India's U-turn on Nepal

Print edition : May 20, 2005

India has let down the Nepali people's struggle for democracy and weakened its own claim to be an enlightened moral and political leader of South Asia.

JUST three days before King Gyanendra left Kathmandu for Jakarta to attend the 50th anniversary of the Bandung conference, he passed on his royal mantle to his son Paras in a religious ceremony organised by the World Hindu Federation. The staunchly monarchist federation regards King Gyanendra, the ruler of the world's only self-proclaimed Hindu kingdom, as an incarnation of Vishnu, and therefore the sovereign of all Hindus worldwide. It aims to establish Hindu supremacy globally. The week-long religious rite coincided with the 25th anniversary of the WHF, which defends the King's usurpation of absolute power on February 1 and all his repressive measures.

King Gyanendra of Nepal acknowledges greetings from Crown Prince Paras (left) before his departure for Jakarta, at the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu April 20.-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

No less important was Paras' appointment on the day of the King's departure as head of the Royal Representative Council (RRC) that would administer Nepal in his absence abroad. Paras, known for frequenting discotheques and getting into brawls, and feared because of his violent temper, has been groomed to take over from Gyanendra.

During the past month, Paras was present at Gyanendra's meeting with the Chinese Foreign Minister, inaugurated a special programme of state-run Radio Nepal, and attended an Army function where he looked the identical image of his father, "both wearing similar uniforms, caps and dark glasses", according to a report.

The message could not have been clearer. Gyanendra's priorities have little to do with restoring democracy or lifting draconian restrictions on freedom. Formally lifting the state of emergency is a red herring. What matters is whether he releases prisoners, restores media freedom, stops using the Public Security Act against dissidents, and suspends Tora Bora-style helicopter attacks which have been killing more civilians than insurgents.

None of this looks likely. Indeed, the April 27 arrest of former Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba and other leaders, including former Minister Chakra Bastola, only confirms one's worst fears.

Sher Bahadur Deuba-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

Given this situation, it is completely incomprehensible, indeed unconscionable, that External Affairs Minister K. Natwar Singh, and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, met Gyanendra in Jakarta and offered to resume arms supply suspended three months ago. Earlier too, there were signs of a weakening of India's resolve to give no quarter to Gyanendra. In early April, India worked in concert with the United States (U.S.) and United Kingdom (U.K.) to block a tough resolution at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in Geneva reprimanding Nepal and appointing a Special Rapporteur. Instead, they let off Kathmandu under a mild procedure, demanding only "technical cooperation".

The Jakarta meeting represents a deeper, qualitative break. It gives a shot in the arm to the King and legitimises his takeover. It weakens India's - and the world's - ability to hold his feet to the fire. And it is liable to sow confusion among Nepal's political parties just as they seem to be getting their act together.

Supporters of Sher Bahadur Deuba are arrested by security forces personnel outside an office where Deuba was summoned by a Royal Commission for Corruption Control hearing in Kathmandu on April 27.-DEVENDRA M SINGH/AFP

It deserves mention that the very day Manmohan Singh met Gyanendra, a broad spectrum of Nepali parties met in New Delhi. Speaker after speaker assailed the royal takeover; indeed, most demanded dismantling of the monarchy itself. As a common minimum, they all solemnly pledged to agitate for a Constituent Assembly beginning early May.

Neither the External Affairs Ministry (MEA) nor the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) has transparently laid out the rationale for India's disgraceful Nepal policy U-turn, although the government was acutely embarrassed by Deuba's arrest. There have only been "background" briefings and selective leaks. By adopting this approach, the government has let Gyanendra get away with his public boast, "we have got assurances that [the arms supplies] will continue". This breach of India's understanding with him offered New Delhi a chance to spell out his commitments regarding a "road map" for restoring democracy. The government muffed it.

FIVE considerations seem to have wrought the unfortunate shift in India's stand. First, an obsessive fear that weakening Gyanendra would lead to Maoist infiltration from Nepal and a rise in naxalite violence. Second, the King's plea that he is running out of ammunition. Third, the fear that China and Pakistan would occupy positions of influence if India vacates them for too long. Fourth, the MEA fears that India might lose its leverage to settle issues of bilateral interest such as water, immigration control and trade, if it does not "engage" Gyanendra.

Finally, there is the lame argument that if India can do business with General Musharraf and the King of Bhutan, it should not be sanctimonious about another dictator. This is too fatuous to be taken seriously.

The Nepal coup represents a qualitative regression in a democratisation process that was fairly advanced in Nepal - in relation to both Bhutan and Pakistan. Besides, India had not boycotted Musharraf or the Bhutan King the way it did Gyanendra. The whole logic of India's initial response was to tell the King that it was unacceptable to use his war against insurgency as an excuse to snuff out democracy.

The other four arguments do not hold much water either. None of them is inspired by or relates to the situation in Nepal, as distinct from questionable notions of statecraft. As argued earlier (Frontline, March 11), the naxalite movement is indigenous and only marginally influenced by Nepali Maoists. Only a fifth of naxalite-affected districts abut Nepal.

The King has long claimed that arms alone can defeat the insurgency. But the Royal Nepal Army (RNA) has found it impossible even to control it with abundant weaponry. About half the RNA is deployed in the Kathmandu valley, whereas the insurgency is strong outside it. The RNA has more than doubled in size and fighting power, but it can hardly be treated as a serious professional force. Its commanders' personal loyalty and subservience to the palace undermines its integrity. The King's plea for arms and ammunition should not be entertained.

As for China and Pakistan, true, both refused to condemn the royal coup. China sent its Foreign Minister on a two-day visit to Nepal, and Pakistan offered $5 million in aid. But neither has offered to sell arms to Nepal. Both governments know that they have much more to gain from normalised relations with India than any minor "point-scoring" advantage they might win in Nepal. India's leverage in Nepal is incomparable to China's. The Indian and Nepali economies are tied. Nepal's vital supply-lines pass through India. Besides, some six million Nepalis live and work in India.

The "leverage" business often serves as a substitute for good diplomacy and an excuse for appeasement. Recall that the U.S. advocated "constructive engagement" with apartheid South Africa in place of tough action, including sanctions. The policy shored up a sinking evil regime. India would be best able to address bilateral issues such as water-sharing, environmental protection and trade by discussing them with a representative popular government in Nepal which enjoys real legitimacy, not a despotic one like the King's which may be on its way out.

The record of the King's emergency is absolutely appalling. According to the Asian Centre for Human Rights, in February alone, the number of people killed in the violence has averaged 8.41 a day, up from 3.44 a day cumulatively since 1996, and 6.52 persons daily in 2004. Barely two weeks after the palace takeover, the RNA carried out a massacre of 35 Maoist suspects (mere suspects) in Kapilavastu over many days. The dead bodies were flogged in front of television cameras in the presence of Nepali Ministers and RNA officers. The television cameras could not have arrived there without the crew having been tipped off. That makes this medieval act of vengeance all the more barbaric.

Most of the 3,000 people detained since February remain incarcerated, without trial. They include more than a dozen journalists. The media remains muzzled. Dissidents are regularly intimidated or detained. One of the greatest casualties is FM community radio, in which Nepal is a world leader. A major source of information to the rural public, it has fallen silent.

This is of a piece with the deterioration in the Nepal situation ever since the RNA's Unified Command took over in November 2001, followed by the King's arbitrary dismissal of the Deuba government in 2002. The executive monarchy has hastened Nepal's descent into the abyss - a failing state with dysfunctional institutions. The King's writ does not run in 70 per cent of the territory. The law courts are not operational in the 19 hill districts.

Greater militarisation of daily life has meant that even the police is becoming irrelevant. The number of police stations has decreased from 1,500 to 350. In tiny Nepal, more than 11,000 people have perished in violence and counter-violence since 1996. And at least 1,619 are missing. The more the monarchy tightens its grip on Nepal, the worse the governability crisis becomes.

The reason why the palace has interfered more and more in society and politics is profoundly retrograde. The King's usurpation of power, perceptive Nepali commentators like C.K. Lal and Kanak Mani Dixit have argued, was a reaction against the devolution and redistribution of power that has occurred since 1990, when parliamentary democracy was established. Power got increasingly dispersed to remote areas, regional groups and ethnic minorities outside the Kathmandu valley. This threatened the interests of the valley-based elite, including the royal family and the aristocracy.

The coup was a last-ditch attempt to reverse the democratisation of power and re-concentrate control within the narrow circles of the old ruling class, with its network of predatory interests and criminal activities, including smuggling and poaching. The takeover is unlikely to succeed in re-concentrating power. That agenda is far too anachronistic. Nepal has gone way, way beyond it.

INDIA'S interests - and those of its people - lie in solidarity with the forces of democracy and popular empowerment in Nepal. Refusing to arm the King, and goading him towards a ceasefire and negotiations with the Maoists, is the priority of the day. This is the best way of encouraging long-overdue reform, including land reform, and further decentralisation of power. The Maoists can be important allies in the process of progressive change. India cannot simultaneously advocate negotiations and peace with domestic guerilla groups, including the Nagas, Kashmiris and the naxalites, while advocating violence against Nepal's Maoists. That is neither good politics nor decent diplomacy.

In the past, India executed many turns on Nepal - doing the King's bidding by arbitrarily arresting scores of Maoist leaders, joining hands with the European Union (E.U.) in encouraging a ceasefire, then again going along with the U.S.-advocated "tough line" which declares the Maoists a "terrorist" organisation, and so on. A year ago, India, the U.S. and the U.K. sent their ambassadors to the leadership of the "Anti-Regression" initiative, which had gathered tremendous momentum and was planning a large-scale agitation against the palace, including a demonstration in Kathmandu with lakhs of people. The troika got the leadership to cancel the plan, which could have had a sobering deterrent effect upon the King. This casts a special responsibility upon India to help the cause of democracy.

It just will not do for the MEA to keep repeating shop-worn cliches about Nepal's "twin pillars" - constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy. In today's circumstance, when the King is out to decimate and destroy political parties, it is meaningless to advocate an imaginary "national consensus between the two constitutional forces" as if they were equal, as the MEA did after Deuba's arrest.

The King is no longer acting as a constitutional force. India is called upon to take sides. The first step in doing so is to stick to the decision not to supply weapons to him. But India must do more. It must demand a time-table for the restoration of democracy in its full sense, and should not remain content with the lifting of the state of emergency.

There seems to have been very little coordination between the MEA and the PMO on these issues. Such lack of coordination was visible over Pakistan and Mauritius too. (Or else, the Indian Ambassador there would not have publicly contradicted Manmohan Singh.) This must change.

However, a larger issue arises about India's role in the South Asian region. In dealing with its neighbours barring Pakistan, New Delhi has so far vacillated between three poles or positions: aggressive self-assertion as the region's pre-eminent power; a passive status quoist force which offers "reciprocity" to its neighbours; and benign indifference or neglect towards its neighbours unless the situation there flares up. This does not amount to consistent diplomacy based on coherent policy premises, leave alone regional leadership.

IN the final analysis, the credibility of India's claim to leadership will depend less on military or economic might than on moral clarity and the will to promote principles and values of universal significance, including democracy and popular participation. In doing so, India must show that it will not be Big Brother; it is enlightened.

India has a huge stake in Nepal's well-being and stability, which is a pre-condition for the progress and prosperity of a big swathe of the Gangetic delta, from Uttar Pradesh to Bihar and Bengal, not to speak of Uttaranchal. But great virtue must also be attached to making a positive contribution to pulling South Asia out of poverty, despotism and backwardness. After all, one-fourth of humanity lives here.

India can claim such virtue, and the legitimacy and honour that come with it, only by sticking to a principled stand on Nepal and other neighbours. The United Progressive Alliance government must shed its timidity, reject parochial calculations and develop a broad vision while acting in solidarity with the Nepali people. Will it?

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor