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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Nepal and India agonize over China

August 28, 2009

By Dhruba Adhikary
Asia Times
August 28, 2009

KATHMANDU - Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt was the
place where Nepal's Prime Minister Madhav Kumar
Nepal first met his Indian counterpart, Manmohan
Singh, on the sidelines of a summit of non-aligned nations in mid-July.

 From this standpoint, his first official visit
to India last week appeared as a follow-up for a
review of bilateral relations which remained at a
low ebb when Maoist leader Prachanda headed Nepal's coalition government.

Prachanda's assertive posture, witnessed through
his decision, exactly a year ago, to make China -
instead of India - his first destination abroad
made New Delhi suspicious about the Maoist
leadership. The ensuing uneasiness continued
until he resigned on May 4 amid a controversy
Prachanda thought was ignited by India, although
he refrained from naming that country.

Mr Nepal succeeded him on May 25.

Whether his assurances to the Indians for
correcting the perceived tilt towards China did
have the intended impact remains a matter of
conjecture, but Mr Nepal told the national media,
on his return on Saturday, that his goodwill
visit to India was "highly successful despite speculation ..."

Officials issued a 34-point joint press statement
at the end of Mr Nepal's four-day sojourn in
India, containing pledges for money to be spent
on development projects, especially in the southern flatland called Terai.

But Prachanda and others in his Maoist party are
not impressed. He said Mr Nepal's initiative as
an exercise in futility, because the foreign
minister did not join the entourage and because
Mr Nepal - unlike him - was not elected by the
people. Prachanda said Mr Nepal looked like a
puppet and that the media in the host country had
virtually ignored the presence there of the prime
minister of a neighboring country.

Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, daughter of
Nepali Congress president and former prime
minister Girija Prasad Koirala, had created a
scene by dropping out of the entourage at the
11th hour, expressing her anger, in a seemingly
childish manner, against Mr Nepal for not having
promoted her to the post of deputy prime minister.

Officials of her ministry were left embarrassed
in New Delhi, where they had scheduled meetings
for her with several leaders, including the
external affairs minister. Back in Kathmandu,
Koirala explained to the Nepali Congress
executive that she could not accompany Mr Nepal
because of indisposition at the time of departure.

On the question of legitimacy, although Mr Nepal
was not elected in the polls held in April 2008,
he later became a nominated member of the
601-strong Constituent Assembly. A majority of
the house, representing 22 political parties,
then elected him to the post he presently
occupies. Moreover, insist Mr Nepal's supporters,
he did not push Prachanda out of power; the
charismatic Maoist leader himself announced his
resignation. Since the prime minister's chair
fell vacant, non-Maoist members in the assembly
made Mr Nepal an alternative leader. Nepali
Congress is the main coalition partner.

The Indian media, both print and electronic, did
not give extensive coverage to Mr Nepal's
activities in New Delhi, and subsequently in
Mumbai. But some of the editors who accompanied
the prime minister, together with ministers and
senior officials, have contended that the visit
coincided with the big-news event of the
presidential elections in neighboring Afghanistan.

Another major issue that dominated headlines at
the time was the expulsion of a prominent Hindu
nationalist leader, Jaswant Singh, from the
Bharatiya Janata Party for having written a book
that purportedly praised Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the
creator of Pakistan. (See Raw Indian nerves
exposed and Opposition party adds to its disarray
, Asia Times Online, August 27).

On the day of Mr Nepal's arrival in New Delhi,
The Hindu newspaper published a prepared
interview which contained his remarks on the
importance of closer relations with India, rather than with China.

Was then the whole exercise a sheer waste of time
and resources? It was not, said Chakra Bastola, a
senior member of the Nepali Congress - the
largest among the incumbent coalition partners.
"[Even] if the visit was not especially
significant, it would be unfair to dub it as a
failure," Bastola, a former foreign minister, told Asia Times Online.

He subscribed to a prevalent view that Mr Nepal's
efforts needed to be positively evaluated in the
context of the extraordinary circumstances that have beset the country.

At the substantive level, while Mr Nepal can take
satisfaction for being able to secure Indian
assistance for a couple of development projects,
the joint statement failed to show that the prime
minister made sincere efforts to get New Delhi's
responses to more pressing issues. These include
the inundation of large tracts of farmland due to
the construction of dams and embankments by the
Indians along the border, the displacement of
thousands of people from border villages because
of continuous harassment from Indian security
personnel deployed to watch movements across the
porous border that Nepal and India share, and
cases of encroachment into Nepali territory in
more than 60 places on the 1,800-plus kilometer-long frontier.

Dozens of armed groups, with their bases in the
territories of the Indian states of Bihar and
Uttar Pradesh, have been creating havoc, leading
to surging numbers of killings, abductions and extortions.

Similarly, the trade deficit is growing as India
continues to place non-tariff barriers on imports
from Nepal. New Delhi has also been unhelpful
over the issue of 100,000 Bhutanese refugees in
Nepal waiting to be repatriated.

On a broader scale, Nepal remains unstable, even
though the decade-long armed insurgency by the
Maoists officially ended in 2006. The absence of
war, analysts contend, does not imply peace.

The presence of the United Nations through a
special mission is a constant reminder of the
fact that Nepal is a trouble-torn country. In the
words of Andrew Hall, the British ambassador in
Kathmandu, "Nepal is a fragile state ... [and]
fragility matters because it risks spreading
instability to a region of critical importance to United Kingdom interests."

Other European countries hold similar opinions.
Britain, together with other member-states of the
UN Security Council, have instructed their
Kathmandu-based envoys to regularly monitor events and trends in Nepal.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Carter Center -
run by former US president Jimmy Carter -
expressed concern over the political stalemate in
Nepal. "Reminiscent of the 1990s, political
leaders in Kathmandu are focused on zero-sum
power politics at the expense of
constitution-drafting, the peace process and the
provision of basic government services."

The three-year peace process has yet to reach its
logical conclusion; about 20,000 former Maoist
combatants have to be rehabilitated and a new
constitution has to be written - to replace the
existing interim one - for what is to be the
Federal Republic of Nepal, by May 2010.

Growing lawlessness across the country has become
a formidable challenge. Clashes between the youth
wings of the main political parties invite
troubles that could undermine the ethnic harmony
the country has maintained thus far.

"Nepal's peace process is in danger of collapse,"
reads the first sentence of a new report issued
by an international organization dedicated to
preventing conflict worldwide. The publication of
the Brussels-based International Crisis Group,
released less than a week before Mr Nepal flew to
New Delhi, said the Maoists faced a mess largely
of their own making, even as Nepal's national
army began to adopt an assertive political role.

In the group's view, behind much of the recent
instability lies an Indian change of course. The
report categorically alluded to "naked
interventions" on the political front which will
eventually undermine India's own long-term
interests. The group also took note of the fact
that India's policies on Nepal were framed
primarily by civil servants and mostly without
political discussion at appropriate forums, such
as parliament. To make matters worse,
implementation of even such policies was
delegated to "covert intelligence operatives".

The example of Sri Lanka often finds mention in
public discourses in Nepal. References are made
to how India's attempt to "micro-manage" that
country's affairs ended in a fiasco, after a
protracted bloody war that claimed thousands of lives.

New Delhi does not appear willing to learn the
lessons of Sri Lanka, or else it would not
continue to interfere in Nepal. That India has
not stopped taking a political interest in
Nepal's politics was evident in a long interview
its ambassador, Rakesh Sood, gave to The
Kathmandu Post on June 15. "We would like to have
good relations with all the political parties
here," Sood was quoted as saying. As is the
practice, an envoy of a foreign country maintains
formal relations only with the government of the
host country, not with individual political
parties of that country. This approach is bound
to increase anti-Indian feeling in the neighborhood, as is happening in Nepal.

The Crisis Group report also pointed to India's
growing obsession with the UN's role in Nepal.
"India does not want extended Security Council
attention on its backyard," said the report,
citing cases where New Delhi not only sniped from
the sidelines but also stirred up public
controversy. Interestingly, the group's latest
recommendations included a Security Council visit
to Nepal to understand the complex situation.
This idea was initially floated by Russia, which
is one of the five permanent (veto-wielding)
members of the Security Council, along with Britain, China, France and the US.

China is another issue for India. One of the
questions the visiting Nepali prime minister
faced during a media interaction in New Delhi
related to Nepal's alleged temptation to use the
"China card" against India. Mr Nepal assured his
audience by saying that his country understood
the security concerns of India. In reality, Nepal
needs to address the concerns of China as well,
such as "Free Tibet" campaigners who regularly
obtain support from Tibetans living in exile in Dharmashala, India.

This raises the issue of whether the Chinese
threat the Indians consistently refer to is real.
While remaining watchful about its security
interests, China has not interfered in Nepal's
domestic politics. Studies like the one conducted
by the Crisis Group underline the Indian tendency
to justify their meddlesome measures on the basis
of a threat perception from China.

One striking example is the the Prachanda-led
government's decision to sack the army chief,
General Rookmangud Katawal. New Delhi claimed the
decision, taken in early May, was made on the
promptings of Beijing. "There is, however, no
evidence that China incited the Maoists to sack
the chief of the army staff," the Crisis Group said.

It is also true that since most of the Maoist
leaders took shelter in India for many years,
Beijing has not yet accepted them as reliable
comrades. "To use them once in a while is one
thing, but to rely on them as a permanent
political force is quite another matter," said
Congress leader Bastola, who was involved in the
early phase of negotiations with Maoist leaders,
conducted at an undisclosed location in New Delhi.

If China is at all increasing its presence and
interest in Nepal, it is, ironically, facilitated
by India. India's policy of shifting its focus
from the hills to the flatland of the Terai
region is obviously creating a vacuum in the
mountains, thereby leaving space for China to
fill. In Bastola's opinion, the Indians are
unnecessarily putting blame on others for their
own flawed policies and faulty designs.

Dhruba Adhikary is a Kathmandu-based journalist.
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