Indian ambssador to Nepal, Deb Mukharji, is completing his tenure in Nepal and retiring from diplomatic service at the end of November. He spoke to Nepali Times about his brief posting in tumultous Kathmandu, addressing issues such as Indo-Nepal trade, cross-border Maoism, bilateral relations and water sharing.
Nepali Times: By all accounts you have been the least controversial Indian ambassador posted in Nepal. And yet, the last two years have been among the most challenging for our bilateral relations. How did you do it?
Deb Mukharji: Thanks. That is for my friends in Nepal to judge.
These have been very eventful times for Nepal. How has it been for you?
Indo-Nepal relations have had some ups and downs in the past year-and-a-half. But most obviously the basic strength and resilience of our relations have continued to assert themselves. It has also been a period when I have been witness to some tragic events in Nepal, as also certain other developments in the internal scene, which have wide ramifications. I've seen the resilience and the determination of the Nepali people, the Nepali polity, in dealing with these tragic and momentous events.
Are there lessons we can draw from the Hrithik Roshan riots?
I think it would be appropriate both in Nepal as well as in India if we draw the appropriate conclusions or lessons from the unfortunate series of events. While one need not dwell on this for ever and ever, I think for thinking people and for decision-makers there are lessons that would need to be drawn for future relationships. Only time will tell if we have learnt those lessons.
One of the things that the riots and the aftermath showed is that India and Nepal just cannot seem to get anything started because of our mutual hang-ups. Little problems get in the way of bigger things that need to be done.
A very crucial aspect of this relationship is that the problem is not only on one side. I think that because we have so much in common, we tend to take each other for granted. We assume we know all there is to know, when in fact in our own ways we are both growing up. I think like any relationship, ties between nations need to be worked at and I think both of us have fallen short of the desirable levels of understanding.
So what kind of confidence-building measures should be taken? How about cultural exchanges?
I think at the highest level there is no absence of understanding. Cultural exchanges would help. I am really looking at greater interaction and understanding, particularly between journalists and academics, so both can see the other chap's point of view. We mustn't expect that all points of view will always converge. We each have our national priorities and interests. It should not be expected that we agree on everything.
Equally, I think that while our views may not converge on everything, there is no issue-none-on which we have a conflict of interest. We should not impute negative motives to the other person in every instance. We should accept people at face value. Neighbours have to understand each other's problems and perceptions to ensure that they don't transgress each other's interests in any way.
Has something changed after 11 September? Your Foreign Minister came out and called the Tamil Tigers and our Maoists "terrorists". You have tightened security along the Indo-Nepal border, there have been raids on Maoist safe-houses in Siliguri.
I think globally there is a heightened awareness of the different forms terrorism can take, and how this affects us. John Donne wrote 400 years ago: "Ask not for whom the bell tolls, for it tolls for thee." You cannot compartmentalise terrorism. It is a hydra-headed monster that has its linkages, ramifications all over. I don't want to go into the links the Maoists have with external organisations, who, in turn, might have other links. These things cannot be seen in isolation.
India has been a direct victim of international terrorism for a long time. With regard to your specific query, I don't think there is anything very new that has happened. We have similar problems in India, though in our larger geographical context it may not have the same impact as in Nepal. Our support has always been with the government of Nepal, in combating any movement that seeks to overthrow existing legal institutions by means of the gun.
Have there been any special moves to sever the links between our Maoists and yours?
I have to honestly answer that given the kinds of movements that take place across the border, say between your Maoists and Indian Maoists, in Jharkhand, in Andhra Pradesh, that would be an empty statement. We don't know if they have interactions, and if so, what kind of interactions they have. Within the limitations of managing this open border that we are both trying to do, it would be difficult to give any credible assurance on something over which one does not have total control.
Is there a way out of the impasse on joint water and river projects?
I think we need to firstly, primarily, dissociate politics from such economic decisions. Nepal has to decide whether collaboration with India in the development of water resources for energy is beneficial to Nepal. And I think once such a decision is taken, the rest must be allowed to move ahead without hindrance. I think it is necessary to have a political consensus in Nepal on this subject. Having said that, we seem finally to be making some progress towards the detailed project report on Pancheswor. The government of India offered as assistance to Nepal the setting up of a small-to-medium hydroelectric plant for which some sites have been visited. I trust that if those are allowed to move ahead, they will create the level of confidence needed for much more extensive collaboration in water resources.
After the prime minister's visit to Delhi last year things looked rosy. There were no problems at the leadership level, but later things seemed to get stuck in the bureaucracy. Is it a problem of babudom on both sides?
I will speak primarily of India. I will say categorically that when a political decision is made, bureaucracy does not obstruct. But, in all fairness to my breed, I should go a little further. Sometimes promises can be made and assurances given without a full analysis of the implications. Now, while I do not claim the Indian bureaucracy to be the sole guardian of national interest, it is our duty to look at all aspects of a question so that any final decision that is taken is taken on the basis of full knowledge of facts. I think political wisdom and statesmanship are essential in resolving issues which can only be resolved with political involvement. But I must emphasise that the majority of issues require in-depth analysis by experts. By-passing this process eventually causes more problems than are seen to be solved at a given moment of euphoria.
What are the real reasons preventing the automatic renewal of the 1996 trade treaty. Does it signify that the Gujral Doctrine is finally dead?
As you know the 1996 protocol to the Indo-Nepal trade treaty was quite unique in some respects. Now the fact is that in the operation of the treaty in the past five years, India feels that some shortcomings have been evidenced which need to be rectified. There are, I think, essentially two areas where some modifications may be necessary. One is with regard to value addition made to products manufactured in Nepal with goods imported from third parties-the foreign material content in goods exported from Nepal.
The other issue is with regard to a very sudden explosion in exports which could damage selected Indian industries. Let me also say that if you look at the totality of the Indian market, it is possibly quite true that Nepali exports are not of a magnitude which would cause damage to industry as a whole in India. But it could cause damage in significant areas in a manner which causes distress.
Now, with regard to the first issue which I cited, I would also suggest that you may wish to consider as to how much the interest of Nepal, Nepali labour, or your foreign exchange reserves are served by large dollar imports and selling the goods with marginal value addition to India.
As to what I believe to be the essence of the Gujral Doctrine, that Indian has a special duty towards her neighbours, I think this certainly holds. This does not mean a one-sided relationship, for no relationship can be sustainable on that basis.
What memories will you take back from Nepal?
I have enjoyed myself greatly. Hopefully, I have made some friends. I have had some occasion to see some of your very, very beautiful country.