…India would certainly welcome more democracy in our neighbourhood, but that too is something that we may encourage and promote; it is not something that we can impose upon others.
Shyam Saran, Indian Foreign Secretary in his speech "India and its Neighbours" on 14 February 2005.
King Gyanendra of Nepal dismissed Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba‘s government on 1 February, imposed emergency, banned all political activities, forced harsh censorship on the media and enhanced the powers of the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) to counter the Maoist insurgency. The immediate reactions from India and the United States were muted and expressed concern to the ‘set back to democracy’. It was only after a fortnight, that, the responses of the international community were enunciated. The Indian and the Anglo-American reaction has probably left the King dismayed as the initial mild statement has changed to a unequivocal call for the restoration of multi-party democracy in the kingdom. The US State Department expressed concern over the developments in Nepal and called for the ‘restoration of civil liberties and multi-party democratic institutions’.
China’s description of the dismissal as an ‘internal matter’ of Nepal and its general neutrality is being read as a sign of growing ties with Nepal. The King in January is said to have closed down the Office of the Dalai Lama's representative in Nepal as well as the Tibetan Refugee Welfare Office. The Nepalese government has also been handing over interdicted Tibetan refugees to China. Meanwhile the, Chinese spokesmen claim that they have no information so far on if the Nepalese government has requested any help to fight the Maoists. The Chinese have condemned the Maoists guerrillas as misusing Chairman Mao’s name. Gyanendra’s move as well as his perceived overture to China is being seen similar to the machinations of King Mahendra’s in the 1960.
New Delhi and Washington are both using the issue of military aid to Nepal to apply pressure on Kathmandu to restore status quo. Recently India formally stated that no Indian military supplies have been delivered to Nepal since the dismissal of Deuba’s government. Britain has withdrawn its military aid offer. The United States has not suspended military aid to Nepal; however the step is under consideration. The United States provides about $2 million in military aid to Nepal each year. The Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Donald Camp told a congressional subcommittee investigating the recent unrest in Nepal on 2 March that the United States government feels that democratic engagement between King Gyanendra and the country’s legitimate political parties is the key to defeat Maoist attempts to seize power."
For New Delhi, the situation in Nepal has always been particularly difficult to negotiate. Despite the historical, cultural and economically strong ties, India has had to tread very carefully in Nepal due to number of factors. The new developments put Delhi in a quandary. Firstly, Delhi does not want to be seen as the interfering power in Kathmandu’s intrigues. The usurpation of powers by the King goes against the democratic ethos that India believes is in its interest. Secondly, engagement with the royalist government in Kathmandu is crucial for keeping interfering powers like Pakistan and China at a distance. In a similar instance in Myanmar in 1989, when the military junta set aside the overwhelming election triumph of Ang San Suu Kui, the Indian government went hammer and tongs against the military regime which walked into the waiting arms of China. Delhi does not want to relive the same experience precisely as Nepal is too valuable to be lost to China or for that matter any competitive power. The engagement is also necessary as weakening of the King in the current situation will vitalize the Maoists. However, the Indian government’s real politic calculations of engaging an increasingly repressive King might put India on the wrong side of history and Nepalese society.
India’s reactions to the developments have been calibrated and guarded. First, the Prime Minister refused to attend the SAARC summit in Dhaka that the King would attend as the Prime Minister had been dismissed. The second was when the new Army chief JJ Singh’s visit to Nepal was deferred. By convention, the first foreign trip of the Indian Army Chief is to Nepal. Then the chief of Central Command, Lt. Gen. Ram Subramaniam’s visit to the Nepalese capital was cancelled. In his meeting with the Nepalese Ambassador, Foreign Minister Natwar Singh conveyed the desirability of immediate steps to ‘reinstate multi-party democracy, restore freedom to the media…and take immediate steps to release political leaders, journalists and human rights activists’. A meeting of the Indo-Nepal joint security group to be held later this month to work out details of supplies to the Royal Nepalese Army has been called off.
India’s policy with regard to Nepal is that of support to the constitutional monarch as well as a strong Parliamentary multi-party democracy. There has been no inkling towards any change in such a policy despite the current coup by the King or the increasingly popular demand of a republic. This is another insurance that the King has and which does not look as likely to change notwithstanding the current impasse. The latest statement from the United States also refers to this concurrence that the two legitimate powers in Nepal are the legitimate political parties and the King.
In conclusion, it can be said that while the Indian government does not agree with Gyanendra’s move, it is prepared to work with him for pragmatic reasons. These pragmatic reasons can be seen on two levels, one is the Myanmar type situation, the other being the Maoists. As Kirtinidhi Bisht, former PM, who has been appointed by the King as one of deputies put it that for India the choice is between the monarch and the Maoists. The engagement with the King, should desirably pave the ground for a pre-1 February status for political activity that would in time lead to involvement by the parties in the Nepalese state’s effort to deal with the Maoists.
On the choice between the monarch and the Maoists, it appears that Delhi appears quiet fearful of any strengthening of the entrenched Maoist position in Nepal. This could provide a fillip, ideological or even material, to the Naxal groups operating in the vast swathe of the hinterland Bihar to Andhra Pradesh. Such a probability is dismissed as wild imaginations of professional researchers by skeptics in both Nepal and India. However, there are claims that some groups in India have provided arms, shelter, manpower and military training to the Maoists.
At the international level, India’s task has become easier owing to the cooperation of the United States and Britain; the two countries are working with India in their response to the developments in Nepal. This is a recognition that Nepal falls within India’s sphere of influence. The second advantage of the support of the Anglo-Americans means that this raises the cost for the Chinese and the Pakistanis to buy influence in Nepal.
This was published as an opinion piece in The Central Chronicle, Bhopal on March 16 2005, under the imaginative title, Nepal Developments.