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    South Asia
     Feb 24, 2005
India hits Nepal where it hurts
By Siddharth Srivastava

NEW DELHI - It has been a subject of speculation over the past few weeks, and has only now been confirmed: India has decided to freeze all military aid to Nepal. This follows the political developments in Nepal that took place on February 1, when King Gyanendra dismissed the democratically elected government of Sher Bahadur Deuba, assumed executive powers, declared a state of emergency and suspended fundamental rights.

"In view of the current disturbed conditions in Nepal, it is a fact that no military supplies have been delivered since February 1," an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesperson said on Tuesday, the first official confirmation of news reports speculating the same since the dismissal of the Deuba government.

The suspension of military aid is the most definitive action taken against the royal government by India since the king's drastic measures. India had earlier sharply criticized King Gyanendra after he took over. More than the fact that India sees King Gyanendra's moves as an attack on the principles of democratic norms, it will be the impact on the military operations against the Maoist insurgents who control most of Nepal's countryside that will be India's main cause for concern.

According to estimates, India has provided arms worth US$93 million to Nepal over the past three years that form the kingdom's key resource in the battle against the communist rebels who have caused rampant bloodshed since 1996, costing more than 11,000 lives. The very reason that King Gyanendra used to dismiss the Deuba government - to crush the growing insurgency - will now stand defeated as India withdraws its support. Nepal, one of the 10 poorest countries in the world, relies on humanitarian and military aid, especially from India, in its tough battle to take on the Maoist insurgency.

The action will directly impinge on military supplies to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), which is fiercely loyal to Gyanendra, of arms and ammunition, helicopters, armored vehicles, bulletproof vests and helmets, besides military training to its soldiers. It is the RNA that led the coup in Nepal and would have provided the main battlefront against the Maoists. Military training for RNA soldiers and officials in India and on Nepalese soil has also been put on hold, as well as Indo-Nepal joint mountaineering expeditions. However, Indian economic cooperation in humanitarian spheres will continue. India supports projects in the spheres of education, health, culture and infrastructure.

US, UK back India
What amounts to more bad news for King Gyanendra is that India, the United States and the United Kingdom are working in synch with their approach to the situation in Nepal. The US and the European Union also recalled (they have since returned) their ambassadors from Nepal last week and called for King Gyanendra to restore democratic rule. The US has threatened to cut its $1.5 million military aid to Nepal, while Britain on Tuesday announced the withdrawal of an offer for a gift of military equipment pending a review of its policy toward Kathmandu. The decision by Britain to freeze supplies of military equipment came in the wake of India's confirmation that it would cease to provide Nepal with military aid.

The US has made it clear that it wants India to play a "leading role" in facilitating the restoration of democracy in Nepal and would support New Delhi's efforts to bring the government and rebels to the dialogue table, US envoy to India David C Mulford said on Tuesday. "Our approach is to look to India, which has comprehensive relations with the country, for a supportive role rather than step in. India should play the leading role," Mulford told reporters. "Any effort can be made for Nepal to return to a democratic format," he said, when asked whether the US will support any Indian offer for mediation between rebels (politicians) and the royal government.

"We continue to urge the king to restore representative government and democratic freedoms," UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in a statement on the Foreign Office website. "These are essential steps toward a sustainable peace process."

Indeed, India finds itself in a difficult situation vis-a-vis the new dispensation in Nepal. India is concerned that Maoist violence in Nepal could spread into Indian states where radical leftist groups are powerful, and see any hope of a long-term solution only through negotiations. King Gyanendra is now expected to come down hard on the Maoists in an attempt to prove his belief that the earlier democratically elected governments in Nepal were too weak to take on the rebels. This could create problems for India as it will certainly push the Nepalese insurgents into Indian territory, who in turn are likely to join hands with the leftist radicals that abound in the states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and are a cause for major law-and-order problems in the country. If India is seen as strengthening the hands of Gyanendra, it will provide an additional handle for the Maoist cadres to renew their efforts though bold attacks on government property and functionaries.

India wants a solution to the Maoist insurgency in Nepal to emerge within the precincts of the kingdom without any spillover into India. An elected government in Nepal is not only the best cushion against an all-out assault on the Nepalese Maoists but also is the best bet for any form of dialogue happening, with the king playing an indirect role at best. The dismissal of democracy in Nepal will fuel the Maoist cadres, who will be easily convinced of the anti-people nature of King Gyanendra's move, and add fire to the already existing angst against the monarchy. The only silver lining is that the Indian move to suspend military aid is a reminder that it is confident that China will keep away from any military intervention in Nepal so as not to annoy India, given the rising business interests between the two countries.

Meanwhile, India's dealings with Nepal are in contrast to its improving relations with Pakistan, where there are plenty of peace overtures in place, despite Pakistan having a military dictator at the helm. This further lends credence to the notion that India's motivation to take on the royal government in Nepal is driven more out of its own self-interest than the higher principles of freedom and democracy.

India is also miffed over the specific targeting of its joint ventures in the kingdom under the garb of "emergency" and has demanded the lifting of all press curbs. "We have expressed our grave concern over indiscriminately targeting Indian joint-venture establishments, including the UTL [Wireless Telephone Service], the service of which has been restricted since February 1," Indian Ambassador to Nepal Shiv Shanker Mukherjee said in Kathmandu.

UTL phone services, an Indo-Nepalese joint venture, have been blocked indefinitely since the royal takeover. Mukherjee said that all curbs on the press in Nepal should be lifted immediately. India had recalled the Indian ambassador for consultations in a direct snub to the new royal dispensation, and Mukherjee returned to Nepal on Sunday with a firm missive to the king to restore democracy, release political leaders and bring back his country's media freedoms.

The Gyanandra government has been trying to placate India through conciliatory statements. Ramesh Nath Pandey, the new Nepalese foreign minister, said this week, "Our government's standing policy is not to allow Nepal's soil to be used against any of its neighbors. We are confident that our friendly neighbors will reciprocate." Nepal is "very serious" about its commitments with India, Pandey said. But this is unlikely to hold much water for now as far as New Delhi is concerned.

The international community funds 62% of Nepal's development budget and the country is one of the poorest in the world, with 42% of its people living below the poverty line and 80% relying on agriculture to earn their livelihoods. Nepal, located between India and China, attracts tourists and climbers, as it is home to Mount Everest, the world's highest mountain, and another eight of the world's 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist

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Nepal - cleaning up the mess (Feb 17, '05)

King readies for a new game in Nepal (Feb 16, '05)

India grapples with specter of failing states (Feb15, '05)

 
 

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