KANAK MANI DIXIT'S is a pre-eminent voice for democracy and freedom of the press in South Asia. An outspoken critic of the establishment, he was arrested in 2016. Notable rights bodies describe this as a case of “personal vendetta” and “a setback for freedom of expression” in Nepal. In an interview on the future of Nepal against the background of the new Constitution taking effect, he tells Frontline of the daunting challenges facing the Himalayan nation, the dimensions of Indian meddling in the country, and the way forward. Excerpts:
The elections to the three tiers of government in Nepal, which were a prerequisite for the 2015 Constitution to come into force, have been completed, and you have a new Prime Minister. Do the new Constitution and the new leaders in government bring hope?
Hope rests on the new Constitution, which is a chaotic document, but it is the one we have got. We have got to amend it over time to take care of the contradictions in it. However, the Constitution was also part of the peace process after 10 years of violence and then years of inter-community polarisation. All of that has been put to an end. Now the possibility of implementing the Constitution is relatively good and better than ever before. In the past 10 years, we have had an interim Constitution, we have had a Constituent Assembly, and there have been many issues that have kept communities on the boil. There has been a steady weakening of the Nepali state in terms of administration, foreign policy and development activities. But suddenly there is hope because, on the basis of this Constitution, two things have happened. One is the three-tier elections. Right at the grass roots, Mayors and village heads have been elected. That provides a lot of stability. We have not had local elections for 19 years. And that is one of the reasons that society became very difficult to manage—there was no channel for people’s voices to be heard. Because of the elections from the ground to the highest level under the new Constitution, everything is legitimate now.
Two, even those forces and communities that were unhappy with the Constitution writing and with the results [of the election] have nevertheless accepted it and [are ready] to correct any shortcomings as we go on. In doing this, some level of international intervention has happened in Nepal. The Nepali people’s resilience and sagacity has put a stop to that. Therefore, with three layers of government elected, from the local to the provincial to the national, we now have a government in place. What is unique about this particular government is that the Prime Minister has become very popular for having resisted the [Indian] blockade and reaching out to open up Nepal to the north [China]. Whatever be the rights and wrongs [of this move], he was applauded by the people. He also managed to reach out to the Maoists, who have been working at odds with the people’s interest, in my opinion, and now he has made them come into the coalition. And now they are to a certain extent compromised and humbled. This is good for the country.
Also, the Constitution allows the Prime Minister a minimum of two years in government because you cannot bring a no-confidence motion for two years. In the last 10 years, Nepal has not had a government that has completed more than 12 months; the average tenure was eight months. Suddenly, for us, even the two years looks like an incredible advance. Actually, the possibility is for five years because this is a coalition government. Good governance will not come only with a workable Constitution and a leader who by dint of his own efforts has made it; you need to have civil society. That is a big part of Nepali polity. Civil society was compromised by partisan politics, by consultancies, by money, and by weak learning. The role of civil society is very important.
Many countries of South Asia have done Constitution writing. In Sri Lanka, we have seen quite a few Constitutions written, the Maldives adopted a Constitution which it does not follow any longer, and Nepal had a Constitution in 1990. The 1990 Constitution is relevant once the constitutional monarchy part of it is repealed. Then why write a new Constitution?
I am a staunch supporter of the 1990 Constitution. That is what gave us the basic freedoms, the fundamental freedoms, which make Nepal what it is today. That people have the ability to question, to challenge, to go to the streets, etc. What the Maoists did was to pick up the gun against that Constitution. So, that Constitution was never given a chance. But now this is a fait accompli—the pound of flesh to bring around the Maoists. In 2005, eight Nepali citizens were dying every day in violence related to insurgency. That was too much for our society to take. Various compromises were made by the people and politicians. That’s why in an article I wrote a week ago in Nepali, I said goodbye to the 1990 Constitution, looking back at it and saying why and how it took us far ahead.
But we had a roadblock in the form of insurgency. After the insurgency, we had a lot of inter-community challenges that brought us to the edge. The insurgency proposed a class war. A class war is easier to manage than an inter-community conflict. There were enough forces trying to create problems in Nepal. The Nepali state is a centralised one ruled by the high Hill caste. It was not an inclusive state. But change comes about not through revolution or conflagration between communities but through the use of the sober power of the state and constitutional democratic representative politics. That was happening under the 1990 Constitution. But we got derailed.
The 1990 Constitution was a good one. It was berated by people who had prejudiced agendas. However, one has to kiss it goodbye and move on with the new Constitution, which is not an easy Constitution to implement. That is the real challenge.
How does the absence of a dominant community in Nepal help or impede the political process?
It is an advantage. Nepal is a country of micro-communities. The largest ethnic group or community is the Hill Kshatriya. They form 16 per cent of the population. The Hill Brahmins form 12 [per cent]. And all the other communities are smaller in number than that. To that extent, even if this is posited as a fight of majoritarianism versus minorities, it has not worked. But that does not mean just because there is no majority community there is no majoritarian philosophy because of the concentration of power in a few communities. I think Nepal did not go into an all-out conflagration because there was no one community or ethnic group in a majority, as in Sri Lanka, where 70 per cent of the people are from one community.
The new Constitution forces the state to be more inclusive. Until now, even in the last 10-15 years, people would say, even after the second people’s movement of 2006, there was no inclusion. This is because the state is still locked in the control of Hill Brahmins. The political chaos and the so-called consensus politics of the past 15 years has meant that the high ideals espoused in the interim document has not been implemented on the ground. This is the time for [Prime Minister] Mr [K.P.] Oli to show the sagacity of [former Prime Minister] B.P. Koirala in 1959 in terms of the kind of inclusive politics and state administration he employs. [Koirala’s 1959 Cabinet remains the most representative Cabinet to this day in Nepal.]
The Hill people have come together to occupy all significant positions of power in Nepal to the exclusion of all other communities. Are you saying that there is a possibility that this will end in the near future?
Because of the command of literature, the written word and the spoken word, basically the Brahmanical tradition, when politics began in the modern era, the Brahmins (Bahuns) were first off the post. They managed to take advantage of this. But when you talk about a conspiracy, I do not see a conspiracy because among the Brahmins are also the poorest of Nepal. It’s just that clans among this community took advantage. So when you look at it from afar or from the viewpoint of a marginalised community, you will say it’s all Brahmins. I personally think that is why the new Constitution is workable. So far, consensus politics meant that a powerful leader never emerged to say “I will now go by the concepts of inclusion”; he [the leader] was mostly trying to buttress his personal power. So he never went for the high principle of inclusion, and it was never a she, by the way. Mr Oli now has that opportunity and he has five years ahead of him. Here is an opportunity for him to rise. That is why I say it is not enough for the Constitution to give power, but he has to be held to account given that now he has got the power that his predecessors of the last 15 years did not.
THREAT FROM THE RIGHT
We saw the King take an active role and throw out Koirala in 1960, which was the most inclusive government of all time, and then just when it looked like the 1990 Constitution would show the way forward, you had issues such as the Maoist struggle. These are much more than mere aberrations…
Yes, such things can happen again. For example, there’s a renegade Maoist outfit that is currently underground and creating some amount of dissonance. Twenty years ago, we did not have experience of conflict, conflict resolution or Constitution writing or politicisation in a positive way or participation by the public in many ways. Now that institutionally that participation is guaranteed, I think there’s enough knowledge of what violence does to society. There is this desire to move towards economic growth and equity. That I believe, with enough watchdogs, will make sure that those who would like to once again introduce chaos will not succeed. But the only way to do this is by what I call democracy and stability, by democratic stability. We have never had stability. I think what’s going to happen now is that Nepal will continue to be a rambunctious—and it might look like a chaotic and angry—society. But democracy will continue to hold.
The danger I see is not so much from renegade leftists going underground but from rightists and/or Hindutva-oriented agenda, including the former King. They are waiting on the side to see the collapse of the system. That is why we have to make sure that this does not collapse; the kind of extreme reaction against the state leading to insurgencies and violence that Nepal had to bear between 1996 and 2006 would happen if we got a right-wing regime. When we have a non-egalitarian rightist regime in Kathmandu is when these kinds of renegade activities will happen. So we should never go in that direction. And this is where civil society becomes important. Civil society has not shown its commitment and its skills in the past decade.
Coming to external factors, there are multiple points of contact for Nepalis from India. There is a Bihar channel now handled by Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath has a following there, and then there is the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) and also a direct line of contact with the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). Do the interactions with multiple points of contacts at fairly higher levels of the Nepali hierarchy create dissonance in your country?
Yes, it does. The primary reason for the lack of stability, the lack of inclusive politics and good governance in Nepal, is the fault of Nepali politicians. However, we have been meddled with throughout. We have never been allowed to make our own mistakes and learn from them. One of the reasons that governments [in Nepal] have not lasted long is because of Indian meddling.
But which India are we talking about? I see the run of acronyms that are active in Nepal: I.B. to RAW to RSS to PMO to NSA [National Security Adviser] to MEA and VHP. So in this, the Nepali rulers will have their hands full trying to first understand which agency to handle. But from Nepal’s side, I can tell you that if India wants prosperity in Indian States that surround us, Nepal is a powerhouse economy potentially because it is so resource-rich. Even Nepali people have been waiting for centuries to utilise these resources. People from India who work in Nepal come from some of India’s poorest regions, and remittances to India from Nepal are among the largest from a foreign country. If you love your people, then you will let Nepal be Nepal. Then, Nepal will rise as an economy and the remittances [to India] will double. There needs to be a change of attitude in [India] purely in the interest of the people of the States surrounding Nepal.
Secondly, Nepal itself should also address the professed fear of the Indian state because of the open border; this is an exemplary border between any two countries in South Asia. This should not be a security threat [to India]. This open border is a prize. This is the kind of borders all of South Asia should have, but there are fears that this could be used by third parties. The open border is meant to benefit the people of Nepal and India and not any third country. There are professed fears of infiltration using the open Nepal border, but thus far it does not look like a contagion at all and, therefore, it cannot be raised as an issue constantly. I would say that there’s an eminent persons’ group talking between India and Nepal right now and there are certain issues where this border can be monitored. But no way should the relationship between the people of India and Nepal be impacted by excessive monitoring of this open border.
I believe we must go back to a stage where diplomatic relations are managed by politicians at the national level and the Ministries of External Affairs of the two countries. Let us remember that Nepali leaders fought for Indian Independence shoulder to shoulder. That meant that they had one-on-one relations with the national leaders of India. Therefore, they could pick up the phone and talk to almost anyone in India. But the last of those leaders died with Girija Prasad Koirala. From the Prime Minister-to-Prime Minister link, which provided Nepal with a lot of protection, we fell to the level of the Nepali Prime Minister talking to the Second Secretary in Kathmandu. And that is also when the intelligence activities overtook everything else, and so here was Nepal, a full-fledged country where you could manipulate politics. And perhaps a lot of money played a part.
Nepal has to work to bring back the level of interaction to politician to politician at the national level and between the MEAs of the two countries rather than be at the beck and call of the Embassy in Kathmandu.
ON THE BLOCKADE
Many Nepalis were upset about the fact that India had imposed a blockade. In a conversation sometime ago, former NSA Shiv Shankar Menon told me that the disastrous blockade imposed by the Rajiv Gandhi government in the late 1980s led to a huge strain in relations that took more than a decade to repair. What do you think the blockade achieved? Secondly, when a new leader is chosen for a Nepali political party, say the Nepali Congress, the leader rushes to meet the Indian High Commissioner. This, of course, is not unique to Nepal in South Asia. But this does not go down well with the people. I see a dichotomy here. The people seem to hate India for the blockade, while the politicians seem to love India for their own reasons…
Whether India has done anything or not, there is an impression in Nepal that the politicians have no choice but to mollify India because it could finish off your politics. This is the fear that people had in their mind. After the passing away of Koirala and the stalwarts of the previous years, we did not have leaders who had international stature. So suddenly, to protect their own politics, they would look up and call in on the Indian Ambassador.
When the last blockade happened, 1988-89, Nepal was not as monetised a society as it is today. Nor was it requiring so many services, such as LPG. Nepal had come, by 2015, to use a lot of modern technologies. When you had a blockade it cut across every class, from top to bottom. This is a democratic era where people know their rights, and they voiced their discontent in any manner they could, including on social media.
Whichever entity in New Delhi thought of implementing the blockade, it was the Madhesis of Nepal who were made to carry the burden, not the Madhesi people but the Madeshwadi leaders in the plains. They were made to carry India’s burden to say that they conducted the blockade. Even if they did conduct the blockade, to do it and subject your own people to such level of incredible humanitarian distress is unconscionable. Actually, if you see how the blockade was conducted, it was just a few people on a particular bridge. Why were the trucks being stopped for miles?
There was no question that it was because of directives from the Union government in India to the SSB [Seema Suraksha Bal] and to the Customs and other authorities along the border. It hit the people across Nepal. It did not hurt the state so much as it hurt the people.
The other thing it did was that it created an even bigger chasm between the plains-people and the Hill people because though the plains-people had, at large, nothing to do with it, their leaders did. So here was Kathmandu thinking that the plains-people were being supportive of the blockade, whereas it was only a few leaders who were in the hands of the southern power. It was a point where the Nepali public fortunately understood what was going on even though the narrative was that the Madhesis were doing it. So there was no communal conflagration as a result of this. But we came close to it.
The other fallout was that the Nepali people lost heart when it came to India because the blockade hit people regardless of where they lived. As a result, the damage to India was grievous. It was seen in the disaster that faced the [Nepali] Congress party in the last elections. Why did it face that disaster? Among many other reasons, including the poor leadership of Sher Bahadur Deuba, the Nepali Congress was seen not to have stood up to India, to the blockade, even in statements. They issued pusillanimous statements such as calling it “The Blockade” as if it was an act of God or a natural calamity, whereas it was a very devious geopolitical move. In the end, it hurt India for years, and is continuing. Perhaps now the Indian state has realised and it is seeking to make amends because the reality and the fait accompli in Nepal is that the very Prime Minister who challenged the blockade and who reached out to the north [China] has landed feet first into the Prime Minister’s Office and the Singha Durbar Secretariat.
So, one would hope that Nepali leaders will not only take a lesson in how to deal with the Indian state and not to be completely subservient but will also do no harm to India. I can tell you that a security harm to India cannot come from the Nepali side. Nepal, howsoever it may reach out to the north, is and will be much better connected to India by population, by demography, by open border…. So the northern linkages cannot compare. For that reason, any government of Nepal, including that of Mr Oli, will never allow what is called “anti-India activities” on Nepali soil. I feel that every so often there is the red herring of a security threat from Nepal that is put up; Nepali state cannot go in that direction because India is too important for Nepal. The open border, I will concede, has to be kept open but monitored so that third countries cannot use it. That should be the limit of monitoring the border. There should not be excessive distress for common people. Already SSB jawans do trouble the local people.
ON INDIA'S FOREIGN POLICYIn your speech the other day at the Roja Muthiah Library in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, you used the word “Viceroy” to describe Indian Foreign Service officers. I was not too surprised to hear it because this was the exact word used to describe J.N. Dixit when he was the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka. How much does a Foreign Service officer contribute to the souring of the relationship between India and Nepal?
It seems to me that there is not enough critiquing of the Indian foreign policy in New Delhi by civil society, the intelligentsia, think tanks, journalists, editorial writers and opinion makers. Even in Pakistan, you will find enough people challenging their own state. In Nepal it happens. In Bangladesh it happens. But in India, the largest democracy, with the history of democracy in the modern era that it has, there seems to an unwillingness to challenge the state and question it even though it impacts your own people.
It also seems to me that Foreign Service officers, as far as Nepal is concerned, were the fall guys. Because the control of foreign policy in India—this move from the MEA to the PMO and the NSA—and the weakening of the superstructure of the MEA, has meant that in the case of Nepal, occasionally, there will be an Ambassador who will be able to have more control than others. It will do a lot of good for India if the Prime Ministers of the two countries are in direct touch and the political leadership and the Ministers are in direct touch as required but day-to-day affairs are handled by the MEA. Now, how does one impregnate the Indian state with this idea is the challenge because in the end this will also mean political stability in Nepal. The MEA is not going to speak for itself, so then who do you talk to.
So the only hope seems to be that Mr Oli and Mr [Narendra] Modi have a kind of rapprochement where Mr Modi is made to understand that the weakest and poorest segment of the population of the world and of South Asia and of India is around Nepal [on the Indian side]. Nepal has done relatively well in human development indices. Better than these States. Why? Do a little bit of humble study of that and say ok, let Nepal be Nepal. It will make its mistakes, but at the end it will be stable.
I personally feel that right now the MEA is not able to make this point and take back the reins. So it has to come from the PMO. He [the Indian Prime Minister] has to say, “I will tackle the bigger issues, and the MEA manage the daily affairs.” It will be to India’s immediate advantage. You can see the change in three-four years.
Let me say this also. The consulate in Birgunj should be an economic consulate. This is very important. This is a topic not even understood let alone addressed by civil society or the intelligentsia in Delhi. It has been misused for politicking in the plains of Nepal. In every way I feel for the people of Madhes because there is an attempt to make it seem as if they are the fifth column. But they are proud citizens of Nepal who have been marginalised by the state of Nepal. The overt influencing of the politics of the Madheswadi parties, as if they were somehow representing India, is most unfair. This should stop for the sake of the Madhesi citizens of Nepal, who make a large percentage of our population.
ON RIGHT-WING POLITICS
Most people of Nepal are deeply conservative, devout and Hindu. Is not the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Hindu-centred narrative, which has propelled them to power, tempting enough for a political party in Nepal to emulate?
I hope no one goes that way. That may be a temptation. But they would also want to look at the results of the last election. This is something that the Indian public or the intelligentsia should know: that the so-called Hindutvawadi forces were shown the door in the last elections. The Nepali public’s voting record, especially the more recent one, militates against both the Rajawadis and the Hindutvawadis. While the people are deeply religious, there is a kind of syncreticism that has thus far not allowed the didactism of Hindutva to penetrate. This is a key area where Indians should never meddle in Nepal. India should really keep its hands off Nepali politics in terms of trying to foist any kind of religion-based politics that comes so easy to the current rulers in New Delhi, which is the RSS-BJP combine, because that would create the kind of brittle state that Nepal cannot sustain, and the reaction to that will be radical insurgency of one kind or the other.
From a democratic state to a conservative Hindutva-led state, the only way onward is actually great distress and conflict in society. So if Nepal, on its own, moves towards Hindu-based parties, that is acceptable, but if that happens because of the need for India’s rulers to say “we are bound by our Constitution but in Nepal we can show we mean to bring a Hindu state”, if that temptation—I am not saying it is there—is there one should pull back from it so that Nepal is, once again, left to its own political dynamics whichever way it may go.
ON CHINESE INTERESTS
Nepal has been among the countries in the region that have borne the brunt of the rivalry between India and Pakistan for long. Now you have a new reality in South Asia, which is China. While there is the general view that the India-Pakistan rivalry that spilled into Nepal could be managed at some level, when it comes to China, India is extremely sensitive. We have seen that in Sri Lanka, we are seeing that in the Maldives where India is taking a firm stand, we are seeing it in Bangladesh. How can Nepal handle it, given that Oli is the Prime Minister?
It is a big challenge for Nepal. On the one hand, there is India which has regularly been interventionist in the last decade or two, and now there is China, which is having an overpowering interest in Nepali affairs. If you go back to the time of Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, they told the Nepali leaders that you have to keep in mind that you are south of the Himalaya, so it is in your interest to keep good relations with India.
Now things have changed. One is that China seems to have consolidated its hold on Tibet. Secondly, the Himalayan region is no longer the strategic barrier that Indian strategists continue to think it is. The Himalaya, in the age of the intercontinental missile and all kinds of economic globalisation, is no longer a barrier. The other is the arrival of the train. It may have been built for strategic purposes, but it also has an economic use. The arrival of the train in Lhasa in 2002 and Shigatse, north of Bhutan, in 2006. It will arrive in the border point, north of Kathmandu, in 2020.
Now in all of this, the Chinese interest in Nepal is manifold. One is a lot of tourism arrivals. Another is Chinese investment. That is where we have to be a little careful because Nepal should not get into a debt trap that some of our neighbours have. We have enough examples from Africa and Sri Lanka on how to tackle China. This is where Mr Oli and his advisers will have to be careful; that you want to maintain good relations between the north and the south, and the kind of investments that the Chinese are able to provide should be used without weakening the Nepali state or the Nepali economy becoming too beholden to China.
Mr Oli is not a person who falls for popular rhetoric. He has not had bad relations with India and Indian representatives in the past. The demonising of Oli is mostly the job of the Indian media, particularly Indian television, as I see it. New Delhi think tanks are not far behind because they created an ogre that does not exist. You have to re-evaluate Mr Oli, and then, let him make his mistakes before you critique him. What I can say this far, from what I know of Mr Oli’s politics, is that he is going to be even-handed in dealing with the north and the south. New Delhi would want him to be with the south and to neglect the north. Frankly, it was the blockade that gave Mr Oli the motive to reach to the north and sign 10 agreements on connectivity. That is all for Nepal’s benefit. In the end, whether the railroad to the Nepal border is used by traders or not is not going to be dictated by geopolitics, it is going to be dictated by sheer economic need.
Do you see the Gorkha Regiment and the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) guaranteeing the Nepali rupee as relics of the past or as things that cement the special relationship that India and Nepal enjoy? Do you think these arrangements should continue?
It will basically depend on how well Nepal’s economy grows. This depends on political stability for which the precondition is lack of foreign intervention, and a good polity in Nepal that critiques the government. The reason that Nepalis go to fight for other armies is an aberration in relation to our sovereignty. But before anything else, as a realist, I would say that people have to be supported for their rozi roti [daily bread]…. One of the goals that Mr Oli should have is to create a momentum for the economy that will obviate the need that a Nepali family feels to send its son to a regiment of a foreign Army. People are kind to not to raise this all the time. The other members of SAARC [South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation] could easily be telling Nepal that your people are fighting for India against us. I think this kindness should remain for a while until Nepal sorts out its problems and gets the kind of economic growth that its natural resources do allow.
The RBI guarantee is an issue that Nepalis don’t want to talk about. Even in the discourse in Kathmandu, we keep quiet about it, maybe because many are not knowledgeable that there is a pegging of the rupee. This pegging is what Nepal can be grateful to India for because in the worst of times, during the insurgency for instance, the Nepali rupee did not fall below a certain point. That is because of the support provided by India. However, Nepal has to look forward to the day when its economy is independently strong and its rupee strong. I would say that the pegging is an issue that Nepalis would want to ignore because it shows the kind of handle the Indian polity has over the Nepali polity. If you take it away, the Nepali economy will potentially collapse. I think we should rise to a point where this is not needed.