Saturday, February 05, 2005

NEPAL: Assessment - Right royal headache for India

+ There could be one silver lining for India in the present gloomy scenario. Almost all political parties in Nepal were disenchanted with India and considered it mandatory to take anti-India positions in election campaigns. With India putting pressure on the king for the restoration of democracy, politicians who are currently under house arrest may start revising their opinion. They suspect India of harboring hegemonic designs. The very gigantic size of India and the tiny space that most of its neighbors occupy in the sub-continent precludes an easy relationship. +


Right royal headache for India
By Sultan Shahin

NEW DELHI - Though India has not quite made up its mind yet on how it should react to what is being described as a palace coup in Nepal, the contours of a likely response are beginning to emerge.

In view of the immense complexity of its relations with its tiny neighbor, which have lately been showing signs of stress, and a less than friendly neighborhood, New Delhi must take a subtle and nuanced approach. Nevertheless, it is not going to treat King Gyanendra's move to suspend democracy, against specific advice from India and the US given a few weeks ago, as a fait accompli. It is also not going to allow the king to take Indian military help for granted on the pretext of his country facing a major Maoist threat with grave security implications for India itself.

On February 1, King Gyanendra sacked Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba's government for the second time in just over two years and took full control of state power. The king accused Deuba's government of failing to conduct parliamentary elections and being unable to restore peace in the country.

In his very first response, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got the summit meeting of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) scheduled to be held on February 6 and 7 suspended. As the leader of the world's largest democracy, he didn't want to be seen shaking hands with a leader who had just dealt democracy a crippling blow. Both Pakistan, the present head of SAARC and Bangladesh, where the meeting was to take place, are deeply unhappy with this decision.

India took a similar approach to President General Pervez Musharraf's coup against an elected government in Pakistan in 1999, and couldn't be seen to be making an exception in the case of Nepal. New Delhi's stand had become inevitable the moment the Nepalese King announced that he would represent his country at the summit.

The timing of the coup and the announcement from Narayanhiti Palace - the residence of the king in Kathmandu - that he would be going to Dhaka himself smack of a predetermined plan on his part to get his misdeed endorsed by the regional grouping, despite severe condemnation from the international community. SAARC comprises Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

India has gone ahead with its decision not to participate in the SAARC summit, leading to its postponement, knowing full well that it will not go down well with other neighbors. Besides consulting two former prime ministers, V P Singh and I K Gujral, Manmohan met his cabinet colleagues and opposition leaders, former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and former deputy prime minister L K Advani before going ahead with the decision. The decision had been taken in principle by the Cabinet Committee on Security itself. Indian External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh called his counterparts in Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Bhutan to explain Delhi's decision.

Pakistan spokesman Masood Khan reacted sharply: "Frequent postponements of the summit conference have raised doubts about the seriousness with which the agenda for regional cooperation is being pursued." He added, "On the sidelines, Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh were scheduled to meet on February 7. This high-level contact was important to give a fresh impetus to the composite dialogue. Now we will have to see when this opportunity arises."

Bangladesh was livid: "We are shocked and dismayed at India's unwarranted and unexpected decision not to attend the summit when all preparations had been completed." In a sharply worded statement, a government spokesman said, "Once again, a SAARC summit has been postponed at the last minute because of a decision by India ... It is a sad commentary for South Asia that its largest member state should retract its commitment to the charter on this excuse." It also outright rejected India's concerns for security in Bangladesh.

Now the new Indian army chief General Joginder Jaswant Singh is deferring his visit to Kathmandu, where he was to take over as honorary chief of the Royal Nepal Army. He may be asked to cancel the trip altogether. The chiefs of the Indian and Nepalese armies enjoy honorary chief status in each other's country. New Delhi is clearly sending a not-so-subtle message to Kathmandu that their unique military relationship is in peril. By convention, the first foreign trip of a new Indian army chief is to Nepal. (General Singh took over as the 22nd army chief on January 31.)

"I see military-to-military relationships as part of the overall diplomatic strategy of the country. I have not yet indicated a time frame [to visit Nepal] because of the situation there. I will decide on it with the permission of the government," General Singh said on Thursday in an interview with a Kolkata daily, The Telegraph. This cannot be good news for the king, who seems to be preparing for a major military offensive against Maoist insurgents, particularly as India is the primary supplier of military equipment, much of it at a third of the normal cost. Most Nepalese army officers are trained at Indian military institutions, the newspaper pointed out. An estimated 80,000 Gurkhas from Nepal serve in crucial combat formations of the Indian army.

The king is the supreme commander of the Royal Nepali Army, a force currently with a combined strength of 138,000 armed personnel, including those from civil and armed police agencies. Both India and the US have recently given massive support to these security organizations in the form of training and equipment. But for this support the royal regime could hardly take on the rebels, who launched a "people's war" in 1996 to rid the country of the constitutional monarchy. India recently took serious action to curb the Maoist's ability to procure guns and ammunition on the Indian black market across the porous Nepal-India border, where no passport is required for travel by the citizens of either country. India also arrested a few guerrilla leaders in the Indian states bordering Nepal recently, thus raising the morale of the Nepalese security forces.

The war has so far claimed more than 11,000 lives, including women and children. Rebel Maoist leaders maintain that they now have a fighting force of 25,000 young men and women, grouped into three divisions, nine brigades and 29 battalions. This force, called the People's Liberation Army (PLA - as the Chinese army is also called), is backed by a 100,000-strong People's Militia. They are now capable of attacking targets in more than one district center at the same time. They have set up provisional governments in all the nine provinces in which they have divided the country. They now claim that their leader, Prachanda, runs a parallel government of Nepal.

In strongly worded statements, New Delhi has described the seizure of power by King Gyanendra as a "serious setback" to the cause of democracy and said it "cannot but be a cause of grave concern to India". In a formal statement, the External Affairs Ministry said it had received reports that several political leaders had been confined to their residences.

The official statement went on to clarify India's position: "The safety and welfare of the political leaders must be ensured and political parties must be allowed to exercise all the rights enjoyed by them under the constitution. India has consistently supported multiparty democracy and constitutional monarchy enshrined in Nepal's constitution as the two pillars of political stability in Nepal. This principle has now been violated with the king forming a government under his chairmanship. India has a longstanding and unique relationship with Nepal, with which it shares an open border, a history of strong cultural and spiritual values and wide-ranging economic and commercial links. We will continue to support the restoration of political stability and economic prosperity in Nepal, a process which requires reliance on the forces of democracy and the support of the people of Nepal."

India has vital security interests involved. Intelligence sources told Asia Times Online that Delhi is already preparing to meet the fallout of a major crackdown on Maoists in Nepal. Maoists in large numbers could try to take shelter in adjoining Indian states, in Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh and above all, Bihar. Already, a so-called red corridor or "compact revolutionary zone" (CRZ) of Maoists seems to stretch from Kathmandu, across Nepalese territory up to India's southernmost tip of Kanyakumari through states like Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Chhatisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Kerala. This CRZ then goes on to provide a link with the armed insurgents in Sri Lanka, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Indian government has for some time been aware of a nexus between all the Maoist organizations working in these states. They help one another in terms of training and movement of arms. The Nepalese connection and the implications of the CRZ are the main reasons, according to sources in the government, that Delhi has allowed and encouraged some state governments to talk to Maoist groups in their region, despite the obvious difficulties. India is also wary of Nepal's Maoists being able to link up with secessionist insurgents in the northeastern states of Assam and Nagaland, etc.

India's Maoist movement issued a stern warning to the government of India recently and threatened "retaliatory action" if New Delhi continued to help the Nepalese government in combating the Maoists. Indian Maoists have acquired greater cohesion since they put their own house in order recently with two major organizations, the People's War and the Maoist Communist Center of India merging to form the Communist Party of India (Maoist). Maoists in Bihar last week blew up opposition Bhartiya Jananta Party leader Venkaiah Naidu's chopper after it force-landed near Gaya, as he was campaigning for elections in the state. In the first phase of state assembly elections in Bihar and adjoining Jharkhand on Thursday, about 20 people are said to have died in violence as a direct result of clashes with Maoists, who had called for a boycott of elections. Their ongoing talks with the state government of Andhra Pradesh broke down recently on their refusal to surrender arms during the negotiations.

Pakistan and China hover

But a refusal on India's part to support Nepal's government in the fight against Maoists not only encourages Indian Maoists, it also leaves the door open for Pakistan and possibly China to step into what is clearly India's backyard. Already there is speculation that the king's latest moves have been encouraged by China and Pakistan. Both Beijing and Islamabad have labeled the palace takeover of power as Nepal's internal matter. While India has been advocating negotiations with the Maoists, at a press conference in Kathmandu recently, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz generously offered to help Nepal crush the Maoist insurgency. He said, "If Nepal wants, Pakistan is ready to extend all possible help in fighting the terrorists," and added that Islamabad was "ready to extend army and civilian training in Pakistan". He also said that "control of terrorism will be one of the main issues on the agenda during the 13th SAARC summit in Dhaka". He was visiting the Himalayan kingdom as current chairman of SAARC, during a tour of the seven member countries.

Several Indian analysts feel that China knew in advance of the palace coup. Some feel that the sudden closure of the Tibetan Welfare Center in Kathmandu in late January and the coup on February 1 cannot be just a coincidence. Initially, many had thought that the palace coup had Indian and US backing. Indeed, one minister asked the prime minister as much in the first cabinet committee on security to discuss the event. But clear denunciation from India and the West has now led to speculation that the king had the blessings of China and Pakistan instead.

It is being speculated that one reason behind the king's decision could be that he wanted to pursue an exclusively military solution in dealing with not only the Maoists but also other dissidents, like those in the media, and he had Chinese and Pakistani support in the matter. The Nepali army is reported to have used chopper fire on student protestors in the tourist town of Pokhra on February 1, the day of the coup and when a state-of-emergency was announced. About 15 students are said to have taken bullets at the Prithvi Narayan College campus in Pokhra, about 200 kilometers from the capital Kathmandu, protesting against the proclamation suspending democracy.

India, however, believes it is unrealistic to try and tackle the Maoists solely through military means. India itself is encouraging state governments to negotiate a deal with home-grown Maoists. Since the coup in Nepal, for the first time one is hearing voices on Indian television arguing that the Maoists, whether Nepalese or Indian, are not foreigners, nor secessionists, and that these frustrated individuals represent legitimate grievances of the people and therefore should be treated differently than militants in the northeast or Kashmir. Left Front leaders, too, who support the central government from outside, are making similar noises, though they themselves fought a bloody battle with Maoist militants in states such as West Bengal that they rule.

Silver lining for India

There could be one silver lining for India in the present gloomy scenario. Almost all political parties in Nepal were disenchanted with India and considered it mandatory to take anti-India positions in election campaigns. With India putting pressure on the king for the restoration of democracy, politicians who are currently under house arrest may start revising their opinion. They suspect India of harboring hegemonic designs. The very gigantic size of India and the tiny space that most of its neighbors occupy in the sub-continent precludes an easy relationship. India cannot help being big, and therefore suspect in the eyes of its smaller neighbors. Also, on many occasions, Indian leaders have not shown the magnanimity that its smaller neighbors rightly expect. With its strong showing in favor of democracy and a relatively soft approach toward the Maoist insurgency, India may be moving in the direction of building fences with those who are likely to rule Nepal in the future. India wants to be on the right side of history. It doesn't see generals in Pakistan or absolute monarchs in Nepal as legitimate and long-term rulers of these nations.

India has good reasons to think that it is siding with the people of Nepal and its future rulers with its current approach. A survey carried out in August and September 2003 by a team of Nepali political scientists led by Professor Krishna Hachhethu of the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu made it clear that the people firmly support democracy, despite disenchantment with many of the politicians. According to Indian psephologist Yogendra Yadav of New Delhi's Center for the Study of Developing Societies, who was involved in the survey, it shows that Nepali citizens retain their trust in democracy as the best form of government, despite disappointment with the working of democracy and with the behavior of politicians.

As many as 62% of the respondents said that "democracy is always preferable to any other form of government"; only 10% said authoritarianism was acceptable, while 28% were indifferent. It should be noted, said Yadav, that these figures are not very different from responses to the same question in India. Not only do they like democracy, they think it can work in Nepal. An overwhelming majority of 79% holds that democracy is suitable for Nepal, while only 21% say it is not. This despite strong reservations about the record of democracy in the country.

Yadav's conclusion, "If this survey is any guide to the political mind of Nepal today, the king may have undertaken a very risky gamble in trying to revive the executive monarchy. In the short term, he may have an upper hand, given the state of disunity and disrepute in which the mainstream political leaders find themselves today. But in the long run he is likely to encounter a public that has tasted democracy and is no longer willing to surrender its sovereignty. Unwittingly, the king may have paved the way for a republic of Nepal."

Sultan Shahin is a New Delhi-based writer.