Nepali Times
Guest Column
The enigma of distance


The balance between dependence and independence is always a tricky one in any neighborhood, but there is a second part to this particular paradox. Separate nations need reasons for separation, and language and culture have been considered sufficient denominators of identity and nationalism.

Of the nations of South Asia, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Maldives are overwhelmingly Muslim; Sri Lanka and Bhutan are Buddhist-majority. There is cultural and demographic overlap with India; but all five can claim an identity that is askance of India\'s secularism.

Nepal is not only predominantly Hindu, but a Hindu state. Its fear of being sucked into a larger idealism is heightened by what is common between India and Nepal. The geographical trap turns fear into dread. Access points are through India, for the North is blocked by the Himalaya.

Most of the problems between India and Nepal belong to the world of imagined fears. There can be no other explanation for their triviality.

Mention India in Kathmandu and you tread on a contradictory combination of need and sensitivity. As you walk, one foot steps on a charter of demands for the Indian government, the second on an aching sentiment that recalls wounds left by successive Lord Haw-Haw ambassadors. Of the latter breed, the first, Sir C.P.N. Sinha, sent by Jawaharlal Nehru, has now acquired mythical status.

There was everything wrong about him. He was landed gentry from Bihar, not the favourite region of the Nepalis, patronised his host country, and apparently decided that its foreign policy would be better served if left to him. Other envoys have made different mistakes, the most notable one being that they expected parity in behaviour, that is simply unreal.

Politics complicated an already difficult problem. The leaders of the Nepali Congress, who fought against the Ranas and ushered in popular rule, worried about seeming pro-Indian because of their long association with the democratic movement in India, and the great B.P. Koirala made it a point to chide the great Jawaharlal Nehru when the latter turned an embrace into a squeeze.

Nehru famously remarked that aggression against Nepal was tantamount to aggression against India. Koirala replied that the two were different, and Nepal would look after its own defence, thank you. When Nepal\'s monarch, Mahendra, in a coup from above, drove out both democrats and democracy, and instituted the Panchayat system, the new"establishment sought to justify its illegality by branding the Nepali Congress leaders and cadre as "pro-Indian" and therefore "antinational" traitors.

India quickly became the prime enemy of Nepali independence. Kathmandu sought out China to "counterbalance" India. The theme has not disappeared from the country\'s politics, with an influential section of the system, particularly in the palace, media and bureaucracy still playing the old, if a little jaded, game.

China once played this role alone. As tensions between India and China began to ease, there was growing unease within this silent coalition of palace, media and bureaucracy in Kathmandu. They invited Pakistan to occupy some of this space which China had vacated, and Pakistan was happy to oblige. The shadow of China clouded India-Nepal relations in the Sixties and Seventies; the shadow of Pakistan has loomed in the Nineties.

The Indian reaction was multi-level. Delhi does not have one policy towards Nepal, but a cluster of attitudes that sometimes gel into policy, but more often have their independent play. Intelligence agencies by habit pick up a problem and escalate it into a crisis; this is symptomatic of their vocation anywhere in the world. It is up to the political class to place the restraints to smoothen the\' feathers that agencies love throwing into the air.

The latest is some "Nepal Gameplan" that sounds so sinister that many of the hate-India crowd in Kathmandu wish it were true. It is perfectly correct that the ISI has steadily spread its net in the last decade, the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft from Kathmandu in the dying days of the last millennium is testimony to its new reach.

It is equally true that the number of madrasas has increased in Nepal,
encouraged by some overflow of Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar into the Nepal plains. But it is absurd to conclude that the ISI has taken over Kathmandu or that the Nepal government is under the intractable grip of Islamabad.

Nepal, to return to our opening metaphor, is simply too close to India to be closer to anyone else. Forger about India\'s interest for a moment, this is not\' in Nepal\'s interest. If General Musharraf became leader of Nepal he would have no option but to befriend India. Similarly, irrespective of which party is in power in Delhi, Nepal is too important for India to ignore or demonise.

Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala insists that he is visiting India on a "goodwill" tour. One assumes that there is nothing in international relations called a "badwill" tour, although one cannot be too sanguine.

Even the Kathmandu intelligentsia, not the liveliest of India\'s well-wishers, has begun to see the disadvantages of a freeze. Which other country can bring in the investment, and technology, that fits in with Nepal\'s needs?
China\'s friendship is more political than economic, weighted by its need for Nepal\'s recognition of Tibet as a part of China. Pakistan\'s relationship with Nepal is exploitative-friendly, as a base from which to pinch India. There is no depth in either equation.

Of course there will be gripes when the neighbours talk this week. Nepal will complain about the help that the Maoists who have taken control of at least five districts get from Naxalite or extreme Left elements in India.

The Indian side will have its own list of woes and worries, not the least of them being the ISI and Pakistan. There is a difference between talks between civil servants and a dialogue between Prime Ministers. India and Nepal need a shared vision for the next fifty years, and the moment to address the content of that vision has arrived. Prime Ministers Vajpayee and Koirala must leave the past to history, the present to bureaucracy, and seize the future.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)