India confronts a stark and imponderable issue in Nepal after its landlocked northern neighbor abolished its 240-year-old monarchy. Will a republican Nepal be any more conducive to constructive relations with India? The answer is least likely to come in the affirmative.
Anti-Indianism remains deeply ingrained in the Nepali political system as well as in the popular psyche, according to a new book, The Raj Lives. The author, Nepali journalist Sanjay Upadhya, explains how emotion has risen and receded with the nation’s internal political dynamics. Over the decades, the monarchy merely channeled the distrust to consolidate its position. Its departure alone, therefore, cannot make an appreciable difference.
At one level, India seems to have seized the initiative. Despite its serious reservations about the Maoists’ real commitment to peace and democracy, New Delhi has wisely backed the former rebels. After all, they won the largest number of seats in the new constituent assembly. International observers, led by former US president Jimmy Carter, certified those elections as reasonably free and fair.
India has also acted in self-interest. By encouraging the mainstreaming of the Nepali Maoists, New Delhi can at least hope to tame its own Naxalite rebels. Indian officials believe the two groups share ideological – and perhaps material – links. The democratization of one can be expected to have a restraining influence on the other.
Senior Nepali Maoist leaders, including party chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal (aka Prachanda) and his deputy, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, have pledged to usher in a new era in ties with India. Both have shed the anti-India rhetoric that was part of the decade-long insurgency.
However, middle-rung leaders still maintain a hard line against India, which they continue to denounce as “expansionist”. Whether the top comrades can, and even intend to, moderate those views is still open to question. In the past, as Upadhya explains, the Maoists have amplified or muted their tirades against India based on sheer political expediency.
What is less ambiguous is the anti-Indianism gaining ground in the Nepali Congress and the Unified Marxist-Leninists (UML) since the Maoist surge. The former, traditionally considered a friend of India, recently issued a formal statement accusing some Indian leaders of interfering in Nepali affairs. At a recent public function, these Indian leaders had merely urged the Nepali Congress to hand over leadership of the government to the Maoists in the established traditions of democracy.
Publications close to the Nepali Congress and the UML have trained their criticism on the Indian ambassador, Rakesh Sood. Reflecting New Delhi’s abiding interest in bolstering the peace process, Sood began consultations with Nepali leaders even before he had presented his accreditation letter to the government. This fact has united otherwise disparate factions across the Nepali spectrum on an anti-India platform.
Clearly, New Delhi was instrumental in building the alliance between the mainstream opposition parties and the Maoist rebels that brought down the autocratic regime of King Gyanendra in April 2006. Nepali leaders of all political persuasions have acknowledged as much. Ever since, New Delhi has carefully worked to encourage both sides to take the peace process to its logical conclusion. With the shift in the political equations, this initiative is now equated with interference.
The Raj Lives takes us deeper into the Nepali psyche. Upadhya begins with the rise of the House of Gorkha, which triumphed over dozens of petty principalities in often-ferocious battles before uniting them into modern Nepal in 1768. Half a century later, the Nepali campaign of territorial extension collided with the expansionary drive of the British colonial rulers.
The British, who defeated Nepal in 1816 after a two-year war, annexed a third of its territory, confining the northern state to its present territorial boundaries. Although the British did not bring Nepal under the formal umbrella of the Raj, Upadhya contends that the effects were no less grievous. He argues that independent India virtually upheld British policy, a contention that gives the book its title.
After independence, Indian leaders facilitated Nepal’s transition from oligarchic isolation to modernity. New Delhi built some of Nepal’s first roads, hospitals, airports and schools. Countless Nepalis have benefited from the open border to gain employment in India, sending back much-needed money to shore up the Nepali economy.
Still, the average Indian remains amazed at the extent of the iniquities New Delhi is accused of inflicting on its smaller neighbor. Almost every catastrophe, crisis or quandary is blamed in one way or the other, on Indian machinations. From Upadhya’s narrative, the Indian political establishment comes across as an ogre seething with its inability to consume its prey.
Sadly, as long-time observers of Nepali affairs understand, this is a perception that runs deep in that country. Third countries inimical to Indian interests have happily used this psychology to promote their objectives. They will continue to do so as Nepal struggles for adjustment as a republic. China and the United States have become more energetic players in Nepal as part of the peace process. Both seem to be cultivating the Maoists essentially to prevent New Delhi from gaining maximum advantage. Given its vital national interests involved in Nepal, India must remain ever more vigilant.
Upadhya is generous in his praise of India’s development assistance in diverse priority areas. One senses his exasperation at how needless suspicion and distrust have been impeding meaningful cooperation. Indeed, Nepal’s vast hydroelectricity potential and India’s growing energy demand, for one, could be beneficial to both nations. Yet no water-sharing treaty has been free from controversy. Upadhya concludes the book with a prescription for change both countries would do well to follow in order to reap the full potential of partnership
The Raj Lives draws on an extensive array of published material, some more obscure than others. Upadhya has used them diligently to construct an uncomplicated text. The book could have used archival illustrations descriptive of events and personalities described.
At times, the author seems to be merely conveying Nepali grievances. At others, he appears to be articulating them. Ultimately, the distinction may be immaterial in view of Upadhya’s principal argument – how perceptions matter more than reality in this complicated relationship.