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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Nepal's Maoists cry Indian foul play

May 17, 2009

By M K Bhadrakumar
Asia Times
May 15, 2009

For any Indian who ever felt intrigued as to why
South Asian neighbors often dislike his country,
the past fortnight offered clues. Like in a
Tennessee Williams play, painful to watch as the
plot thickens slowly and invidiously, as
protagonists begin tearing each other apart in
quiet despair after love begins to drain or
threatens to flee, India and Nepal are still locked in an embrace.

Someone must do the merciful act of separating
them; of making them behave as they should - as
two sovereign countries. Indian papers are full
of interviews by Nepal's former prime minister
Prachanda, who claims he was deposed in a
concerted conspiracy by the Indian bureaucratic
establishment. He repeatedly claimed that at a
time when the seasoned Indian politicians who by
instinct understood Nepali politicians and their
native ways have been out of Delhi on the
grueling campaign trail in the current
parliamentary elections, the mandarins of the
Indian bureaucratic establishment settled scores with him and his Maoist party.

According to the Maoists, the Indian
establishment has forced them out of power in a
virtual coup by rallying disparate political
elements and vested interests opposed to them in
Kathmandu on various counts, including the
Nepalese army and Nepal's deposed king.

The Indian establishment is not generally known
for such neat planning or efficiency. But what
matters is that in Nepali public perceptions, the
allegation resonates. Any Indian diplomat who has
served in India's neighborhood can tell that
India carries the burden of a larger-than-life
profile. There is a wealth of misconceptions
among India's neighbors about its capacity to
harm. The common perception is that India can be
a ill-tempered, self-righteous bully.

But the ungainly truth, as often happens,
gingerly lies somewhere in the middle. True,
India can probably muster a quick temper and may
even be capable of doing mischief if its feathers
are ruffled, but then, if its neighbors are
clever enough, they can pay back in the same coin.

Take Sri Lanka. In the early 1980s, Delhi took a
deliberate decision to start a quarrel with Sri
Lanka's Western-oriented leadership in Colombo.
Several complicated factors led to the quarrel,
including vanities at the leadership level, but
it overtly wore the look of a pale Indian variant of the Monroe Doctrine.

Delhi wanted the unhelpful leadership in Colombo
to be put in its place - like the Maoists in
Kathmandu who showed the audacity to warm up to
China's friendly overtures. Books have been
written which graphically describe that Delhi
fostered the Sri Lankan Tamil insurgent groups as
an instrument of foreign policy to pressure the
then Sri Lankan government under president J R Jayewardene.

If so, Delhi truly underestimated the tenacity of
the Colombo political elite to hit back. The grit
of small countries, which depend paramountly on
their wits rather than muscle to safeguard their
autonomy, is something too hard to believe.
Before Delhi could count to ten, Jayewardene
sought and won an Indian military intervention in
Sri Lanka to put down the very same Tamil
insurgency it thoughtfully fostered in the first
instance. And, amazingly, in no time, Delhi
agreed to do the unthinkable - dispatch an
expedition to intervene in a neighboring country's civil war.

But Colombo soon made yet another neat somersault
and the Indian military expedition in Sri Lanka
found itself to be the common target of the Tamil
insurgents and the Sri Lankan security forces
alike. The result was that after the loss of a
few thousand Indian soldiers and the
assassination of a former Indian prime minister,
Delhi wound up its expedition in Sri Lanka in
shame and ignominy and sailed home. But the story didn't end there.

The Colombo elite, having tasted blood, allowed
Delhi a brief respite before working on its
vanities again and getting the Indian elite on
its side even as another bloody chapter of the
civil war was unrolling. Some say the Indian
establishment was not so dumb-witted as made out
to be, but was probably on a brilliant
Machiavellian act in assisting Colombo to
vanquish the Tamil insurgent army. Time will tell.

At any rate, if the Maoists are clever, they
would do a Colombo act on Delhi. It seems they
may do just that. They are reaching out to a
political formation at the other end of Nepal's
fragmented political spectrum comprising Nepalis
of ethnic Indian origin who are commonly seen as
Delhi's proxy on the Nepalese democratic
chessboard - the Joint Madhesi Democratic Front (JMDF).

Quite possibly, the Maoists may have calculated
that with their 230 members in an alliance with
the 83 members of the JMDF, they can be a force
in the 601-member parliament that can spike the
incipient plans of a ganging-up by Nepal's status
quo parties as a new non-Maoist coalition
government. At the very least, the Maoists are
seeking to avoid political isolation.

But it could presage something more. The Maoists
are evidently reaching out to Indian public
opinion as well over the head of the Indian
bureaucratic establishment. They are doing what
the Colombo elite would have surely done in similar circumstances.

At the very minimum, one has to be truly moronic
to miss the point that the Maoists want to play
by the democratic rules; that they do not want to
return to the jungles and become guerillas again;
that they are pragmatic enough to cross
ideological divides; and, quite probably, they
want to be Delhi's favorites in the corridors of
power in Kathmandu. So, what is the problem?

The problem seems to lie in a five-letter word -
China. The malaise bears a striking similarity
with the early 1980s when the Jayewardene
government in Colombo took to the free market
with gusto, was favorably inclined to accede to
the setting up of a Voice of America transmitter
within earshot of India, was reportedly allowing
in Israeli intelligence specialists, and was
toying with the idea of leasing out Trincomalee's
fine natural harbor and its vast "oil farm" built
by imperial Britain during World war II as a naval base for the Americans.

The supreme irony is that today Delhi is not
going to lose sleep over any of those daredevil
things that Jayewardene likely contemplated.
Today, a quarter century later, India has not
only taken to the market, but the current
government in Delhi, which is about to complete
its term, subscribed to the Washington consensus
even after the Americans began losing faith in it.

The Israelis of course are all over India, with
the visiting Israeli army chief taken to Kashmir
last September on a counter-insurgency tour and
Indian space scientists launching away Israeli
"spy" satellites. India today not only desires a
strong US naval presence in the Indian Ocean (as
a "counterweight" to China) but aspires to be the
US Navy's preferred partner. If Indians don't
care to listen to Voice of America, it is merely
because they have chosen to watch CNN.

Alas, the Indian strategic community's ire about
the Nepalese Maoist dalliance with China is a
replay of the xenophobia that was prevalent in
Delhi in the early 1980s. True, China is taking
an excessively high degree of interest in Nepal.
But that isn't because Nepal's biggest political
party subscribes to Maoism or because Beijing
wants to add yet another "pearl" to its "string"
around India, to borrow the famous words of a
minor analyst working for the Pentagon which have
become the hot favorite idiom among Indian strategic thinkers.

The fact is that China is keen to plug the
infiltration route of Tibetan militants who
travel to and from India via Nepal. It is a
crucial issue for Beijing. Unsurprisingly, China
will go the extra mile to ensure there is a
friendly government in Kathmandu that dissociates
itself completely from the "low-intensity war"
waged in Tibet by militants coming in from
outside. Just as China pays enormous attention to
its Central Asian neighbors to ensure that Uyghur
militants from the outside world do not
infiltrate the Xinjiang Autonomous Region.

Kyrgyzstan may have a population less than five
million, but when a Kyrgyz dignitary comes
calling, Beijing rolls out a red carpet as if US
President Barack Obama had arrived. That shows an
acute sense of national priorities, as a sizeable
Uyghur community lives in Kyrgyzstan.

Therefore, it shouldn't come as a surprise that
China has begun assiduously courting the
democratic leadership in Nepal. Or, that the
Maoist government began cooperating with China to
clamp down on the activities of the Tibetan
activists who operated out of Nepalese soil through the past half-century.

China will not be deterred from befriending Nepal
on the crucial question of tranquility and
stability in Tibet, no matter what it takes. The
time is not far off before Beijing offers Nepal a
berth in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
Indeed, China has the political will and the
financial capacity to offer to Nepal what Delhi
could have offered through the past six decades
and failed to do - staking a common future as
partners in economic development and regional
stability. China's reach is enormous today. It
has just replaced the United States as Brazil's top trade partner.

Countering the Chinese challenge in Nepal needs
imagination, a coherent game plan and a sustained
approach on India's part. Muscle-flexing is not
the answer. Nor is diplomatic one-upmanship the
answer or the pretensions by the right-wing Hindu
nationalist outfits in India that Nepal is their sequestered pasture.

Antagonizing the Maoists will not be a smart
thing to do, as they represent historical forces
that are on the ascendance and they will be
around as the dominant political force in Nepal,
sure as the sun rises in the east. But there are
pragmatic ways in which the Maoists could be made
to view Delhi as their preferred partner.
Arguably, the Maoists are themselves already
intensely conscious that they cannot do without India's cooperation.

Contrary to the Indian security establishment's
earlier doomsday scenario, the Maoists are not
messing around with the radical left movements
professing to follow Mao Zedong's ideology which
are active in something like 160 out of India's
600 districts. That shows a high degree of
sensitivity to India's national-security concerns.

But what Delhi should scrupulously avoid is any
interference in Nepal's internal affairs. Let the
Nepalese settle their squabbles themselves over
drawing up a new constitution and charting out
their future. Leave it to the Nepalese political
parties to carve out their space on the
democratic arena. Political parties begin to die
when they cease to be relevant.

The forces, which Delhi might have favored when
Nepal was a "Hindu kingdom", may no more be
capable of representing the people's aspirations.
India cannot resurrect them. Let them die. Of
course, it will be dangerous to encourage the
Nepalese army to harbor Praetorian instincts,
either. South Asia has had enough of armies.

India will always enjoy a huge advantage over
China in cultivating Nepal - of history,
geography, culture, ethnicity, economy and social
bonds and kinship. Where India loses is that it
cannot get its act together as a driving force
for Nepal's emergence out of abject poverty. That
is the leitmotif of China's challenge to India.
The entire sub-Himalayan region will
incrementally feel gravitation toward China as
Tibet surges forward at its present level of
economic transformation and Beijing shows a willingness to share the cake.

Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat
in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments
included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri
Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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