Friday, February 26, 2021

Nepal's sovereignty under attack

Image credit: Economic Times

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Foreign policy is a yardstick that can measure the nature and character of relations of any nation with foreign countries. Effective foreign policy of a nation can reflect its national interests within the range of its power and capacity. Foreign policy conducted with whims, emotions, and ultra-national sentiments could subdue national interests in the long run.

Nepal does not have significant military might, nor does she have any source of perennial strength that could matter in the international arena. The only strength that vouches for her safety and security is the art of diplomacy that has so far paved her way through the jungle of realpolitik.

If we minutely study the chronology of foreign policy of Nepal, safety and security of the nation has almost dominated the discipline throughout the two and half centuries of her independent existence. In the interregnums of this long period, internal politics of Nepal was so callous at a time, so bizarre, that it not only created political doldrums and insecurity, but it also made exogenous factors easier to penetrate into the internal affairs of the country.

Crisis of sovereignty 

'Sovereignty of the country is in serious crisis,' is the phrase heard repeatedly in Nepal. Particularly, leaders from various parties have been using this phrase at their convenience.

Both the people's movements added many political jargons in Nepali milieu: inclusiveness, proportionality, federalism, autonomy, self-determination, identity, and many more. Sovereignty and independence are some other words to add to this toolkit.

Nepal has a history of not being geographically colonized. But has modern Nepal ever enjoyed political and economic autonomy?

Nepal has a history of not being geographically colonized. But has modern Nepal ever enjoyed political and economic autonomy? Not being independent in internal and external affairs under various pretexts is also our history, one cannot neglect this fact.

Often it is claimed that foreign policy of the country was largely independent during the Panchayat period. Professor Bishwa Pradhan in his book Behavior of Nepal's Foreign Policy claims that 'Mahendra vehemently used to oppose the pull and pressure tactics from outside and was strongly in favour of following an independent foreign policy', (p.153).  It is true that King Mahendra made many calculative decisions for Nepal's independence. But the foundation of a claim that Nepal was not under influence of any external power during his regime can be questioned. 

King Mahendra's policy during the Panchayat period is often alleged for the stability of the regime rather than the protection of the sovereignty and the integrity of the nation. In his book Nepal: Strategy for Survival, Leo E. Rose makes a statement against King Mahendra. 

'King Mahendra's intricate balance-cum-tacking act has not only produced a greater degree of discretion for his government in international affairs but also a measure of security against potentially subversive internal forces in Nepal', (p.287). It was during his regime that India deployed her troops in Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura. Instead of opposing the move, he tolerated it for the continuity of the regime. Nepalis are still being punished for his mistake.

Instead of opposing the move, King Mahendra tolerated it for the continuity of the regime. Nepalis are still being punished for his mistake.

Despite Mahendra's acquiescence, India did not pay much attention to support continuity of the system Mahendra established. On the contrary, the system collapsed with the help of India. Even though political parties and people had been agitating against the autocratic Panchayat rule from the very beginning, it succeeded only in 1990. India provided the momentum to the movement by imposing a blockade on Nepal in 1989 after the then King Birendra agreed to buy necessary weapons for the Royal Nepal Army during his China visit.

The Government of India had stopped supplying essential goods to Nepal citing the non-renewed trade and transit agreement. At the height of the democratic movement, King Birendra made an agreement with Nepal's political parties to restore democracy in 1990.  Along with the demand for change in the country, external power played a major role in changing the system.

The country had yet to find the road to prosperity with the restoration of democracy when violent politics began in 1996. While the movement started by the Maoists was based on domestic political issues in the name of decentralizing the central government and establishing civic supremacy, it was flourished with the goodwill of its southern neighbor.

Maoist leaders shamelessly stooped to negotiating with humiliatingly junior levels of officers in Indian spy agencies to gain their permission and protection to operate safely in India, writes Kul Chandra Gautam in his book Lost in Transition (p. 166). The Maoist movement was not aloof from the general political character of Nepal. Criticizing Indians to get established in internal politics but also colluding with them has been a political character of Nepal since long. As a result, the movement that was supposed to add a new kind of political dimension to the country landed with the mediation of India.

Maoist movement that was supposed to add a new kind of political dimension to the country landed with the mediation of India.

The task of uniting the scattered political forces, the seven major parliamentary parties (SPAs) and the Maoists on the eve of the people's movement was accomplished by a 12-point political agreement reached in Delhi on 22 November 2005. The agreement was the foundation of the second people's movement. Senior journalist Yubraj Ghimire has repeatedly said that the agreement has axed Nepal's journey towards independence.

The SPA-Maoist Alliance urged people to join the second people's movement on a plank that it would liberate Nepal from the autocratic dictator and exogenous powers at the same time. Fifteen years have passed; now let's ask the question: Can Nepal decide its political fate today?

Fifteen years have passed; now let's ask the question: Can Nepal decide its political fate today?

On 24 April 2006, the then King Gyanendra, who took over the reins of power on 1 February 2005, announced the resumption of the House of Representatives, which had been dysfunctional since May 2002. He announced the restoration of parliament to resolve the people's movement saying that he was 'convinced that the root of the Kingdom of Nepal's State Authority and Sovereignty is inherent in the people of Nepal.'

Active Monarchy in Nepal was suspended at the first meeting of the restored House of Representatives on 18 May 2006. Meanwhile, a comprehensive peace agreement was concluded between the government and the rebel Maoists on 21 November of that year. Peace agreement ended the ten-year civil war in Nepal. While Nepal called the peace agreement homegrown, India has publicly stated her role in it.

India has argued that peace process in Nepal is a result of India-mediated 12-point agreement. India sent a message to the world based on this agreement reached in Delhi that it has an important role in Nepal's internal affairs. The then Indian Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid had mentioned at the UN General Assembly that "India has helped bring the rebel side to the peace process in Nepal."

Similarly, in the recently published book, The Presidential Years 2012-2017, (p. 88), India's former President Pranab Mukherjee, who was India's Foreign Minister during Nepal's second People's Movement, reiterated India's position in Nepal's peace process.

Subsequently, the 240-year-old monarchy was overthrown by the establishment of a republic at the first meeting of the Constituent Assembly, held on 28 May 2008. While politicians of Nepal claim monarchy ended at the behest of Nepali people, Mukherjee in his book claims that the end of the monarchy in Nepal was at the decree of India. The same Mukherjee book mentioned above (p. 89) discusses the role he played in putting an end to Nepal's monarchy.

While politicians of Nepal claim monarchy ended at the behest of Nepali people, Mukherjee in his book claims that the end of the monarchy in Nepal was at the decree of India.

In the book, Mukherjee states that the then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, was visiting Germany at that time. Mukherjee was the foreign minister and he suggested Indian Ambassador to Nepal Shyam Sharan to hold a press conference on India's changed policy in Nepal. While Indian Prime Minister Singh was in favor of a constitutional King, he persuaded Singh to end monarchy, Mukherjee says.

Internally subverting sovereignty

The then rebel party, the Maoists, the largest party in the Constituent Assembly elections, formed a government which was led by Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Many thought that his party, which came to power to protect the sovereignty of Nepal would do the same but rhetoric could not match with action.

The Prime Minister's decision to remove him as Chief of the Army Staff was thwarted by Rukmangad Katawal. Ultimately, in place of Katawal, the prime minister had to resign. His party came to the street for demonstrations after leaving the cabinet. During one protest Dahal said, 'To resolve the problem, talks will be held with the Lord, not with the henchman." Indian intervention in the independent affairs of Nepal was the essence of his statement.

During one protest Dahal said, 'To resolve the problem, talks will be held with the Lord, not with the henchman." Indian intervention in the independent affairs of Nepal was the essence of his statement.

Similarly, the Madhesh movement is frequently linked with the state's independence exercise. With the proclamation of the Interim Constitution on January 15, 2007, the then Madheshi Janadhikar Forum started a movement by burning the constitution. That movement forced the amendment of the Interim Constitution. With the amendment, Nepal became a federal state. The same federalism has been charged with being against the interests of Nepal.

Madhesh movement was not confined to that. The then Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala made a public declaration that if Nepal and India come together, Madhesh Movement would be resolved in a minute. Koirala's remarks raised the question whether Nepal plays a decisive role in her internal affairs or not. When a deal was reached at the Indian Embassy in Lainchaur between the government of Nepal and the agitating Madheshis, the validity of Madhesh movement begged a question.

Also, after the promulgation of the constitution in Nepal in 2015, Madhesh again went into a movement. It was possible to doubt the movement outright. While it was possible to justify their frustration with some aspects of the constitution, the movement was used to attack Nepal's sovereign rights. The Madhesh movement shared India's frustration with Nepal's constitution. People are entitled to express frustration with the constitution. Dissatisfaction, however, should not be a means to the other ends. 

The Madhesh movement shared India's frustration with Nepal's constitution.

Madheshi demands were based on Article 11 of the Constitution. The Article grants citizenship both through father and mother. Madheshis objected, however, arguing that the reason for gaining citizenship on behalf of the mother had been blurred by sub-sections 6 and 7 of Article 11.

Similarly, Sub-Article 1 of Article 289 also provided for a person obtaining Nepali citizenship through descent only being eligible to hold the highest office in Nepal.

In addition to this, Madheshi leaders went into agitation demanding separate provisions in the clauses of Articles 38, 40 and 42 of the Constitution for Madhesi, Janajati and Muslim women, where women's rights, Dalits' rights and the right to social justice are discussed respectively.

The blockade imposed by India reinforces the issue that political and economic liberty still had to be gained by the nation that was never geographically colonized. The message was that the virtue of the Nepali people's sovereign right was yet to be fulfilled. There is, however, a reason to doubt whether we learned the lessons from that blockade and embarked on the independence journey.

KP Oli had to quit office within nine months as Prime Minister after the adoption of the constitution. Before leaving the post he addressed the parliament and accused India of forcing him to step down. This served as another example that our internal politics is not in our hands.

There were allegations that the successive governments of Prachanda and Sher Bahadur Deuba after the blockade axed Nepali people's desire for independence. The 25-point agreement reached between Prachanda and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi failed to take into account Nepal's right to self-decision.

Point number 11, in particular, made this dilemma more contentious. It notes that the two countries will hold similar views on major international issues. Nepal's ability to form an independent stance in foreign relations was limited by this agreement.

While visiting India as Prime Minister, Deuba vowed to resolve the issue of Madhesh soon. That pledge can be taken as an attempt to justify India's blockade imposed on Nepal by expressing dissatisfaction with Nepal's constitution by pointing out Madhesh issue.

Chinese hand

It will not be fair if only India's intervention in Nepal's internal politics is discussed. China too has dealt blow for the quest of our independence. China was considered to exercise hands off approach in Nepal's internal politics in the past but now has emerged as a pivotal power.

China is one of the main reasons for the rising security interests of India and other foreign powers in Nepal. Whereas irony is that China associates Nepal only with Tibetan security interests.

MD Dharamdasani in his book Indian Diplomacy in Nepal (p. 1) writes, "The Chinese military thrust across the Indian border in 1962 made Indian foreign policymakers more cautious in defending this strategically important Himalayan Kingdom from internal and external subversion." Nepal, for this reason, has become a subject of growing interest both for Indian and foreigners. 

The country which used to claim it would not intervene in the internal affairs of its neighbors lately has descended to the extent of teaching the philosophy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Nepal. Nepali leaders have been surprised by the activism of the Chinese ambassador of late. China sent a high-level delegation to Nepal last month after the virtual split in the Nepal Communist Party to show the world that her interest in Nepal is increasing. Such move by China will not yield any positive impact on Nepal.

China sent a high-level delegation to Nepal last month after the virtual split in the Nepal Communist Party to show the world that her interest in Nepal is increasing.

Previous Chinese ambassadors were also active in Nepal but not to this extent. However, due to their needless activism, there were also incidents where Nepal faced a diplomatic trap.

Aditya Adhikari in the book The Bullet and the Ballot Box (p.2) writes that the "Chinese ambassador to Nepal and about 300 staff who were in Nepal to build the road gathered at Tribhuvan International Airport on 17 June 1967 to receive nine Chinese diplomats expelled on espionage charges from India. The Chinese gathered at the airport, protested against Indian reactionaries and revisionists, screaming slogans, and even attempted to attack journalists who wanted to take their pictures."

Immediately afterwards, Sriman Nayaran, the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu, sent two notes to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal expressing surprise that anti-Indian activities in Nepal had been allowed. Eventually, Nepal's Foreign Ministry released a circular urging all foreign missions to refrain from spreading propaganda against each other (p. 3). Because of such anti-India activities by the Chinese in Nepal, India felt an extra security challenge in Nepal, according to people familiar with the incident.

The world's attention is on China in a shifting world political context. Nepal is known to be in a geostrategic position where China could be screwed up. Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to Nepal on 12 October 2019, said, "Anyone trying to split China in any part of the country will end up with crushed bodies and shattered bones." Even if China had to say that, given Nepal's geographical complexity, the future would tell how appropriate it was to send this message from Nepal. And why did he gave that message from Nepal?

Nepal is a part of Belt and Road Initiative put forward by China. The Chinese consider the project to ensure 'mutual benefit'. For the development of Nepal international assistance is vital. It is a sovereign decision of Nepal whether to accept any assistance or not. But there was tug-of-war over Nepal's participation in the project. 

In 2017, Nepal decided to participate in the project. In one context, Prakash Sharan Mahat, Joint Secretary-General of the Nepali Congress, who was the Foreign Minister at the time, had said that there had been enough foreign manipulations to influence the decision of Nepal to participate in the project.

Beyond the neighbors

The issue of whether or not to approve the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) project is still a matter of discussion in Nepal. There are also a significant number of individuals who claim that the MCC is a factor in the division of Nepal's Communist Party. Because of foreign concern, Nepal has not been able to determine its implementation independently.

Not only because of Nepal's two neighboring nations but also because of other foreign powers, Nepal has not been able to resolve foreign and, in some instances, national problems independently. Other nations besides the neighbors have similar interests.

Not only because of Nepal's two neighboring nations but also because of other foreign powers, Nepal has not been able to resolve foreign and, in some instances, national problems independently.

After the last federal and provincial elections, a vivid instance of this was observed. In April 2018, a European election observation mission challenged the electoral system in Nepal. The group, angered by denial of permission to observe the election in the region of its choosing, interfered with the Nepali people's sovereignty and autonomous decision-making.

In January 2019, a press release challenging the work of transitional justice was released by eight international missions in Nepal, including the United Nations. While some analysts argued that it was natural as they were a partner in peace process. However, it was ultimately a breach of sovereignty of Nepal and the right to make independent decisions.

Nepal's sovereignty has been questioned time and again. The type of public statements made by the country's responsible citizens indicates that confidence in our sovereignty is dwindling.

The reason why Nepal has not been able to fully exercise its independence is more internal than external, we must say. Our domestic follies provide an ample pretext for the exogenous factors to meddle in our internal politics. Taking advantage of internal weaknesses, foreigners have tried to play their part in our internal matters.

Published on 1 February 2021

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