panchayat regime from Chaksibari in Kathmandu to rally Nepalese opposition forces.
Then, finally and at the expense of 16000 innocent lives, it nurtured Maoist insurgents merely few years after the Himalayan nation attained multiparty democracy.
The Maoists, who were branded as terrorists by India even before Nepal, were deceitfully maneuvered against Nepal’s democratically-elected government of the time. The Maoists that ascended to power under the Indian tutelage, however, immediately tilted towards China after coming to power. When all failed, it stoked the regional and ethnic fault-lines through the Terai-based political forces and fueled further instability.
Despite all the maneuverings, meddling and machinations, however, Indian policy vis-à-vis Nepal has failed miserably. This is clearly reflected by what it has managed to achieve in the last 70 years and the current state of the bilateral relations. It has certainly managed to install and dislodge governments in the past. But today, the same forces it nurtured previously now have strayed and gravitated elsewhere. The entire country is united and up at arms against India. So much so, that during this pandemic the public is hankering for a confrontation. Due to the protracted lockdown, bewildering uncertainty, compounded by a visceral resentment toward India, many even appear eager for an illustrious death than to succumb to an unseen and undignified virus.
Forget Nepal. India has a sea of hostility around itself that it needs to worry about. China appears intent on harassing and humiliating India with border forays and intends on strangling India into acquiescence. It wants to penalize India heavily for its Western dalliance and for attempting to pilfer Western businesses from its soil. Pakistan remains firmly committed to bleeding India with a thousand cuts. Attacks in Uri, Nagrota, Pathankot and Pulwama manifest that relentless pursuit. Sri Lanka has continued to view India with a deep distrust for creating the Tamil Tigers. Recently, Sri Lankan President publicly blamed India for trying to use its intelligence agency to assassinate him. Even relations with Bangladesh are severely strained following the enactment of the Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) and National Register of Citizens (NRA) by India. Both these enactments are reportedly aimed at curbing the numbers of Muslim minorities in India many of whom India is threatening to repatriate to Bangladesh.Furthermore, the entire global Muslim community is outraged with India for the repression of its Muslim minority.
India’s Introspection imperative:
The choice is stark. Has the saffron clad, Hindutva-espousing political dispensation calculated the unquantifiable losses it would incur by alienating the only other Hindu majority country in the world? At a time when two ominous fronts are opening up against it, is it prepared to inject disaffection into thousands of Nepalese soldiers manning its hostile fronts? Does it want to be reckoned as a belligerent bully that belittles, bludgeons and betrays its smaller neighbors? Does it not have the desire to be the natural and unrivaled linchpin and leader in this region and embrace each one of its neighbors with dignity and respect they rightfully deserve? Does India believe that it can attain the coveted preeminent global pedestal and respect when there is such widespread regional repulsion? More importantly, does India believe that a country like Nepal that is sending thousands of men to protect every inch of India’s territory would have the temerity to claim a piece of territory that does not belong to it?
Despite having an enormous potential, India’s strategic thought remains blinded by its hegemonic hubris. Unless, India self-punctures its inflated ego and dispassionately takes a stock of the brewing adverse global and regional conditions, the future could be dire not just for Nepal-India relations but for the entire region and beyond.
To begin with, India needs to realize that just like how a desolate and barren terrain in Ladakh is so precious to India, Nepal’s focus on absolute sovereignty too is resolute. Also, it needs to acknowledge and accept the fiercely independent and doggedly dignified aspirations of the Nepalese people will remain unassailable. Hence, distorting narratives and issuing petty threats against Nepal will be unproductive and dishonorable for an aspiringpower like India. The onus is on India as the bigger power to decide whether it genuinely wants to embrace and engage with its closest ally or allow the prickly disputes tofester.
Karki is a retired Brigadier of the Nepalese Army