DESPITE how textbooks continue to portray Nepal, it is no longer perceived as a buffer state. The tiny Himalayan kingdom sandwiched between two giant neighbours, India on three sides and China to the north, is more seen as a potential host to forces detrimental to the security interest of both India and China. The northern neighbour’s concern is limited to the fear that an enhanced U.S. presence and its collusion with India on Nepali soil might encourage the ‘Free Tibet Move’. India’s concern is obsessively dictated by its Pakistan-centric security perception, seeing the hand of Pakistan and its Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) in most domestic affairs. Even more, it tends to infer that they are mainly directed against India.
India no longer views the presence of China in Nepal or that of the U.S. during the emergence of the Sino-U.S. axis, pitted against the Indo-USSR pact in the early ’70s with suspicion as it did in the immediate post Indo-China war years. But Pakistan’s presence, real or perceived, makes India uncomfortable and brazenly critical of Nepal.
India assumes that Pakistan’s presence in Nepal takes many forms. The indicators include growth of madrasas and a Muslim population, the presence of Kashmiri Muslims, floating of fake Indian currency, underworld investment and a ‘visible negative attitude’ against Indians in Nepal, perhaps like in other neighbour countries as well. An open border, lacking a proper monitoring system, attracts a large part of the blame for this, but the issues are more often raised through the Indian media by the government rather than seeking a negotiated settlement.
Though regulating around 1751 km of an open border has been on the agenda for some time, neither side quite knows how to go about it, as territories on both sides freely intermingle in many places. In the past, especially in the ’80s, militants from Punjab, Kashmir and even Tamil Tiger supporters used Nepal as a ‘safe shelter’ and contact point with networks based in India, thus feeding fear and suspicion into India’s mind about how Nepalese territory could be used against it. Although the government of Nepal fully cooperated with the Indian authorities to hand over such people, even bypassing the lengthy legal process under the provisions of the existing extradition treaty, it never succeeded in erasing the Indian suspicion that a porous border was to the advantage of anti-Indian forces.
Even now, despite the fact that the Punjab and Tamil insurgencies have ceased to threaten India’s integrity and unity, the Indian perception of Nepal being used by anti-India forces has not changed. The presence of a large number of Kashmiri Muslims in Nepal, largely because of the situation in the valley during the past 14 years, continues to enrage India. Similarly, the activities of Nepalese Maoist leaders operating out of Indian soil has not been taken very kindly to by Nepal.
Both countries, therefore, suspect each other’s motives in playing host to such forces, but do little to thrash out the issues. As per the 1950 treaty of peace and friendship between the two countries, considered the basis of the bilateral relationship, Kashmiris as Indian citizens and Maoists as Nepali citizens are free to settle on either side of the border. But they cannot indulge in activities that would pose a threat to either country or damage bilateral ties. Both Nepal and India have declared the Maoists as terrorists, but Kashmiri Muslims do not fall into that category, though their role is being viewed more minutely than ever before.
In the post-September 11 U.S. campaign against terrorism, and with the U.S. lumping Maoists with out-fits such as the Taliban, the Abu Nidal organisation, Hamas and LTTE, outside forces including India are reassessing their outlook towards Nepal. Consequently, the country has invited increasing international intervention. Equally, even though India has declared Maoists as terrorists, it is unable to flush them out of its territory as demanded by Nepal.
This inability leaves scope for misunderstanding India’s commitment to fight global terrorism by the U.S. and its allies in the EU as well as the Nordic countries. Many of them are major donors to Nepal and want a situation conducive to the full utilisation of their aid packages. Maoists, who have been waging an armed battle for converting Nepal’s constitutional monarchy into a republic, have repeatedly targeted physical infrastructure, halting construction and obstructing industrial production in the country. Cumulative losses this year alone are estimated at around INR 25 billion. Consequently, many aid projects have been abandoned.
Who are the Maoists? Why have they grown? How does the Indian government and India’s pro-Hindutva forces who influence the country’s foreign policy, respond to this ultra-left growth? And how will it affect Indo-Nepalese bilateral relationship? These questions are yet to be addressed, but remain major factors in dictating bilateral ties.
The official Indian assessment, for the first time, has tried to establish a nexus between Nepalese Maoist leaders living in India and Kashmiri militants, as pro-Hindutva journals like Panchajanya have declared Maoists anti-Hindus and, by extension, pro-Pakistani and pro-ISI. The obvious point made by this propaganda organ is that the growth of the Maoist movement in Nepal is largely aided by Pakistani money and policy and that consequently they are a threat to India’s security. Nevertheless, it has yet to furnish any evidence in support of its claim.
Nepal, one of the world’s poorest countries with an annual per capita income of around $220 and deep pockets of poverty and socio-economic disparity, is no doubt a good breeding ground for radical groups and their supporters. Continuous failure on the part of political parties in power and mainstream politics to address these problems has pushed desperate people towards the Maoists and their slogan of radical change. Institutionalised corruption at the political and administrative levels too has contributed to a growing antipathy of the people to the 12 year old multiparty system, particularly with Maoists promising a life with dignity.
It was as part of a long-term perspective that the Maoists charted out their course of struggle beginning with poverty stricken pockets in the midwest. In February 1996, they submitted a 40-point charter of demands to the government giving a month’s ultimatum or be ready to face the consequences. Their first demand included scrapping the 1950 treaty of peace and friendship with India, calling it ‘unequal and unacceptable’. Other demands involved regulating entry of multinationals as well as foreigners in the areas of industry, production and employment, curtailing privileges of the royal family and electing a constituent assembly to draft the constitution to establish a new republic.
In the absence of any response from the government, the group went underground, attracting youth for ‘ideological indoctrination’ with Mao Tsetung’s teachings and experience as the guiding philosophy. Initially, arms and ammunition were procured from a growing cottage industry across the border. Also, there were comrades in arms like the People’s War Group (PWG) or the Bihar based Maoist Coordination Centre (MCC) who were willing to help.
Inside Nepal, guerrilla training and recruitment was an integral part of the process and soon the war, in the form of a sustained armed conflict with the state, followed. In the initial years, the guerrilla activities were guided by the Maoist ideology. During that period, the activists carried out a series of raids on police outfits enjoying major success as the Nepali police force, numbering around 50,000, was insufficiently trained and equipped to combat ‘militancy’. A lack of consensus on the part of mainstream political parties on how to meet the Maoist challenge was another factor that contributed to their advance. Though the government considered using the army against the Maoists when they had just begun their war against the state, it was forced to abandon the idea in the absence of a consensus. With the more capable army in the barracks and repeated successes in operations against the police, the guerrillas turned more jubilant and hopeful that the ‘republican state’ was within their reach.
As a consequence, the state apparatus got demoralised and withdrew from many districts, including mid-western Rolpa, Rukum, Salyan, Pyuthan, Jajarkot and Mugu. Simultaneously, the Maoists initiated some pro-people activities like an anti alcohol campaign, summary trials of local level disputes delivering instant justice unavailable in the existing judicial system of the country and even distributing gold and other ornaments robbed from government banks to poor people. But soon, they focused more on guerrilla warfare, sending cadres for sophisticated training with the PWG in Andhra Pradesh and LTTE in Sri Lanka.
Gradually, the guerrilla leadership began controlling and dominating the political wing, leading to greater contact with forces with little sympathy or concern for its broader cause. India’s apprehension, made public recently, suggests that Maoist leaders living in Delhi had been in contact with Kashmiri militants for purchase of arms, ipso facto asserting that they have links across the border, i.e. Pakistan. At the same time, with Indian territory being used for a ‘decisive’ war against Nepal, India’s role became a matter of concern for Nepal as well, as the world started coming together in the global fight against ‘terrorism’ post 9/11.
U.S. Secretary of State, Colin Powell’s visit to Pakistan, India and Nepal, had a two-point agenda: one to explore a possible U.S. role in negotiations, if any, between the first two, and second, promising all-round support to Nepal to combat Maoist ‘terrorism’. The latter included military training and other hardware and logistics that a resource-starved Nepal would need. Powell’s assurance possibly undermined the 1965 agreement between Nepal and India on arms assistance which required India’s consent about any arms being imported by Nepal from a third country. India not only did not protest this time but, in the wake of Powell’s announcement, took the stand that it was upto Nepal to decide where it wanted to get its arms from. However, along with Powell, other international interests too made inroads into Nepal on a major scale, triggering fear and speculation that this would disturb the traditional balance with its two neighbours.
Both China’s discomfort about the unprecedented scale of the U.S. mission and India’s silence on the matter is understandable. Yet, the communist republic went out of its way to convincingly denounce the Nepalese Maoists ‘who have misused Chairman Mao’s name.’ On the eve of King Gyanendra’s trip to China following his Indian visit, the Chinese government made an unprecedented announcement that it would ‘extend all help within its capacity to help Nepal.’ That was a gesture directly matching the level of U.S. and Indian interest in Nepal vis-a-vis the Maoist problem.
India probably hoped that the concessions offered to the Americans at the operational level in India would result in a more secure and firm stand on the part of the U.S. against Pakistan without any encroachment on its other areas of influence in the subcontinent. However, its hope that Pakistan’s role, thus reduced in Kashmir, would automatically have a similar curtailing effect in other South Asian countries, including Nepal, did not quite materialise. The U.S. has continued to move on, ostensibly for peace and prosperity in the region. Military training, supply of equipment and enlarged aid components will be part of the new mission.
Although India has opposed the U.S. suggestion for a patrolling of Indo-Pak border by international observers, it has given more space to America’s role, even vis-a-vis Kashmir, in the recent past. The Pak regime’s tactical support to the U.S. in the campaign against Islamic terrorism is guided by twin purposes – to erase its own image as a long term supporter of cross-border terrorism and to embarrass India by recognising America’s mediatory role on Kashmir. This has naturally impacted the existing security concerns and environment in the subcontinent in general and India’s bilateral equations with the member states of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) more specifically.
Even as India has been viewed with suspicion due to its ‘big brother’ attitude, America’s lead in the fight against terrorism and its promise to come to any country’s rescue in the South Asia region has given it a new image. Long-term investment and economic cooperation between U.S. and India in the post-liberalisation phase has also brought the two countries closer in other spheres. India’s willingness to give more space to the U.S. in defence and security issues is an outcome of those concessions.
Both the U.S. and its allies have been outspoken against India on the issue of terrorism, exerting considerable pressure on it to actively discourage ‘terrorist outfits’ like the Maoists from operating in its territory. In the new context, India responded by handing over some guerrillas and leaders to the Nepalese authorities as well as banning Nepali Ekta Samaj, a mass organisation of the Nepalese living in India with a visible pro-Maoist stance, in July. Then followed the search for a possible nexus between certain Maoist leaders living in India and the Pakistan supported Kashmiri militants.
But Nepal’s agony in the context of its Maoist insurgency is different from India-Pakistan concerns. More than 5,000 people have lost their lives in armed clashes with the deployment of security forces costing the nation a major chunk of its development budget. The Maoists’ rapid degeneration into an anarchic crowd and dilution in its political content and character has further reduced the possibility of meaningful dialogue with the government. Nevertheless, the Maoist problem will remain an important factor in Nepal’s bilateral and regional relationships and cooperation, in addition to affecting its own domestic stability.
A vast majority of the Nepalese population wants the insurgency to be resolved through peaceful negotiation between the government and Maoists. The only peace effort – three rounds of talks – by the two sides between July and November last year broke down, with the Maoists unilaterally withdrawing and attacking an army barrack in western Nepal’s Dang area. Leaving their cadres in Nepal to face army bullets, most top Maoist leaders are believed to be living in India. Interestingly, the Maoists, especially during the past eight months, have abandoned their anti-India utterances and no longer project it as a ‘hegemonistic and regional bully.’
Despite being in collaboration with India’s ultra-left outfits like PWG and CPI(ML), they are quiet about their earlier radical demand that the ethnic culture of Assamese people be protected and the ‘right to self-determination’ of the Nepalese living in Assam and Sikkim recognised. This demand, seen and read together with the Kashmiri militants’ slogan, was enough to sound the alarm bells, provoking the Government of India to look for more evidence of Maoists working in tandem with anti-India insurgencies.
Whether the Maoists are funded and assisted by outside forces will continue to remain a matter of investigation both for India and Nepal although their nexus with India’s militant outfits like the PWG, MCC or LTTE is only too evident. Given their joint commitment against ‘terrorism’, a mixture of force and persuasion would possibly be sufficient to defeat the militant forces in their respective territories. However, an inherent element of suspicion and a preconceived mindset on both sides has resulted in the two countries ignoring the real socioeconomic factors, the initial cause for growth of militant organisations and politics. Unless the root causes are addressed, the possibility of external play affecting the bilateral relationship cannot be ruled out.
This is exactly the case now. The factors detrimental to bilateral interests and relations need to be addressed directly instead of hyping them unnecessarily. Indian projection of ISI’s role and presence in Nepal is a case in point. India’s current threat perception that Islamic fundamentalism and Pakistan are omnipresent enemies – from Gujarat to Nepal – needs to be reassessed and measured within the realm of reality. This will give its neighbours a chance to appreciate the exact scale and nature of threat that India faces. An overdose of political dictates from the protagonists of Hindutva, now in India’s political leadership, in calculating security and threat perceptions has not helped. Instead, a more pragmatic and diplomatic approach is needed.
If that does not happen, India and Pakistan will only be creating conditions for fundamentalism as the main determinant of bilateral relations, with a distinct possibility that the ‘Hindu’ and ‘Islamic’ bomb will ravage the voice of reason. This will also wipe out any chance of South Asia collectively writing a future of peace and prosperity. The absence of a culture and mechanism to resolve bilateral and multilateral misunderstandings amicably has adversely affected domestic and inter-country development. For instance, prospects of harnessing the rich water resources and generation of electricity for power-starved India and Nepal have suffered.
What is needed is for both sides to address the socio-economic causes that give legitimacy to such militancy and violence. Even as the state must be firm in dealing with organised violence, or what it calls terrorism, the use of force will only be effective through the application of a socio-economic balm. Peace initiatives remain the most acceptable mode of conflict resolution.