Friday, 12 April, 2024

Brawl In The Himalaya Nepal Needs To Remain Neutral

Dhruba Hari Adhikary


In what initially appeared as repeat of an occasional border face-off, the brawl on the night of June 15 in Ladakh between Indian and Chinese soldiers turned out to be a deadly fight claiming scores of lives on either side. Authorities say hostilities of this scale had not occurred since 1975. Hence the incident was bound to hit headlines worldwide, concomitantly sending jitters to rest of Asia and beyond. The war India and China fought in 1962 serves as a constant reminder that the world’s two most populous countries have unresolved territorial claims across 3,440-kilometre border. Meanwhile, they have since become nuclear-powered nations. Pakistan is yet another nuclear state in the neighbourhood, making the area visibly volatile.

Present hostilities seem, however, to have ceased at least for the time being. The July 5 telephone conversation between Ajit Doval, India’s national security adviser, and Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister yielded the immediate relief in the shape of withdrawal of troops from frontlines. Relevant official statements alludes to a “frank in-depth exchange of views” the two men had on the subject. But what has surfaced now is just a pause. Full disengagement leading to de-escalation is not something that can happen overnight. It logically entails detail bilateral talks at a higher level which can last for months. And, if the belligerent parties decide to include the stand-off at Doklam (adjoining Bhutan) that began in 2017 - and still persists - the official parleys could turn out to be a time-consuming exercise.
Meanwhile, stakeholders can make use of this respite to make a comprehensive assessment of the situation. It is imperative, in this context, for the Indian government to do some introspection on why its neighbourly relations with Nepal suddenly took a downward swing. Those who might undertake such a self-analysis are sure to realise that all that Nepali authorities were doing was to voice the nation’s concern over violation of its territorial integrity in the Kalapani region. The provocation for this came after the Indian defence minister ‘inaugurated’, on May 8, a road through the territory Nepal has been claiming as its own. Since New Delhi already knew that Kalapani as one of the “outstanding boundary issues”, what prompted Indian rulers to say that Nepal was doing something at China’s behest? This is simply incredible. And questions naturally arise about reliability of their sources of information on Nepal.
It is understandable that leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) might have a particular perception about China and its global ambitions. It is also true that China’s political and system of governance is not compatible with India’s which is constitutionally committed to democratic norms and values. These are definitely important aspects, but these considerations have not deterred India itself from having diplomatic and trade relations with China. And India is not alone in this context. However, would it be rational for Delhi to expect Nepal to ignore or antagonise China? Definitely not. Clearly, Nepal cannot side with India in its current dispute with China.
Nepal faced a similar dilemma during the 1962 India-China conflict. “Nepal sees no reason why she should become a victim of the struggle between her two big neighbours…,” king Mahendra said in an interview. Therefore, Nepal decided to “remain uninvolved”, according to YN Khanal, who was foreign secretary at that time. A section of the Indian press saw it as anti-Indian and pro-Chinese stand. But Ambassador Harishwar Dayal “understood the circumstantial logic of our policy,” Khanal recalled those events in a book published in 2000 AD.
Dehli’s present obsession about Nepal’s policy of maintaining balanced relations with both India and China needs to be examined in the context of pledges and commitments that the leaders of post-1947 India have made through treaties and statements. The very first Article of 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship is a case in point. Records also show how prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who took the foreign ministry portfolio for 17 long years, understood Nepal’s role as an independent country. In fact, it was India under him which militarily confronted China in 1962. His daughter, Indira Gandhi, was equally forthright and categorical. In November 1966, responding to questions being raised in parliament on Kodari-Kathmandu road, what the prime minister, Mrs. Gandhi, said was as follows:
China is a sovereign country and Nepal is a sovereign country and their dealing with each other is not something in which we can interfere.
Lately, observers based in India and abroad have noted that some of the Modi government’s recent measures aimed at dissociating from the policies of erstwhile Congress governments. While attempts to shift policy matters pertaining to domestic issues are understandable, it is incomprehensible how India can officially repudiate the undertakings made in the context of conducting international relations. The principle of reciprocity is not something that can be easily brushed aside when dealing with foreign countries bilaterally. Similarly, policy statements delivered at the United Nations and other international forums have official obligations attached. The Indian diplomats preparing now to take a non-permanent seat at the Security Council, in January 2021 are undoubtedly familiar with legality as well as legitimacy of such commitments. Besides, importance of continuity and consistency does not need elaboration.

Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is remembered as the first BJP prime minister of India, was foreign minister under the Janata Party government headed by Morarji Desai. Late Vajpayee, who is highly venerated by Mr. Modi and several of his BJP colleagues today, was on a visit to Nepal in July 1977. One of Vajpayee’s speeches while he was in Kathmandu contained two important aspects pertaining to “unique” bilateral relation is worth recollecting here. First, he admitted that there could be “divergence in our policies,” adding that “differences between us are only the proof of our independence.” The second point the visiting Indian foreign minister made at that time reinforces his first assertion. “As you know, India had to suffer the humiliation of being under foreign domination while Nepal maintained its ancient independence.”
Countries in this part of Asia are currently under the grip of charged atmosphere although the cessation of hostilities has eased a bit lately. It would be useful to utilise this opportunity to review actions as well as inactions of the past, and carefully weigh merits of available options. Needless to emphasise, implementation of any of such options should yield peace. Nepal’s contribution has to be necessarily for sustainable thaw between India and China.

(Adhikary is a journalist active since 1978 and writes on regional issues.