Nepal is as crucial for Indian security, as India is for the Nepalese economy. The turbulence experienced in their bilateral relationship has a history of intermittent recurrence. However, both sides being critical to each other’s interests is also well understood by the parties. The author analyses the relationship in the backdrop of the current discord that cast a heavy shadow along the Indo-Nepalese borders.
For a variety of reasons, it has never been easy to forecast the trajectory of India-Nepal relations. Influenced increasingly by evolving geopolitics in the Himalayan region, individual interpretations of national interest – fuelled by an inherent asymmetry which manifests in every facet of this relationship – have often prevented the emergence of a common view on many issues, despite underpinnings of shared values, history and culture. A long-held Indian policy underscores the imperative for the larger neighbour to take the lead in nurturing this special relationship. Despite sustained efforts towards this end, India Nepal ties have hit air pockets on many occasions, causing much turbulence. Each time a steadying hand has been required on the rudder. Events of 2020 provide yet another example of this phenomenon.
While the sequence of events from the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak early this year to the present moment is well known to Nepal watchers, certain occurrences warrant a special mention, if only to confirm some postulates. Foremost is the requirement to comprehend how apparently unrelated events, in this case, completion of an infrastructure project long in the making and deemed to be totally in consonance with Indian policy, could trigger unforeseen repercussions in Nepal. Accusations of unilateralism in India’s approach fuelled by national pride unleashed political dynamics with the consequences of an unexpected magnitude. Considering that national boundaries and issues of sovereignty on both sides were called in question, the scope for dialogue at that point of time appeared minimal. The outcome was speedy – within a month Nepal got a new map ratified by its parliament incorporating areas under dispute, and India found Nepalese troops stationed at locations across a friendly border, where there were none earlier. This unforeseen situation, combined with effects of the pandemic had the unfortunate effect of consigning bilateral relations into what can best be described as ‘stasis’.
The second occurrence reinforces the importance of strong ties between professional institutions, for tiding over crises. In the instant case, both countries fell back on the one widely respected instrument which has withstood the vicissitudes of politics and remained above jingoism – their respective militaries. While the Indian RAW Chief Samant Goel made a one day visit to Kathmandu in October, it was the invitation by the Nepal Army Chief to the Indian COAS which provided the necessary opening and the optics.
The subsequent visit of Gen Naravane last month was an unqualified success, due in great measure to the maturity and professionalism displayed by the hosts. In addition to the cordiality on display, traditional bonds were reaffirmed with the Indian COAS being appointed Honorary General of the Royal Nepal Army by President Bidya Devi Bhandari. This reciprocal tradition has been the norm since 1950, with the then Indian Commander in Chief, Gen KM Cariappa being the first to be so honoured. Conferring of such an honour at this juncture has served to highlight the layered nature of India Nepal relations, where, despite discord over the border and other irritants, the security guarantors of both nations through positive military diplomacy were able to broaden the space for further interaction at other levels.
The third aspect pertains to mechanisms for moving relations forward. Despite a certain resilience in the relationship and an associated romanticism ( prevalent more in India) harking back over centuries, regular government to government interaction, especially formal visits by key persons, is vital for its sustainment. The visit of the Indian Foreign Secretary, Harsh Vardhan Shringla to Kathmandu at the end of November is one important example.
While the Indian press has been more focused on covering specifics of the visit, the Kathmandu Post in its piece dated 26 November opined that ‘after a months-long pause in bilateral visits and dialogue in the wake of soaring tensions between Nepal and India especially over the boundary issues, there are some growing signs of rapprochement between the two countries’. Such observations from Nepal are a welcome sign and speak of the success of the visit. Further signs of a thaw are visible, such as the recent announcement of the resumption of flights between Delhi and Kathmandu under a bilateral air bubble.
At this juncture, it’s appropriate to briefly recall the scope of India’s engagement with Nepal. In addition to the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1950 which bestows wide-ranging benefits on people of both countries, India and Nepal, with an 1850 km long border across five Indian states share a unique arrangement whereby approximately 32000 Nepalese citizens bear arms in India’s defence. As for assistance, commencing with the Indian Aid Mission of 1954 (since merged with the Embassy), and starting with health, water resources, energy, scientific cooperation, education, rural and community development, up-gradation of roads, development of cross border rail links down to the development of border infrastructure, no sector has remained untouched.
As per figures of the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, the total economic assistance earmarked under ‘Aid to Nepal’ budget in FY 2019-20 was Rs 1200 crore. Support in the fight against COVID-19 has commenced since April 2020, with transfer of medicines, equipment and capacity building, the latest instance being handing over of 2000 vials of Remdesivir injections during the Foreign Secretary’s visit.
However, it is the fourth aspect, about Nepal’s ‘other’ neighbour, the People’s Republic of China and the security implications of its actions that generate debate. General Wei Fenghe, State Councilor and Minister of National Defence heading a 21 member delegation visited Kathmandu on a Sunday, less than 48 hours after the return of the Indian Foreign Secretary to Delhi. The Tribune of 30 November quoted a report of the Chinese Defence Ministry saying that ‘Gen Wei offered firm support to Nepal to safeguard its sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity’, even as he stated that his visit would promote military cooperation between Nepal and China. Interestingly, Gen Wei flew out the same evening for Islamabad.
China’s footprint in Nepal continues to increase. Its involvement takes myriad forms, such as the joint survey of the height of Mount Everest, whose outcome was announced recently, showing that the earlier height of 8848m (attributed to the Survey of India) is now 8848.86m. For a visitor, the ubiquitous Chinese presence in Kathmandu is an eye-opener – be it Chinese owned businesses, restaurants or (in pre COVID times) the number of tourists. China also appears embedded into local politics: as per a report in the Hindustan Times of 28 November, headlined ‘Nepal’s PM Oli stuns China, tells envoy Yanqi to steer clear of party politics ‘…Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli is believed to have suggested to Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi last week that he is capable of handling challenges within his party without any assistance from other countries, according to people familiar with the matter...’
Nepal’s joining the BRI has further strengthened China’s presence. As per Prof Hari Bansh Jha, a Nepali academic in his article published by the Vivekanda International Foundation in October 2019, the Nepalese government has proposed 35 projects for consideration. Besides, certain path-breaking schemes have been announced, such as the $300 million rail link from Lhasa to Kathmandu and on to Lumbini on India’s border. This has strategic implications and affects India’s security in a major way. For this reason alone, China would likely make efforts to speed up this project, despite the fact that Nepal is unlikely to derive major benefit from it, as brought out by the same author quoted above. It is possible that other proposals might have similar effects.
India is appreciative of Nepal’s position vis-a-vis its neighbours due to the constraints of geography and economic development. With this in mind, India has taken a nuanced position regarding that country’s current relationship with China, neither regarding it as a zero-sum game nor looking at the bilateral relationship in isolation, as some have suggested. It is heartening to see this approach bearing fruit. That said, the road towards better and more durable relations, with reduced scope for missteps is clear – greater, sustained interaction in all spheres while meeting promised delivery timelines with frank discussions on security matters.
Maj Gen Alok Deb
The General is a Kargil Veteran and former DDG of the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi. He has commanded an Artillery Division.
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of BharatShakti.in)