Emerging Situation in Nepal and Implications for India
Chair: Maj. Gen. (Retd.)Ashok Mehta
Speakers: Amb. KV Rajan, former ambassador to Nepal
Maj. Gen. AK Chaturvedi, ACIDS Int (A), DG DIA
Brig. (Retd.) Arun Sahgal
Ambassador KV Rajan
There are reasons for India to be both positive and skeptical about the future of Nepal and the relationship between India and Nepal. As for the positives, Nepal did not become a failed state which for years it had threatened to become. Secondly, political parties have formed and worked together with civil society groups effectively. Nepal held relatively free and fair elections only a few months ago which were beyond the expectations of most commentators. Furthermore Nepal has disbanded the monarchy which has been at the heart of Nepal's inability to develop politically and socio-economically. The recently formed Constituent Assembly is the most politically representative group ever created in Nepal, constituting more women, Dalits, and ethnic minorities, such as Madhesis. In fact there are more women in the Nepali parliament than anywhere else in the subcontinent.
However, does the current Nepali leadership possess the ability to deal with the challenges of 'New Nepal'? There is considerable evidence which suggests caution before making such proclamations. For a start, it took nearly four months to create the Constituent Assembly which is a long time to do so. Moreover the Assembly is not taken seriously enough by the coalition government. In general, poor governance is a feature of the new Nepali political regime, a situation exacerbated by a culture of impunity which pervades Nepali politics. Constantly shifting political alliances and changes in opposition also make it almost impossible to form any sort of credible government.
Other difficulties include how the new government is going to deal with the Madhesis. Their incorporation into the political framework is good news but they have their own agenda which may not be compatible. How will the Maoists deal with this problem and how will the Madhesis respond? Will they shift their position or revert back to a more aggressive, violent ideology? This issue must be addressed urgently. Furthermore, the Maoists are the only party with genuine internal democratic processes, actively debating their policies and future strategies, which are lacking in Nepal's other major political parties. This is especially true of the Nepali Congress (NC) and big questions remain about the future of the party post-Koirala.
Although Prachanda's first foreign visit was to China, the new government stressed that its first real political visit was to India. As has been so well documented in the press recently, Prachanda's visit was marked by diplomatic language which stressed partnership and collaboration. However, what is certain is that the success of the Indo-Nepal relationship will depend on how the Maoist's core grievance with India, namely the 1953 Treaty, will be resolved. If both sides are too anxious to be diplomatic and place so much emphasis on not offending each other, the joint committee setup to review it will not go far enough to make the required wholesale changes. Certainly, this treaty rests on an anachronistic colonial mindset on India's part. Not only does it heavily favour India, any concessions it does make to Nepal are efforts to keep a few elites in Kathmandu happy. If we learn anything from the Kosi tragedy is that cooperation between India and Nepal is essential.
Finally, it is important to not forget that the mainstreaming of the Maoists suggests, politically at least, that violence and intimidation can lead to success. This is not only true in the civil war itself but also tactics used by the Maoists during recent elections. Unless the Maoists renounce all forms of their violent ideology, a culture of violence will continue to plague Nepal. One must however remain hopeful and press ahead with renewed partnership with the new Nepali government in the years ahead.
Maj. Gen. A K Chaturvedi
After Tibet's assimilation into the Peoples Republic of China, Nepal has become a buffer state between China and India, a situation which it has exploited quite successfully. However, the ethnic diversity of its population on its borders, especially the large presence of Tibetan refugees, has led to worrying internal strife. Because Nepal is landlocked, it has depended on its neighbours, mainly India, for access to ports and sea trade. Having said this, the fact that Nepal has an enormous hydro-electric capacity and that it is an attractive tourist destination because of its physical geography means that it is a huge source of potential investment.
Many of Nepal's internal problems have been highlighted but it is worth outlining them here. The new democratic regime has offered so much promise to common Nepalis about being able to choose their own ruler but the new system has continued to let them down ever since 1990. The challenges of governance are also not helped by Nepal's poor and creaking infrastructure. There are also huge problems with integrating the Nepal Army (NA) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA). For instance, over three thousand of the Maoist's weapons have gone 'missing' which worries the NA given they could still be in the hands of the PLA or other undesirable groups.
Indeed, the loyalties of some senior NA officials which may shift according to the changing political climate could result in falling standards of professionalism. The government's relationship with China may also have an adverse effect on the Tibetan population as well - any pro-Tibet protests may be met with oppressive police crackdowns. Similarly, pro-Madhesi demonstrations that call for regional autonomy or even secessionism may face the same response. Acute poverty and food shortages are also a matter of serious concern, as is the mismatch between the availability of arable land versus the availability of labour to work in the field of agriculture.
China started engaging Nepal from the 1950s but their relationship deteriorated through 1980s and 1990s. However, it has recently begun to improve again in several areas. China has for example provided infra-structural assistance, trade and economic cooperation and military support to Nepal. Indeed there seems to have been an ideological rediscovery between the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and the Communist Party of China. The strength of their renewed relationship is demonstrated by the fact that the number of Chinese study centres on the Sino-Nepal borders rose from seven in 2005 to nineteen in 2007.
Pakistan has sought to reduce India's influence in Nepal by promoting radicalism and militancy amongst Nepal's Muslim population. For instance, financial assistance has been offered to allow Nepali Muslims to attend international Islamic meetings and conferences. An active ISI base has been established to exploit the open border with India. There has been an increase in the Muslim population from two to eighteen per cent between 1981 and 2007, and 95 per cent live in Terai. The number of mosques and madrasas in the border districts has risen dramatically.
Indo-Nepali relations are going to change dramatically as Nepal becomes more equidistant between China and India. There is therefore a need to realign this relationship. The Madhesi problem, given that many of them are of India descent, will affect relations between Nepal and India. So too will the Maoists dealings with the Tibetan refugees as there is a sizeable Tibetan population in India. And the success of the Maoists may also give fresh impetus to the Naxalites.
Constructive engagement with the Nepali government is essential. India must assist Nepal's precarious new democracy, particularly in areas of governance. Greater help also needs to be given to boost Nepali infrastructure. This should include investment in Nepal's hydro-electric capabilities as well as other areas of commerce. In India, Nepalis should also be offered greater medical assistance and help in improving education. At the same time, the Indian public also needs to be made aware of the Nepali's plight so as not to cause friction between the two communities.
Brig. Arun Sahgal
Several drivers such as political factors, tensions concerning the constitution, socio-economic issues and fundamental internal security factors, will shape the future of Nepali politics. Firstly, profound contradictions within the current political apparatus need to be resolved. The three-party alliance which chose the current President is not the same alliance that forms the interim government. Secondly, while key areas of government are under the auspices of the Maoists, such as defence and communication, there are many other important departments which are not. These include land reforms; education and local administration, all of which are essential for the Maoists if they are pursue their socialist programme. The tension between departments was recently illustrated when the Nepali Chamber of Commerce argued that the most recent budget had not made a big enough commitment to privatization. Indeed, they amongst others argued that an Interim government had no business in making long-term, progressive decisions. Besides, the issue of the Terai and rising tensions and grievances towards the centralized regime there, one can understand that an uncertain political picture is emerging in Kathmandu.
Differences and troublesome issues concerning the constitution contribute to instability as well. There is an internal struggle and factions within the Maoists, one of which argues for a socially orientated constitution whilst another, led by Bhattarai, stresses the importance of multi-party democracy. However, none of the other major parties seem to have a clear cut support for multi-party democracy. This is particularly worrying given that should they come together and gang up on the Maoists in government, a scenario can arise under the constitution which would jettison the Maoists from power.
There is also a perception that the grip which dominant industrial and business classes had on previous administrations is not loosening. In fact, the Maoists are perceived to be developing their own interests which are not pro-people. How much are they indeed entrenched in the old systems of power themselves? In future, there will no breakup of historical linkages between dominant classes and the government or civil society groups and the people will begin to assert themselves to break-up the elites. Similarly, there is a worry that hardcore economic issues are not being met because of their nature of structure of power in government. People look to the higher echelons of power and are not filled with hope over future economic prosperity. Only time will show if the Maoist's have the capacity to deal with these issues.
Internal security is perhaps the biggest issue facing Nepal today, at the heart of which is the how the NA and PLA are going to be integrated as both sides are historically ambivalent about integration. This issue is complicated by China which is going to act as a balancing card for India-Nepal relations over the next few years. For instance, India is currently Nepal's only supplier of petroleum but the rapidly increasing wealth and resources available to China means that India's current monopoly on fuel supplies is going to change.
In conclusion, there are several potential scenarios for the future. Firstly, the Maoists may take complete control. There would be a new constitution, which rightist parties would not like but would accept, and Nepal would be stable in the short-term. However, growing tensions with the army would lead to an orchestrated takeover. Violent clashes would ensue; migration would accelerate; and tourism would rapidly decline. In a second scenario, although government will be relatively stable, the situation would unravel. The economy would fall, civil society would be restricted and there would be open confrontation between the Maoists and the Madhesis. China would also play a moderating role during unstable, shifting political dynamics. Thirdly, the Maoists would pull out of the political process altogether and return to the people's war. It is most likely that something between scenarios one and two will play out, but only time will tell.
What effect will the narcotics industry, especially with its historic ties to illegal weapons, have on the future of Indo-Nepali relations?
What would happen in Nepal if things do not work out?
What can India do about being left out of Sino-Nepali relations?
How are the Maoists going to deal with the culture of impunity which continues to pervade Nepali political culture and bring those who committed crimes during the civil war to justice? And what efforts are being made, both in India and Nepal, to deal with the current status of child soldiers who have been affected by the war and find it difficult to be reintegrated back into their respective village life?
What are the likely changes to be made to the 1953 Treaty? What benefits will they bring and how will it impact India?
An increase in the level of governance and sharing of good practices is essential here in order to try and stamp out or at least minimize this problem further.
India and Nepal have strong linkages, religiously and culturally, which should be used for mutual benefit. Economic integration is also the key here for India to reinvigorate the Indo-Nepali partnership.
On both these issues, the reasons India has not been included in dealing with the Maoist problem in the past are the making of its own failures to do so. The same holds true if India is being left out by China and Nepal. After 9/11, when the US placed the Maoists on their list of terrorists, they said to the Indian government to form a strategy on how to deal with them and they would follow. But the Indians failed to do so and let the issue slip away, which left the Americans with no choice to take over. This sort of scenario cannot continue.
China was previously sidelined by the Maoists. They were brought back in, supplying them with weapons, for example, because the Maoists wanted them back. India will have to respond to these challenges accordingly.
On the first problem, the democratization process is so sensitive that it is unlikely that the Maoists are going to deal with this head on. The problem of governance too means that bringing them to justice will be extremely difficult. The same applies for the status of child soldiers as the Maoist's will be unwilling to address this issue themselves. Therefore, the role of Nepali civil society and other international NGOs, which are already doing good work in this area, is where the future of the solution to this problem lies.
If one were to look at this treaty from a neutral perspective, it is completely biased in favour of India. India has to stop viewing Nepal through a colonialist lens and start treating it equally. India must also assist with promoting civil society in Nepal, as it is through this arena that the people can articulate what they want.