India acquires a Himalayan headache: Nepal

M.K. Bhadrakumar September 24, 2015 10:26 AM (UTC+8)
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A country that refuses to learn from past mistakes is fated to remain on the learning curve. This is India’s misfortune. The Indian mistake today in being intrusive toward its tiny northern neighbor Nepal bears similarity with the disastrous policy failure it experienced vis-à-vis its small southern neighbor Sri Lanka.

What India is seeking vis-à-vis Nepal is precisely what it used to demand from Sri Lanka in the past – how India’s small neighbors must restructure their body polity. Nepal and Sri Lanka are unitary states and India has sought to micromanage their transition to a relatively federal system.

Nepalese policemen chase protesters after they burnt a copy of the new constitution during recent protest
Nepalese policemen chase protesters after they burnt a copy of the new constitution during recent protest

This constitutes blatant interference in these countries’ internal affairs and, simply put, New Delhi is being prescriptive and its conduct is giving the pass to international law and the United Nations Charter. The entire international community is celebrating that Nepal adopted a constitution last Sunday and declared itself as a secular democratic country within a federal structure, which provides for extraordinary guarantee of “equal rights” to the weaker sections of society.

India is the solitary exception, sulking that the constitution is not “inclusive” enough, and protesting about state demarcation, citizenship and other provisions in the constitution.

Sri Lanka doggedly resisted the Indian pressure to transform itself as a federal structure. By far the weaker country, it caved in at times – or, more correctly, hunkered down. Nepal’s approach cannot be any different. India should have learnt from the Sri Lankan experience, but the feeling in New Delhi is that Nepal is a far weaker neighbor and the political class in Kathmandu has an entirely different DNA than the Colombo elite – provincial and far more vulnerable to Indian arm-twisting.

However, what India overlooks is that in the viewpoint of these two small countries, existential issues are involved and in the ultimate analysis, there is very little leeway for them to comply with the Indian diktat and still preserve their sovereignty.

The extent to which Nepal could go to withstand Indian pressure can be known only in the womb of time, but if pushed to the wall, it may also explode into the mindless violence. India failed to achieve in Sri Lanka what it was demanding, burnt its fingers badly, and today it has swung to the extreme of jettisoning even its legitimate concerns and confining itself to the nurturing of the inter-state relationship.

The Sri Lankan resilience or stubbornness – depending on one’s point of view – has left India with no alternative. The lesson to be drawn could only be that it doesn’t pay to interfere in other countries. In the 21st century world order moving in the direction of polycentrism, countries such as Sri Lanka and Nepal (or the Maldives) are increasingly in a position to counterbalance the Indian pressure.

The excuse New Delhi took for interfering in Sri Lankan affairs (and now in Nepal) has been that at stake are the interests of people who are bound to India culturally and ethnically. In Sri Lanka it used to be the Tamil people, in Nepal it is the so-called Madhesis of Indian origin. Both are largely Hindu communities and in both cases, India has tried to argue that their welfare is felt deeply in the Indian hinterland – southern state of Tamil Nadu and the northern state of Bihar respectively.

But the fact of the matter is that the Indian politicians have time and again exploited the Sri Lankan Tamil problem to gain leverage in the highly polarized Tamil Nadu politics, especially during election time. And there is nothing to show that the people of Bihar agonize over the provisions of Nepal’s new constitution.

What is abundantly clear, however, is that geopolitics is involved. India has nourished its own version of Monroe Doctrine, regarding the South Asian region as its ‘sphere of influence’. Thus, the Indian policies toward Sri Lanka shifted gear in the direction of an outright interference in that country’s internal affairs only in the early 1980s.

Up until then, New Delhi’s policies used to be so very accommodative toward Colombo that the Sinhala elites even harbored a notion that they enjoyed racial affinities with North Indians (‘Aryans’), which would neutralize the ethnic bonds between the Tamils (‘Dravidians’) living in the two countries.

The turning point came in 1983 when New Delhi got wind of the “pro-western” government led by then President J.R. Jayewardene opening the door to American presence in the region by allowing a Voice of America relay station to be set up in the western coastal town of Puttalam. In the Cold War setting, India went berserk. New Delhi decided to teach a tough lesson to Jayewardene, who of course was a tough personality of great urbaneness and wit that the ‘North Indian’ elite could never quite match. The rest is history.

Little has actually changed in the Indian mindset. If America was the thorn in the Indian flesh in the early eighties, today it is China – and, ironically, America has become India’s ally.

Coming to Nepal also, geopolitics is the real motivating factor in New Delhi’s current policies. The Madhesi community figures today in the Indian policy calculus, much like the Sri Lankan Tamil used to be. The current discord between New Delhi and Kathmandu essentially boils down to India’s demand that the Madhesis who form roughly one-third of Nepal’s population (thanks to large scale migration from the Indian hinterland) must have full citizenship rights and proportional representation in the government and security forces and this ought to be enshrined in the constitution.

Of course, “majoritarianism” is an abhorrent thing and the Indian demand seems consistent with the principles of liberal democracy. But it is sheer sophistry. (The Muslims who constitute over 15% of India’s population of 1.3 billion have only miniscule “representation” in the country’s organs even after nearly 7 decades of independence.)

If a Madhesi bloc in Nepal’s body polity would eventually come to dominate the national politics, India could hope to control a powerful voice in Kathmandu, thanks to the disunity and fragmentation of the rest of the population.

It’s the China factor, stupid! Beijing’s robust diplomacy toward Nepal in the recent years through the effective use of economic leverage as well as by extensively networking with the country’s political class has outmatched Indian diplomacy in Kathmandu.

Nepal occupies a centrality in China’s national security concerns, since it is the infiltration route for exiled Tibetans to enter China. Beijing probably apprehends that foreign intelligence manipulates the Tibetan extremists to destabilize China.

Indeed, New Delhi resents the “creeping” Chinese influence in Nepal, which incrementally erodes India’s dominant presence. This zero-sum mindset will remain until India-China normalization becomes the new reality. Therefore, India is unlikely to accede to the vehement demand by the Nepalese public opinion to “back off.”

The hardliners who dominate the Indian establishment and the right-wing Hindu nationalist groups which mentor the Indian leadership today will continue to find ways and means of exercising control over Nepal’s policies. The big question is, how far they would push the envelope? Will New Delhi push all the way, as it did in Sri Lanka till the point the country imploded under India’s Leviathan pressure?

Indeed, India’s capacity to pressure Nepal is seamless. Nepal is a desperately poor country subsisting on Indian assistance; it is incapable of guarding the “open” border with India; and, the socio-economic links are simply profound.

One cannot but wonder why despite all these immense advantages, India is so panicky about Beijing’s “win-win” diplomacy in Nepal. China could be a headache for Indian diplomacy in Nepal, but it doesn’t have to be a Himalayan headache.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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