In May 2020, Beijing intruded into Indian territory at some places across the long border, and Kathmandu claimed areas of Uttarakhand where India is building a road to Lipulekh Pass on the Tibetan border, to smoothen the journey for pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar. Amidst rising tensions, Nepalese police firing killed an Indian citizen and injured two others at the border in Sitamarhi, Bihar, on June 12. On the night of June 15, Chinese forces brutally assaulted our troops at Galwan Valley in Ladakh, killing an officer and 19 soldiers.
Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli fuelled nationalist hysteria and compelled all political parties in Parliament to pass a new political map showing Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh as Nepalese lands. Kathmandu claimed that in 1816, the East India Company fixed Kali river as its western boundary with India; hence land east of the river belongs to Nepal. The fact is that four kings – Tribhuvan, Mahendra, Birendra and Gyanendra – never made claims to these areas.
The developments stunned New Delhi and embarrassed Prime Minister Narendra Modi who has invested much energy in putting ties with Kathmandu on a more even footing. Despite bitterness over the border blockade caused by Madhesi unrest in 2015, Modi ensured that the oil pipeline to Nepal was finished fifteen months ahead of schedule, and made operational in September 2019.
Oli’s actions stem from the need to deflect pressure from his own party, with Pushp Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) and others demanding his resignation. The meeting of the 45-member standing committee of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), where Oli reportedly enjoys support of only 15 members, was deferred to July 6. He may split the party and declare an emergency.
Oli and Prachanda failed to settle their disputes on July 3. In May 2018, while launching the Nepal Communist Party, the duo had agreed to share the prime ministership for 30-month tenures each, but in November 2019, they agreed that Oli could continue for the full term. Prachanda now insists that Oli has violated the spirit of the November accord and should therefore uphold the original agreement and step down in his favour. Oli accused India of plotting his exit, a charge resented by leaders of his own party. Indeed, discord heightened after Oli persuaded President Bidhya Devi Bhandari to prorogue the budget session of Parliament without taking the party into confidence.
Nepali communists have always been close to the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India-Marxist. In 2005, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government brokered a 12-point pact in Delhi to oust the Hindu monarchy and bring the communists to power. This forced the Nepali Congress to abandon its support for constitutional monarchy as a “symbol of unity”. Under the monarchy, Maoists were confined to the jungle and leaders of the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) were in prison. Beijing persuaded the Maoists and CPN(UML) to form a united Nepal Communist Party (NCP).
Nepal scholars lament that despite the massacre of the royal family, jihadi infiltration and Christian evangelism in the Himalayan nation, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has failed to rectify the UPA’s missteps. Nepal was made a secular republic without a referendum; it is strategically vital to India, but Indian foreign policy seems oblivious of its value.
Interestingly, when the Oli government was facing collapse in May 2020, Chinese Ambassador, Ms. Hou Yanqi, managed a truce, revealing Beijing’s power over Nepal’s ruling party. The Chinese Communist Party reportedly holds training programs in Kathmandu for the NCP’s young cadres. Hundreds of NCP mayors, deputy mayors and province chiefs and Leftist journalists regularly visit China where they are trained to foment anti-India sentiments among the public. Currently, the President, Vice-President, Speaker, and Prime Minister are all Communists and Left influence has permeated the police and judiciary. New Delhi must take cognizance of this situation.
It is pertinent that in November 2019, Nepal’s Survey Department revealed that Beijing had changed the course of eleven rivers and grabbed nearly 36 hectares of territory in Sankhuwasabha, Sindhupalchowk, Rasuwa, and Humla districts. As protestors burnt effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Oli downplayed China’s encroachment and incited anger against India.
When India’s Army Chief, Gen. M.M. Naravane, said Kathmandu was acting at the behest of a third force (read China), some diplomats felt the statement was undiplomatic. The fact, however, is that Nepali politicians and members of civil society have long complained about the attitude of Indian diplomats in their country. Many appreciated Gen. Naravane for highlighting China’s excessive influence in Kathmandu. Indeed, the General was soon vindicated when the bill to change Nepal’s map was passed and quickly notified. Previously, India failed to act when Madhesi and other groups objected to the new constitution in 2015; politicians who visited New Delhi could not get access to important personages in South Block. As long as this Constitution prevails, India will face problems from Nepal.
Nepal’s national emblem has also been changed to include Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh. Official letterheads, passports, et al are being updated to show these Uttarakhand areas as Nepali land. India must act tough and reject all correspondence bearing the new emblem. Foreign secretary level talks are meaningless as officials have no authority to negotiate what has been inserted into the constitution.
Unless a comprehensive Nepal policy is enunciated and strong measures taken, Pakistan and China will continue jihadi strikes and salami slicing against India. Bangladesh could follow. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed is possibly the sole leader with a soft corner for India, a legacy of 1971 and Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s exertions to ensure that Sheikh Mujibur Rehman was returned to Dhaka alive after the war. But Sheikh Hasina is a lonely figure, unable to protect even Muslim youth who oppose the rabid Islam preached by clerics from being hacked to death by fundamentalists. She has declared this is her last term in office. Yet, in all these years, the foreign ministry has failed to cultivate a second generation leadership in Bangladesh. A new Khaleda Zia could be looming on the horizon.
Nepal has sustained our ancient civilisational ties through people-to-people contacts; we must help salvage its soul. The gains made by Prime Minister Modi during his early years in office are being whittled away. It is time to take stock.
(The author is a senior journalist. Views are personal)
The Pioneer, 7 July 2020