Nepalis are proud to proclaim that we are South Asia’s oldest nation state, that was never colonised. We fought off the East India Company, but when the British laid a siege to Kathmandu Valley in 1816 we sued for peace. The Sugauli Treaty amputated half of Nepal’s territory so the rest could remain independent.
Sovereignty is a relative concept. Independence is seldom an absolute, and is even less so in an interdependent, globalised economy. Small countries throughout history have devised pragmatic ways to accommodate belligerent larger neighbours.
Throughout the Cold War, Finland came up with a clever plan to coexist with the Soviet Union, winning its trust and profiting vastly from being the conduit for most of Moscow’s trade with the west. That relationship across the Iron Curtain came to be known somewhat derogatorily as ‘Finlandisation’, but it allowed Helsinki the elbowroom to exercise national sovereignty despite the Russian Bear breathing down its neck.
Other countries in Eastern Europe like Hungary and Czechoslovakia strained at the leash, and paid a heavy price for standing up to Moscow: they suffered full-scale military invasions in 1956 and 1968. Even after the Soviet Union broke up into little pieces Putin’s Russia is still using the iron fist approach in Georgia and Ukraine. The United States, too, has intervened covertly and overtly all over the Americas (and the world) to stop left-leaning governments from coming to power or to ensure oil supplies.
Closer to home, smaller countries on India’s periphery are all pulled by its gravity to varying degrees. Even leaving aside Pakistan, New Delhi’s relations with its neighbours have been characterised by chronic friction.
Being too strategic for its own good, Sikkim got swallowed up in 1975. India midwifed the birth of Bangladesh, but bilateral relations have always been rocky. Sri Lanka’s Tamil separatist war became an extension of Tamil Nadu state politics, sucked India into a military quagmire, and lead to the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi by a suicide bomber in 1991. Bhutan’s rulers have decided that India’s presence is a given, and have leveraged partial sovereignty for an economic bonanza from hydropower exports. Even so, the rulers of Druk Yul sometimes run afoul of Delhi as they did in 2013 when India flexed its muscles by blockading gas supplies.
Nepal’s Anglophile Rana rulers since Jang Bahadur decided that Britain was too powerful to go to war with to regain territory lost in 1816. Independent India inherited some of the divide and rule tactics of the British in Kathmandu, but it must be said that they did it a lot more crudely. During the Nehru years, the 30-years of Panchayat, through the post-democracy period of the 1990s and the decade of conflict, India has behaved like an overbearing, arm-twisting, neighbourhood toughie. There have been only a few years during which bilateral relations could be termed healthy and harmonious. Most Indian politicians, bureaucrats and diplomats have come across as petulant and mean, while many Nepali leaders have been either utterly servile or thoughtlessly confrontational.
That there have been two Indian blockades before this, the last one in 1988-89 when the Indo-Nepal border was sealed for 13 months, should have given a succession of Nepal’s rulers sufficient time to implement a long-term strategy for self-reliance and import-diversification.
We did neither. And the most glaring impact of those failures are here for all to endure: an economy hopelessly hooked to petroleum, electricity rationing in a country that should be producing a surplus for export, a highway artery linking Kathmandu to India that takes an absurd 200 km detour, maintaining only one tenuous highway link to the northern border, actively discouraging electric public transport, etc.
All we have heard from elected politicians over the last 25 years are wild promises to turn Nepal into Switzerland or Singapore. We have listened to platitudes about hydropower, hollow pledges about developing agriculture. No action, no preparation, no alternatives. A country can only be politically independent if its domestic affairs are in order and its economy is on a healthy growth trajectory. Which is why Nepal today is not independent, but in dependence.
India’s rulers may be behaving like the boors they are, but our nationalistic bravado is not backed up by an ability to stand on our own feet. A state may be weak, but it must compensate for its smallness with smarts. We must fix our domestic issues ourselves, and understand Indian sensibilities to negotiate for the concessions we need.
For its part, India should pick someone its size. This is not an Indian blockade, it is an Indian siege. Nepal’s hospitals are running out of emergency medicines, earthquake survivors haven’t got relief and an entire country of 28 million is being held hostage. The Buddha is not smiling.
…who will bell the cat?, Anurag Acharya
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