Hot Wash of Indo- Nepal Relations: A Prognosis. By Maj Gen AK Chaturvedi (Retd)

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A webinar was held on Indo Nepal Relations: A Prognosison 11 Feb 2021. The Webinar was meant to understand the issues related to the current state of Indo- Nepal relations, aspirations of Nepal and causes of increasing Chinese influence in Nepal. To ensure that we get a realist assessment of Nepal’s perspective two of the four speakers were from Nepal and one of the speakers from India was someone who is an Indian Army veteran who has spent considerable time in Nepal and has still plenty of connections in Nepal. It is to the credit of all the four speakers that they addressed their respective topics with due objectivity and later answered the questions raised during the Q&A session candidly. Some very useful points came up during the webinar which will provide useful food for thought to the policy planners in India. Some of the important issues highlighted during the Webinar are as follows:-

  1. There is a historical bonding between the two countries from the Vedic Period itself and that has shaped the cultural unity of the two countries.
  2. The strongest bond which has been there and still thriving is Army to Army relationship. The manifestation of the uniqueness of relations is that Chiefs of either of the Army are honoured with the status of the Honourary General of the other Army.
  3. Under the shadow of Nepal’s demand of the abrogation of 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, demand for correctly interpreting the provisions of the Sugauli Treaty of 1815-16 to address perceived boundary disputes of Kalapani& Susta  River Dispute and 1989-90 economic blockade by India, the visit of the PM of India in 2015 attempted to redefine the relationship. However, India has its own concerns:-
    1. Mushrooming of Chinese Study Centres coming up in Nepal on the border of India.
    2. Increasing Military to Military cooperation between Nepal and
    3. Incomplete Dams/ projects being built/ executed by India in Nepal.
  4. Nepal’s weak system of governance leading to increasing unemployment and other structural deficiencies in the governance which makes it prone to foreign interference however Nepal gets irritated due to perceived Indian attempts to do micro-management.
  5. A new domestic nationalism is becoming louder by the day in Nepal.
  6. Geography on the Northern border in Nepal is changing as better connectivity with China is becoming possible. Due to BRI projects; CPEC, China- Myanmar and  China Bangladesh economic corridors are coming up. These will act as China’s Bridge to the Indian Ocean, where China wishes to reach, to avoid Malacca dilemma.NE of India is vulnerable due to Chicken’s neck (Siliguri Corridor) and China wishes to exploit this vulnerability. No wonder they are eyeing to increase their influence in Bhutan and Nepal , which provide access to this region.
  7. While India provided 1 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine without any condition with the promise that another two million dosages will be provided later, Chinese side wrote a letter to Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs mounting pressure to accept the vaccines first under the condition that the details about the vaccines will be sent afterwards. In fact their approach entailed a veiled warning that non acceptance of their laid down conditions will have implications. The Chinese smugness was based on the fact that Nepal’s Department of Drug Administration had only allowed conditional emergency use of Covishield produced by Serum Institute of India. However, it amounted to convey that China was trying to exploit the current vulnerability of Nepal.  Such a contrasting approach (one side trying to pressurise and the  other side simply helping)  from two sides clearly conveys as to who is a friend in need and the same has been appreciated by Nepalese population in general. The darker side of the coercion entailed in the Chinese approach becomes glaring further as United Kingdom has also promised to provide two million dosages.
  8. China realises the relevance of the cultural and linguistic commonality between India and Nepal. In a planned strategy a plan has been hatched by China to damage this linkage. As such in the last three-four years with the support of the current communist regime in Nepal, Mandarin classes have been introduced in schools of Nepal for which funding is being done by China. In fact, as reported by Khabar Hub, an attempt is being made to include Mandarin language in the curriculum. This move by China is indeed a very innovative move to overcome the language barrier between China and Nepal and also influence the thought process of the young generation.As observed by someone, a Chinese teacher teaching Mandarin in one of the schools, commented that the Mandarin would help the students in long run. This statement clearly conveys that even China realises that it would be a tough task to wean away young Nepalese from India and that they were prepared to wait.This indeed is the attack on the strongest linkage between India and Nepal and India needs to plan a counter strategy.
  9. China has also been aggressively trying to influence the body politic of Nepal. China Communist Party is trying to strengthen its relations with the Nepalese Communist Party (NCP). Also the year 2020 witnessed numerous meetings by Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi with the NCP leaders, endeavouring to avert party split and narrow down the differences between the top political leaders of the party.To quote some highly-placed political personalities, China has to say: “When India was involved in micro-management in Nepal, why not China?”
  10. As per the Treaty of Sugauli,  Kali Nadi (Mahakali as it is called in India) was the boundary between Nepal and India. However,  there is a dispute between Nepal and India about the alignment of the main stream. Nepal considers Limpiadhura as the main stream, whereas India considers Kuthi Yankti River, which is in the East of Limpiadhura. Popularly known as Kalapani dispute, it is a question of only 400 km2. However, more importantly Lipulekh pass is located within this area. Lipulekh pass is strategically important for India as it provides the shortest route to Tibet and also it is located enroute to Mansarovar. It is a strange problem wherein China recognises it as part of India, but since 1997  India and Nepal are having this as a border dispute. Last year, when India opened the road to Lipulekh problem got flared up. Nepal even published a new map showing these areas as its part. This even pushed the relations between the two neighbours to a new low.  Little later during last year, when a transgression by China in the village Humla on the Northern border of Nepal,in the form of construction of a number of buildings was reported, belligerence of Nepal against India started ebbing.Frankly speaking this new boundary dispute between China and Nepal brought new dimensions in the bilateral relations between India and Nepal.
  11. Interestingly, the fact that China wants to create a strategic space in this Himalayan nation at the cost of India and other powers is evident from the way it showed its displeasure at Nepal’s preparedness to accept the grant from the MCC projects. Beijing, in fact, also appears to want to stretch the notion of “stable government in Nepal” to mean a government that draws Nepal closer to China at the expense of Nepal’s traditional relations with India.
  12. As a matter of fact, in recent times, China has been successful in souring Nepal-India relations – mainly by adopting an approach to woo the Nepali people, especially the cadres of the Nepal Communist Party with anti-India sentiments. It, therefore, appears that China is working covertly on a policy to ensure souring of Nepal’s relations with India by coaxing Nepal to raise the issue of treaties, regulating border-encroachment, high-structure build-up along the border, inundation, among others, which sometimes force Nepali people to look for other options because China is well aware of the fact that Nepal has to tilt towards it only if it is angered by its southern neighbour. Therefore, it is one of the reasons why Nepal’s “hardcore communists” have been consistently alleging India of all the fuss and instability in Nepal. Even now, political leaders blame one another of “dancing to the tunes of India” without any valid evidence. To enhance their own image  China is also trying to win the hearts and minds of the Nepali people through some strategic charity.
  13. The reasons for Sino- Nepal relations not suffering from any kind of cynicism entails, firstly; absence of any kind of boundary dispute/ security threat along the 1400 Km long border with the Tibetan Autonomous region (TAR) of China, secondly; it is the pro-China posture of the current PM of Nepal Sri KP Sharma Oli. The undeclared blockade of 2015 by India had done a great damage to the mutual trust between India and Nepal. This is one of the contributory factors to Nepal going for BRI as an alternative to reliance on India. Yet another important landmark in the growing intimacy between Sino-Nepal relationship has been the visit by China’s President Xi Jinping in October 2019; a first in 23 years, during which 18 MoU and two letters of intent worth Nepali Rs 56 billion were signed with a commitment by the Xi to make Nepal from a ‘Land Locked’ country to ‘Land Linked’ country. Although Nepal did not gain much, but one of the important elements was reiteration by Nepal to remain committed to the ‘One China” policy.
  14. However it is also true that despite such impediments relations between Nepal and India are still smooth but it is also a fact that the much-talked-about “open-border”, has to be managed, not closed. In this connection, the strong linkages due to family relations between people of Madhes region of Nepal & UP& Bihar of India and a large population of serving and ex-servicemen in Kathmandu Valley and middle hills of Nepal are biggest support base of India. This gives India presence in almost every district of Nepal. Nurturing and leveraging these relationships should be the part of Indian policy for strengthening Indo Nepal relations. Therefore, India needs to be proactive with innovative strategies and policies with Nepal by departing from its traditional security angle. Firstly, identifying the cause of Nepal’s behaviour towards India. Why is Nepal’s communist government and the party resisting India while being welcoming to China? Maybe a multi-dimensional approach is a way ahead. First and foremost step in this approach is to address the growing trust deficit in India. India should also introduce a new economic, developmental and infrastructure initiatives with Nepal that will address the vulnerabilities in Nepal – mainly provide support to  Nepal government’s “Happy Nepali, Prosperous Nepal”, slogan. While it may be difficult for India to match financial support which China can provide, however, India needs to infuse FDI in vital sectors.  The areas in which India can help are; energy, communication and power trade. In this connection, early completion of projects like Pancheshwar multi-purpose projects will go a long way  in helping to improve the bilateral relationship. One of the major vulnerability of Nepal is damage due to floods and therefor timely HADR will help India to reduce the growing trust deficit. A cooperation in the form of the infrastructural build-up to tackle floods will provide a co-lateral advantage to both Nepal and UP and Bihar.  India will need to work to remain vital for Nepal in several ways.  One of the keys is economic empowerment of Nepal despite her being a member of China’s BRI project, India needs to deal with an assertive Chinese foreign policy. India needs to help Nepal getting geostrategic connectivity.

In view of the issues that have come up during the webinar both, Nepal and India need to realize the uniqueness of the relationship. It will be in the interest of both the countries that we respect each other’s viewpoint and work together in a way that people of both countries grow together. However, the onus is on India to respect the sovereignty of Nepal, assuage the hurt feelings of Nepal and ally all kinds of fear of getting subsumed. The future relationship needs to be best summed up as  ‘BUDDHA and not YUDHHA’.