The Revenge of Geography A Primer on India-Nepal Relations
Nepal lies along the central Himalayas. This rectangular piece of South Asia has acted as an important bridge linking two ancient civilisations of the Asian continent, Tibet in the north later assimilated by China in 1959 and India in the south. The land slopes downwards from the almost impenetrable and mighty Himalayan wall of the north until it reaches the southern fertile Terai plains. The narrow track of Terai plains was once covered by thick tropical forest known as the ‘Char KoseJhadi’. Nepal was once much more extensive and included the present-day Indian Kumaon and Garhwalupto the river Sutlej.
Between the Himalayas and the Terai plains lie two mountain ranges running from west to east broken only by streams and rivers that run from north to south. These natural furrows have acted as barriers against the movement of people from one part of the country to the other which meant that the isolated communities could enjoy their own unique lifestyles without hindrance from others. The Mahabharat range reaching up to 10,000 ft in height takes up the largest area of the country and most of the Nepalis live on the slopes and valleys of this range. The Terai, which is a very fertile piece of land and is known as the rice bowl of Nepal lies to the south of these hills.
Nepal’s shape is roughly rectangular, about 650 kilometers long and about 200 kilometers wide and comprises a total of 147,181 square kilometers of land. It is slightly larger than Bangladesh. Nepal is a landlocked country, surrounded by India on three sides and by China’s Xizang Autonomous Region (Tibet) to the north. It is separated from Bangladesh by an approximately fifteen kilometre wide strip of India’s state of West Bengal (known as the Siliguri corridor) and from Bhutan by the eighty-eight kilometre wide Sikkim, also an Indian state. Nepal is almost totally dependent on India for transit facilities from the south, west and east and for their access to the sea, that is, the Bay of Bengal. However, in recent days, China has opened up its Northern frontiers giving Nepal an access to its markets and its people.
Geographical position and historical development are major determinants of foreign policy that regardless of the kaleidoscopic change of contemporary events and no matter what form of government has been instituted or what political party may be in power, the foreign policy of a country has a natural tendency to return again and again to the same general and fundamental alignment. This truism is often forgotten whenever we try and rewrite our relationships and our future. In international relations, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. The original of this pragmatism is generally conceded to Lord Palmerston (John Henry Temple) of Great Britain, but most world leaders have invoked it at one time or another to justify their policies and actions.
This is indeed applicable in the Indo-Nepali context and has been evident in political relations since the establishment of the modern state of Nepal from its inception to the current period.
Shared Geostrategic Concerns
This unique location of Nepal is of immense strategic value to India as well as to China. India has traditionally looked at its northern frontiers with China as the Himalayan watershed. This formidable military barrier can be crossed at selected places only and therefore lends itself for a strong defence line requiring significantly lesser resources to defend. Any Chinese military or ideological influx or influence south of this watershed would be inimical to Indian interests. Militarily, the mountains of Nepal open out to the great Indian plains where defensible lines will be difficult to establish. China, on the other hand, views its borders with Nepal, as the soft underbelly of Tibet. It, therefore, is necessary to ensure that India always retains adequate political, strategic and economic leverage in Nepal so that her security interests are not compromised.
The much talked about Siliguri corridor also merits serious consideration. This small corridor is the only rail and road link between rest of India and its north-eastern states. This corridor’s security is, therefore, vital for India and it is felt by military experts that it can be jeopardised by a small military manoeuvre or by subverting the people living in this area. Chinese military presence, south and close to the watershed will pose serious threats to this area.
Nepal’s southern borders with India are open, porous and in places often difficult and almost impossible to monitor despite the presence of the SSB, the designated border guarding force deployed along the Indo-Nepal border. Any anti-India activity in Nepali border areas will find easy access to a poorly guarded and insecure heartland of India. These activities could be ISI sponsored violence, smuggling, drug running, fake currency notes and other economic offences.
All Nepali rivers flow into the Ganges. Unchecked flows, every year, cause floods leading to serious social and economic havoc in India. Nepal plans to construct storage dams as well as electricity generation plants. Any uncontrolled release of water in critical periods of the monsoons may be detrimental to India’s security requirements. A close and friendly relationship is therefore warranted as any inimical political setup may be unresponsive to India’s concerns and release of water at critical moments during the monsoon period will have very serious consequences economically and socially for India.
View and Contra-view
India and Nepal share common and interdependent economic, cultural and social links. Both are democracies and retention of this political state of affairs is highly desirable.
Two consistent but very dominant perceptions characterise Nepal-India relations. The first one regards that these relations are rooted, among others, in similarities of culture, tradition, religion, geography and the way of life and these unique traits of similarities are viewed as of great strength and virtues of enduring nature. India is held as Nepal’s closest of friends, a friend that has always stood by Nepal’s side in troubled times. Occasional bumps in relations are taken as natural because of the intensive and extensive nature of these relations. The underpinnings of these relations are believed to be strong enough to withstand any occasional ups and downs. It is generally stressed that both countries must continue to strive for the consolidation of the foundation of these relations in light of the changing needs of time and to expand them further into more mutually beneficial areas of cooperation.
Concurrently, the counter view is that of India as a country still carrying an imperial legacy and haunted by the colonial mindset, always wanting to keep its smaller neighbours under its sphere of influence and its conduct has never matched its stated commitment of friendship. Here, the ill-advised blockade of 2015 is often held as an example of India’s ill intentions. It is often wondered in Kathmandu, whether India is truly Nepal’s true and well-meaning friend, as it always professes, or does it merely want to perennially expand its political, social and economic footprints in Nepal, even if it means creating constant regime changes through the creation of multiple power centres?
These two dominant perceptions do in fact mirror a great deal of truth about existing bilateral relations. Dwelling on Nepal-India relations in his “Aatmabritanta”, late BP Koirala had very aptly explained, “Our ties shouldn’t be interpreted only on the basis of ancient history and culture. Look at Europe; it may be one culturally, but they were always fighting and killing each other. Distrust does not disappear just because there is cultural affinity. Relationships are dependent upon differing perspectives on society and differing expectations of the future”.
In India’s dealings with Nepal, it is desirable to establish a more equitable relationship. India needs to accept that there are now new important players in Nepal who have the legitimacy and the approval of the people at large. These players look at interdependence and bilateral relations in a different paradigm which need not necessarily be anti-India. Channels of communication with all these political parties need to be cultivated for their views will define Nepal of the future. Economically India must continue to give Nepal latitude due to the existing economic asymmetry between the two countries. The border must be well monitored jointly with infrastructural and support facilities provided by India.
What is in India’s best interests? A stable, prosperous Nepal is our highest priority. The failure to move forward towards the framing of a constitution is the single most destabilising factor in Nepal today. What is clear that regardless of the anti-India tirade that continues from various politicians and political parties in Nepal from time to time, all of them look to India for assistance in troubled times. The debilitating earthquake of 2015 and the assistance provided by India during Nepal’s hour of need is a case in point. It is in India’s interests to help the Nepali people and its chosen government find solutions to Nepal’s problems. When faced with a common enemy, (the monarchy), who threatened them with extinction in 2005-06, all the parties in Nepal came together and in the bargain a long-running insurgency too ended.
India clearly has worldwide concerns but often fails to understand the fierce independence of spirit of South Asia’s oldest nation-state, Nepal. As per Kanak Mani Dixit, a prominent journalist of Nepal, “India often has not done its bit to back political stability in Nepal, which requires allowing the indigenous political process to proceed unobstructed. It also fails to appreciate that democratic political stability in Nepal is also good for Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and the other neighbouring states of India”.