India – Nepal Bilateral Relations’

India – Nepal Bilateral Relations’

Nepal and India have close cultural, economic and political ties since ancient times. But this affinity sometimes turns into a love-hate relationship. Some Nepalis see and portray India as a bullying Big Brother, while the Indians sometimes regard Nepal as a petulant little neighbour. To some extent, this is a common phenomenon among neighbours of unequal size and power. It gets further inflated by some Nepalis’ ultra-nationalist, anti-India vitriol, and India’s tendency to sometimes interfere too crassly in the internal affairs of its sovereign neighbours. All too often, India’s senior political leadership leaves matters concerning its small neighbours to benign neglect allowing mid-level bureaucrats, diplomats and intelligence officials to call the shots.

Regrettably, Nepal-India relationship right now is at a nadir of nastiness. Citing protests and demonstrations along the Nepal-India border by some Madhesi groups, dissatisfied with some aspects of the new constitution, India essentially imposed an undeclared but de factotrade and transit blockade of Nepal during September-November 2015. It was rather strange for the world’s largest democracy to show its displeasure at the new constitution of Nepal, voted by an overwhelming 90 per cent of the members of a popularly elected and inclusive Constituent Assembly. In going as far as to suggest that Nepal’s constitution needed to be amended in certain specific ways to satisfy certain disaffected communities within Nepal, India intervened in a very high-handed manner in the internal affairs of a friendly, sovereign and democratic nation.

The Indian blockade went against the spirit of South Asian regional cooperation under SAARC and BIMSTEC, the internationally recognised rights of land-locked countries as well as India’s obligations under the bilateral transit treaty of 1991. The blockade also contravened the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to which both India and Nepal are state parties. New Delhi’s actions amounted to what could be termed as unilateral coercive measures with serious negative impact on the enjoyment of human rights covered under various UN resolutions.

The blockade has proven to be unwise and counter-productive as it ended up punishing millions of innocent people in order to extract some concessions for some genuine and many not so genuine demands of the activists and leaders in one region of a neighbouring country. An entire generation of young Nepali citizens, born after the earlier Indian blockade of 1989-90 with no personal memory of those difficult days and harbouring only goodwill towards India, were exposed to New Delhi’s harsh action on a massive scale. Regrettably, this is likely to sow the seeds of anti-India sentiments among many Nepalis that can be easily stoked by opportunist politicians and demagogues in the future.

From time to time, India has applied similar pressure in other neighbouring countries, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka. History is likely to judge the Indian blockade of Nepal in 2015 as very unwise and counter-productive as it led to squandering the reservoir of unprecedented goodwill that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had cultivated during his first visit to Nepal in 2014, and reinforced through India’s prompt and generous aid to the victims of Nepal’s mega earthquake of 2015.

Coming on the heels of such catastrophic earthquake, the prolonged blockade by India crippled Nepal’s economy and led to great human suffering. Vital social services were disrupted, hospitals ran out of essential drugs and supplies, and according to the estimates by UNICEF, more than 1.6 million children were deprived of schooling.

The fuel crisis caused by the blockade cut the food supply chain, causing shortages in all parts of the country. It disrupted transportation at the height of Nepal’s national holiday season, preventing millions from travelling to their ancestral homes. There were many deaths from accidents caused by dangerously overcrowded public transport with passengers including women, children and the elderly forced to travel precariously on rooftops of buses.

The blockade halted urgent reconstruction efforts, making people even more vulnerable during the imminent winter season. If the earthquake hurt the Nepali economy to the tune of USD 7 billion, it is estimated that the cumulative loss from the blockade exceeds that amount. Large industries as well as small businesses were closed and development activities, including construction of vital infrastructure came to a standstill. Tourism was severely disrupted during what would have been the peak season.

India steadfastly argued that the obstruction at the border was solely the result of agitation within Nepal. While this was partly true in some border-crossing points for some time, there was ample evidence to the contrary. This was observed in the go-slow at custom checkpoints, the refusal by the Indian Oil Corporation as monopoly supplier to load fuel tankers from Nepal, and reports in the Indian press quoting its border security officers that they had instructions from New Delhi to impede shipments.

In any case, the Indian action was grossly disproportionate to the level of disruption by protesters on the Nepali side of the border. India is quite used to protests that are even bigger and more violent inside its own territory, but there have never been any cases of the government of India actually strangulating millions of people or large regions of the country in response to protests by disaffected groups. On the contrary, it often takes strong proactive measures to ensure that ordinary citizens are not deprived of basic services because of blockades by protesting activists.

It is now clear that the political agitation in Nepal exacerbated by the Indian blockade has resulted in a massive humanitarian crisis. It is in the enlightened mutual interest of both India and Nepal to de-escalate this unfortunate crisis. The Nepalis need to resolve their political disagreements peacefully through appropriate constitutional amendments and other political compromises. And India needs to gracefully end its blockade. For its own sake and those of its neighbours, India needs to behave more magnanimously and consistently as a major regional power with ambitions of global leadership. Rather than picking avoidable petty fights with its smaller and weaker neighbours like Nepal, India needs to act in the spirit of the Gujral doctrine, which a weak Prime Minister IK Gujral and his successors could not implement. A much more powerful Prime Minister Modi initially gave the impression that he would truly prioritise a “Neighbourhood First” policy, but failed to follow through, particularly in relation to Nepal and Pakistan. It is high time for Mr. Modi and the government of India to rise to the occasion and behave like a magnanimous regional and global power.

By Kul Chandra Gautam –