| March 21, 2019

There has been no effort to reach out to outside world

There has been no effort to reach out to outside world
Bhekh Bahadur Thapa is an old foreign policy hand. The former ambassador to India has closely followed the ups and downs of Nepal-India relations over the last four decades. Biswas Baral and Mahabir Paudyal caught up with the veteran diplomat for his insights on the ongoing standoff between the two countries and to put it in historical perspective.
How do you see Indian blockade in the historical context, particularly in relation to previous blockades?

The current blockade signals political and diplomatic failure on both the sides. We have not learned from our history. The government of India says it's not a blockade. Some Nepali officials say the same. But there are Indian scholars and commentators who have written and said it is a blockade and a result of India's foreign policy failure. I find it difficult to believe this is happening under Narendra Modi's watch. This is unfortunate. Even before the ink on the constitution had dried, it came under attack of a minority group in Nepal. All this has given rise to a difficult situation.

So it's a proper economic blockade in your view?

Call it whatever you like. But things have come to a standstill. There is complete absence of movement of goods and services which is crippling the country. There is shortage of goods. You can name it anything, but you cannot deny this fact.

Can you inform our readers about the previous Indian blockades on India?

Under Indira Gandhi, the relationship between Nepali leaders and royalty and India went through many ups and downs. India's attitude towards neighboring countries at that time was slightly skewed in favor of India's domination of the region. Around that time Nepal had started to assert itself on the world stage.

This started with Bandung conference where Nepal participated as an independent nation. This conference was a milestone in Nepal's entry into global affairs. Subsequently, Nepal adopted non-alignment and five principles of noninterference as tenets of its foreign policy. That was a sharp departure. Nepal preserved its sovereignty without minimizing the exposure to the rest of the world. India's old view and Nepal's increasing assertion clashed. But this alone does not explain the 1969 blockade. It was a combined effect of personality clash and issue-based differences.

How about the second economic blockade in 1989?

The second blockade was the result of King Birendra's adventure of importing antiaircraft guns from China. And we paid for it. Former Indian foreign secretary SK Singh came to Nepal to resolve the conflict. He had come with a revised version of 1950 treaty. King Birendra did not agree to it.

Then democratic movement followed. And the king had to be a constitutional monarch. Thus like I said, these blockades are sometimes the result of personality clash between leaders in India and Nepal and sometimes the result of clash of interests between an assertive Nepal and an India wedded to an old school of thought whereby it treats its neighborhood as falling under its sphere of influence.

Haven't there been efforts at divergence from this set script?

When Lal Bahadur Sastri became the Indian prime minister in 1964, he had come to Nepal and assured Nepalis of a different kind of Indian conduct. He had different outlook on Nepal. But he did not last long. Another smooth phase of India-Nepal relations was during I.K. Gujaral's premiership. Gujaral, through his Gujral doctrine, favored relationship based on non-reciprocity. He held that India as the largest country needs to treat its neighbors with sense of equality and sympathy.

This doctrine was widely acclaimed by Nepalis but it did not go very far within the Indian establishment. Coming back to Modi, during his visit and communication with Nepal in the early days, we all felt he is going to take India-Nepal relations to a higher plane. The way India came to the forefront to heal our wounds after the devastating earthquake had shown that Modi is a friend of Nepal. But India's behavior since has made us rethink.

Would you say the recent conduct of India in Nepal is aimed at maintaining absolute dominance?

It depends on how you look at it. But one thing is clear. How you run your country is exclusively an internal issue. Constitution has been made an issue to subject Nepali people to immense hardships. There is no logical explanation to this. What happened in extensive behind-the-scene dialogue between India and Nepal is not known to us. Our leadership has not communicated to us regarding what transpired in earlier dialogue with Indian establishment. This closed-door diplomacy has also added to lack of clarity.

It seems India is in discomfort whenever Nepal tries to assert its independent identity.

Subjecting citizens to hardships to bargain or to influence political course of a certain nation is not keeping with global norms of diplomacy.

The blockade in the late 1980s had lasted for more than a year. How did Nepal cope?

You must acknowledge the sense of nationalism and resilience of people at the time. Just like now, it was difficult back then as well. We responded with broader diplomacy. We went beyond India-Nepal dialogue and reached out to the rest of the world. If you reach out to the rest of the world, sooner or later it will speak in your favor. At the moment, I see no commitment to interact with the rest of the world on what is happening in Nepal.

What can Nepal realistically do to improve the situation then?

At the moment, what India can do is more important that what we can do. How do we motivate India to change its course? One way is to broaden your communication. You cannot change the physical reality. But we are not the only landlocked country in the world. Our relationship is based on understandings, bilateral treaties and international norms. The landlocked country's right to passage must not be breached. We need to communicate this to India. We also need to garner sympathy of Indian population and Indian scholars who have been saying that this is not right.

Second, we need to continue dialogue at the government level. Third, we need to widen our communication with the rest of the world and see what they can do to help us. We need to take multiple approaches while also avoiding confrontation with India and keeping all communication channels open. While doing so, we should be firmly committed not to give in to pressure on matters of national interests.

Some Madheshi leaders and intellectuals believe the constitution is not inclusive and thus Indian interference to ensure Madheshis rights is justifiable.

Whether the issue is about people of the mountains, hills or plains, it is Nepal's issue. This is the first time in Nepal's history that people themselves have written their constitution through their chosen representatives. The way I see it, the new constitution is as inclusive as it could be. It has the support of 90 percent CA members. Besides, the Constituent Assembly itself has said that the constitution is not something etched on stone and can be amended. Yes we must continue dialogue with dissident forces. But the constitution is already adopted. You can amend it with required majority but you can't defy it.

If the constitution excludes or discriminates against someone based on ethnicity, it needs to be corrected. But you cannot say 'in the past we were discriminated and therefore we have to be more empowered to discriminate others now.' Our foremost identity is as Nepalis. Ethnic and regional identity follows. Secondary identity cannot be a priority. This fact needs to be digested by everyone. India should understand this and it is also the duty of Nepal and Nepalis to make India understand it. I think there is communication gap.

Some interpret recent Indian actions as an expression of its legitimate security concerns vis-à-vis Tarai.

How can a tiny Nepal ever jeopardize India's security? Our citizens from mid-hills are serving in India's security forces in their thousands. Modi himself had acknowledged this in his speech to Constituent Assembly last year, when he said 'Nepalis have paid in blood for India's security.' This fact must not be undermined while talking about India's security concern vis-à-vis Nepal. India needs to look at Nepal in totality.

How can India be unaware of this reality when we are communicating its interests at so many different levels? As the saying goes, you can wake up a person who is sleeping but not the one who pretends to be asleep.

Is it right to cite the open border as a reason for Indian security concerns?

We do not feel insecure with open border. India has deployed its security forces on Indo-Nepal border. India is able to defend itself against all adversities in the region and beyond. So how can it feel insecure from Nepal? If it felt security threat, we would not have open border. The fact that we have open border means both Nepal and India feel secure with open border.

International community has largely been silent on Nepal after India's blockade. How do you interpret this silence?

I believe we have not made a serious effort to reach out to our international friends. The outside world is not looking at us through a telescope to understand what is happening in Nepal. We need to take the initiative and reach out to the global community. It is never too late. Tell them that you are suffering. Our diplomacy should be proactive; but it is now less than active. If you communicate well, I am sure the rest of the world will take note. From my experience of two blockades I can say they will assess the situation, look at us with sympathy and speak for justice for the country because they do not fear anyone. But first we need to approach them.

After recent developments, how do you evaluate the future of India-Nepal relations?

The two governments have had their differences many times in the past. But people-to-people relations are still warm. We should not forget we have closer cultural ties with each other. We cannot change the physical reality. We must seek greater accommodation with each other in the days to come.

Finally, many in Nepal are starting to fear the worst, that Nepal could be another Sikkim. Is that a realistic prospect?

That's an impossible prospect. There is no possibility of physical occupation of one country by another in this day and age. What the power centers in the world are doing today is expanding their area of influence. This tug of war between India and Nepal will go on.

Nepal has come a long way. Let us not forget it maintained its sovereignty during the expansive colonial rule. It is a sovereign country in global community of nations today. It will remain an autonomous and sovereign nation. There may various ups and downs. But Nepal will always be there.

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