Nepal’s strategic balance

For many, Nepal is synonymous with the Himalayas. While that probably constitutes the best enticement for the foreign visitor, her uncomfortable location between India and China is no less striking. So, too, is that Nepal has not suffered the yoke or indignity of colonialism.

Today, it is commonplace to refer to Nepal’s “strategy for survival.”(1*) That phrase refers to her delicate balancing act between India and China. Mostly, it is used without an understanding either of its historical background or of the myriad variables that have shaped it in contemporary times.

This essay attempts to trace its roots and explain its successes and shortcomings. It will endeavour to cover internal security linkages, shed light on relevant aspects of Nepal’s foreign relations as well as its cost.

Historical Roots

To begin at the beginning, one starts Prithivi Narayan Shah’s emergence. He is best remembered as the great unifier who forged a modern nation out of a plethora of small and usually warring hill principalities during the heyday of British imperialism.

Shortly after enthronement as King of Gorkha in 1743, he undertook a series of measures to stem the threat he perceived from British might. He went to Benaras to obtain “first hand information on the Indian sub-continent.” (2*) There, “after closely observing the political situation of India, the King visualised the danger from the rapidly growing power of the foreign imperialist and he felt the urgent need of a strong and unified Nepal, to meet the challenges of the imperial conquest.” (3*)

“From Benaras he brought some Matlock rifles and had also engaged the services of some skilled mechanics, who could make rifles at home. A small foundry was set up in Gorkha and small arms were manufactured there. Having made these preparations, he set out on a marathon conquest.” (4*)

After being crowned King of Nepal on September 25, 1768, he continued to expand and fortify the kingdom. Assuming that Christian missionaries were “secret agents of the British rulers, whose aim was to preach the Christian religion and break Nepal into pieces” (5*), he ordered their expulsion.

He sought to divert India’s trade with Tibet through Nepal. His prescient conviction was “if foreign traders are allowed in, they are sure to impoverish the people” (6*) – a doctrine that had enormous significance in an age where the flag followed trade, and oftentimes, the Bible.

Yam Between Two Stones

In his Divyaopadesh (Divine Counsel), an invaluable set of guidelines on statecraft that he issued for posterity, it is stated: “The Kingdom is a yam between two stones. Maintain friendly relations with the Emperor of China. Great friendship should also be maintained with the Emperor beyond the Southern Seas (i.e. the British), but he is clever. He has kept India suppressed, and is entrenching himself on the plains. One day the army will come. Do not engage in offensive acts. Fighting should be conducted on a defensive basis.” (7*)

For over a century and a half this sagacious advice served Nepal’s rulers admirably. Subsequently, Nepal continued to adopt a judicious “policy of physical isolation and exclusion of foreigners, coupled with balance of power politics.” (8*)

Notably, “Nepal’s physical distance from central China and the succession of weak governments there for centuries before 1949 inclined Nepal in the past to think that India’s interference and intervention in Nepal’s affairs was a greater probability than China’s.” (9*)

Off and on, Nepal engaged in wars with both Tibet as well as British India. Inevitably, Gorkha expansion in the east, west and south beginning from 1768 triggered the Anglo-Gurkha War of 1814-1816 leading to the Treaty of Sagauli under whose terms Nepal had to cede territories it had earlier conquered.

Even before it concluded agreement had been reached for recruitment of Gurkhas into the East India Company’s forces. The first Gurkha Corps was raised on April 24, 1815. (10*)

Jang Bahadur Corollary

The rise of Jang Bahadur Rana as de facto ruler in 1846 paved the way for an increasingly pro-British foreign/security policy particularly after his landmark visit to England in 1850 and meetings with Queen Victoria and other British notables.

The Jang Bahadur “corollary” to Prithivi Narayan’s doctrine of balanced relations between the “two stones” was a strategy to denude incentive for British intervention in Nepal’s affairs.

Even more important than recruitment of Gurkhas was Nepal’s assistance to the British during the Indian Mutiny of 1857. Not only did Nepal come to the aid of the beleaguered British; Jang Bahadur and his brothers personally led troops, helped turn the tide and brought for the tottering British Raj a precious 90-year lease of life.

Jang Bahadur provided the finest rationale of his policy as evident from excerpts from a speech delivered in Kathmandu prior to his mission:

“I have three motives for acting as I am now acting. First, to show that the Gorkhas profess fidelity and will pour out their blood in defence of those who treat them with honour and repose confidence in them.

“Secondly, that I knew the power of the British Government and were I to take part against, although I might have temporary success for a time, my country would afterwards have been ruined and the Gorkha dynasty annihilated.

“Thirdly, that I knew that on the success of British arms and re-establishment of British power in India, his Government would be stronger than ever, and that I and my brothers and my country would all then benefit with our alliance with you as your remembrance of our past sacrifices will render our present friendship lasting and will prevent you from ever molesting us.” (11*)

One direct upshot of the Jang Bahadur-inspired foreign policy was that on December 21,1923 Nepal initiated a formal treaty relationship with Great Britain that acknowledged Nepal’s status as a fully sovereign nation. No doubt this helped Nepal escape the fate of 536 princely states that were absorbed by India after independence. They were integrated as a result of what J.N. Dixit terms a “foreign policy and national security exercise” by India’s Sardar Vallabhai Patel. (12*)

Nepal’s quest for security linked with her geo-strategic location was somewhat altered following China’s decline in power and prestige in the wake of the Opium War (1840-1842) and the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1856).Yet, Jang Bahadur himself “turned strongly towards China whenever it (Nepal) had any difficulty or difference with the British government.” (13*)

“Even Chandra Shumshere, who later as Prime Minister (1901-1929) became the greatest ally and friend of the British, was reported to have said openly to the British envoy as late as 1890 that since Nepal was subordinate to China, it would in no way be subordinate to the British Government of India.” (14*)

Post-1947, Post-1949.

No assessment of Nepal’s security strategy can be complete without considering the departure of the British from India in August 1947 and the creation of Pakistan on Nepal’s doorsteps.

“Official Indian policy after independence came to assert India’s interest in the integrity and territorial inviolability of India’s smaller neighbours as a variant of the policy of integration with India.”(15*)

More noteworthy is Indian Prime Minister Jawarharlal Nehru’s statement in parliament on December 6, 1950: “From time immemorial, the Himalayas have provided us with magnificent frontiers…We cannot allow that barrier to be penetrated because it is also the principal barrier to India. Therefore much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened, because that would be a risk to our own security.” (16*)

On March 17, 1950, Nehru had declared: “It is not necessary for us to have a military alliance with Nepal…But the fact remains that we cannot tolerate any foreign invasion from any foreign country in any part of the subcontinent. A possible invasion of Nepal would inevitably involve the safety of India.”(17*)

Singh claims that Nehru’s activism vis-a-vis Nepal finds reflection in the Nepal-India Treaty of July 31, 1950 formalised via the signatures of the Indian ambassador and the Nepalese prime minister, against the backdrop of a growing movement against Rana rule by the Nepali Congress.

Clearly, the end of Rana rule was accelerated by China’s re-establishment of control and authority in Tibet. Thereafter, Nepal’s quest for security gained a new vitality, gaining momentum after the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict.That came after India granted asylum and encouragement to Nepali political dissidents angered at King Mahendra’s Takeover of December 1960.

Other significant measures were the signing of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with China in April 1960 and the opening of the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu in August the same year.

Yet another was the 1961agreement for China to construct a highway connecting Kodari, on the Nepal-Tibet border, to Kathmandu. It was clearly meant to increase Nepal’s strategic options, especially since her capital was then road-linked solely with India.

No Chinese tanks or divisions have rolled or marched down that highway, as was repeatedly predicted by Indian commentators after the highway’s inauguration in 1967. The national consensus, however, is that national security was thereby significantly enhanced.

Beyond Her Neighbourhood

Having noted in passing the nexus between Nepal’s inexorable search for security and her foreign policy goals and achievements, here now is an update and elaboration.

On April 21, 1947, before the British withdrew from India, Nepal had secured recognition as an independent nation from the United States. This was followed “on April 25, 1947 by an agreement on friendship and commerce providing, inter alia, for the establishment of diplomatic and consular relations.” (18*) Then, “in May 1949, Nepal established diplomatic relations with France at ambassadorial level.” (19*)

Thus, even before Nehru made the ominous statements on Nepal, she had entered into diplomatic relations with the UK, the US and France. That made it impossible for India to contemplate action against Nepal, a la the Indian princely states.

Even during the twilight years of the Rana regime Nepal wisely chose to expand her ties to the outside world to enhance her standing and international visibility.

A key milestone was her initial move to secure membership of the United Nations in 1947. Because of Cold War politics it did not fructify until December 15, 1955 when she, along with 15 other nations, was admitted. (20*) Her contesting elections for non-permanent membership to the UN Security Council, twice successfully, can also be attributed to her dogged pursuit of the Holy Grail of national security. (21*)

In 1955, Nepal participated at the Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung having attended her first international conference in March 1947: the Asian Relations Conference in New Delhi. In 1961, King Mahendra led the Nepalese delegation to the first-ever summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Belgrade.

Like many NAM members, Nepal possibly found solace, and security, in numbers. Till the end of the Cold War, NAM membership provided her a useful forum to maximize her foreign policy goals, including the preservation of political independence.

That national security was a key priority is reflected in King Mahendra’s pronouncement at the Belgrade summit: “Nepal has made clear in the United Nations and outside that she is opposed to all domination over any country by any other.” (22*)

Creation of Bangladesh, Annexation of Sikkim

That geo-strategic considerations constituted a vital ingredient in Nepal’s foreign policy design is further substantiated by her establishing diplomatic relations with Pakistan in 1960 and an embassy there in 1964. (23*)

In a joint communique issued after President Agha Mohammad Yahya Khan’s state visit to Nepal in September 1970, against the backdrop of the crisis in East Pakistan, it is stated: “They (the two heads of state) agreed that one of the greatest dangers to world peace was the direct or indirect interference in the internal affairs of a country by outsiders and that in no circumstances whatsoever should any country interfere in the internal affairs of another.” (24*)

Bangladesh’s creation via the break-up of Pakistan, through India’s active intervention and generous assistance from the Soviet Union, is too well documented to merit further discussion. To be noted is that its after shocks were widely experienced far and wide, including in Nepal.

If she had to accept the fait accompli, Nepal was reluctant, unlike Bhutan, to rush in with her recognition. She timed it only after Myanmar, which shares a border with the new nation, did so.

Although King Mahendra passed away soon thereafter, the sense of national insecurity it engendered was strengthened after King Birendra’s accession. It climaxed less than two years later when a carefully orchestrated anti-Chogyal (ruler) movement in 1973-1974 in Sikkim led to her annexation by India in 1975.

Apart from “the role played by the Government of India in manoeuvering the political parties of Sikkim and sustaining the anti-ruler movement,” significantly Sikkim’s merger took place “under the shield of a heavy Indian presence” that “gave the impression, within and outside Sikkim, that India’s was the hidden hand.” (25*)

Aside from officially protesting against “outside interference” by Foreign Minister Gyanendra Bahadur Karki, the Nepalese media charged India of “imperialistic” designs, while students staged huge anti-Indian demonstrations in Kathmandu. (26*)

Though unable to change facts, Sikkim’s annexation – on the heels of Bangladesh’s emergence out of Pakistan – triggered a serious re-think of Nepal’s national security options. It took the shape, ultimately, of a demarche by King Birendra in the form of a proposal to have Nepal internationally accepted as a Zone of Peace (ZOP).

ZOP was to dominate Nepali politics right until April 1990 when King Birendra was rendered a reigning monarch from an active one. That cataclysmic transformation in the national polity was the end-result of a six-week agitation by then banned political parties openly backed by Indian politicians – according to some discreetly by the Indian government, as well – supported to the hilt by the Indian media.

Three months after anti-Chogyal protests began in Sikkim, King Birendra first gave _expression to his deep sense of anxiety. In a passionate speech before the Nepal Council of World Affairs on July 26, 1973, he referred to “the drama of world politics” and pronounced that it “makes a dispassionate observer feel pity at the fate of some small states which striving for liberation or freedom have only succumbed to subjugation and drudgery.” (27*)

Meaningfully, it concluded: “While we pledge friendship with all nations, we shall take special pains to cultivate friendship with our neighbours hoping earnestly that peace, cooperation and an understanding based on a sober appreciation of each other’s problems and aspirations shall prevail.

“Notwithstanding these fervent pleas, notwithstanding this sincere _expression of goodwill, notwithstanding these endeavours, should ill fortune ever overtake us, I hope and pray that the people of Nepal will not lag behind to brace themselves with the last resource they have – courage: courage to prove to the world that force or contrivances are but feeble instruments to subdue the fierce spirit of a people whose lifeblood, through the ages, has been independence or nothing.” (28*)

By April 1990, although 116 nations – including China, the US, the UK and France – had endorsed ZOP, India adamantly refused. Two American scholars, as many others, think India viewed ZOP as “an attempt by Nepal to opt out from India’s security perimeter and to abrogate the special relationship with India under the 1950 Treaty.” (29*)

Dampening India’s enthusiasm was that Pakistan and China were among ZOP’s first supporters. What must not have gone unnoted, too, was that a joint Sino-Pakistan communique issued in Beijing after Premier Z. A. Bhutto’s official visit to China in May 1976, expressed the two governments’ “firm support” for ZOP. (30*)

The 1950 Treaty signed by India with an autocratic regime on its last legs came with secret letters that were also exchanged that, inter alia, committed Nepal to seek India’s permission to import arms through its territory.

“In 1989, with Nepal’s secret acquisition of arms from China, India exerted its force by economic muscle. Facing renewal of the trade and transit treaties, India sought a renegotiated single treaty, and to pressure a recalcitrant Nepal, it imposed a blockade of all but two transit routes between the two countries.” (31*)

Significantly, if “the Treaty and the EOLs (Exchange of Letters) have never been published officially or made public, they have unofficially appeared in a number of texts in both India and Nepal.” (32*)

Although, after 1990, there has been a chorus of demands for its revision or replacement, and despite official bilateral talks in that context, the Treaty, which India regards as a sheet anchor of her relationship with Nepal, remains intact. By way of comparison, there has not been any similar demand vis-a-vis the 1960 Nepal-China Treaty.

Notably, after King Mahendra’s Takeover, sharply criticised by India, “Nepali politicians organised a movement for the restoration of democracy from their base of exile in Nepal” (33*) that led, even, to a bid on King Mahendra’s life.

India stopped such activities only after the outbreak of the Sino-Indian conflict in October 1962. Earlier, in Beijing on October 5, 1962, Chinese Vice Premier and Foreign Minister Chen Yi had declared: “In case any foreign army makes a foolhardy attempt to attack Nepal…China will side with the Nepalese people.”(34*)

Thus, rather than King Mahendra’s use of the China card, it was India that first allowed the activities of the Nepali dissidents and then backed off when China stepped into the picture. The “balancing act” factor is thus influenced by the “two stones” as much as by the “yam.”

Nepal has not, to date, banned the recruitment of her nationals into the Indian Army, an antiquated legacy of Nepal’s ties with the erstwhile British Raj – despite the demand from many nationalistic groups and the deep embarrassment to her relations with China and Pakistan that have chosen not to make an issue out of it. In this important instance, Nepal has not followed the dictum of strategic balance between India and China.

Post-April 1990

Significantly, the drafters of the 1990 Constitution threw out the ZOP baby along with the panchayat bath water. While pleasing to India, that rash move was undertaken without a national debate or any thought to the grave security implications for small states of momentous events that had already occurred, such as Iraq’s annexation of Kuwait, the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and Vietnam’s rapacious thrust into Cambodia.

Subsequently, one notes a willful neglect of all matters pertaining to national security – at least, until the Maoist problem became too serious to ignore and invited American, and then international, attention after 9/11.

In that shortlist must be included the misunderstanding and mishandling of the Bhutanese refugee issue which is still hanging fire13 years. A glaring example is Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala’s egregious statement in New Delhi in December 1991 that the forcible expulsion of southern Bhutanese by Thimphu was wholly within Bhutan’s domestic jurisdiction. (35*)

Nepal’s handling of the refugee issue has been incompetent, unfocused and totally lacking in an understanding of its larger strategic politico-demographic underpinnings. The disturbing implications of India allowing (some would say assisting) Bhutanese refugees to traverse through at least 100 kms. of Indian territory before entering Nepal but preventing them from returning, seem to have been glossed over.

Another area reflecting the sad state of national security consciousness, post-1990, is manifested in the inability or unwillingness of governments in checking the unfettered flow of foreign nationals across the porous Nepal-India border.

Internal Security

Even more glaring has been their incapacity to tackle the Maoist insurgency which first burst in the open in February 1996 in the form of a “People’s War” against the state by the underground Communist Party of Nepal, Maoist or CPN (M). Initially dismissed as a law and order problem, it escalated progressively until a cease-fire was instituted in 2001. Three rounds of peace talks were held from August to November 2001 between the Maoists and the Sher Bahadur Deuba government.

Matters came to a head when Maoists broke off talks and attacked Royal Nepal Army barracks in Dang district leading, subsequently, to the declaration of Emergency by King Gyanendra, on Prime Minister Deuba’s recommendation, as also to the Army’s mobilisation against the rebels.

Following the King’s October 4, 2002 intervention and appointment, a week later, of Lokendra Bahadur Chand as prime minister, new initiatives produced another cease-fire and two rounds of official talks. Following Chand’s resignation, Surya Bahadur Thapa was nominated as prime minister on June 5, 2003.

Continuing on the groundwork laid earlier, a third round of parleys was held with the new governmental team. The talks broke down on August 27 after the Maoist leader Dr. Baburam Bhattarai unilaterally called it off rejecting the government’s concept paper. As of this writing, the conflict rages on raining death and destruction all around.

According to figures released by the Informal Sector Education Centre more than 8,000 lives have been lost in the past eight years, with over 1,200 deaths since the collapse of the latest cease-fire.

Infrastructure worth over US $ 300 million has been destroyed, including basic facilities such as those catering to providing drinking water and telephone services, suspension bridges, school buildings and health posts. (36*) As per the Maoist Victim Rehabilitation Centre there were about 200,000 displaced persons, although that figure is thought by some to be as high as 400,000.

Kathmandu’s Spotlight newsmagazine has quoted the Country Assistance Strategy Progress Report prepared by the World Bank as estimating that during 2001 more than 3,500 lives were lost. It also disclosed that, as per the Child Workers Initiative Nepal, 146 children were directly affected by the conflict in 2001. Of them, 64 were killed, 49 injured and 15 kidnapped.

The cost of the Maoist insurgency, as per a report quoting expert sources, placed it in the range of Rs 55-84 billion. (One US $ is equivalent to roughly Rs 75 Nepali.). Therein, it is claimed: GDP loss during the last seven years may be in range of Rs 55-84 billion; some Rs 18 billion worth of physical structure destroyed; tourism sector lost Rs 6 billion in 2001 and 2002; and development budget in education, health, rural drinking water and local development registered negative in 2001/2002. Combined police and military expenditure for 1997/1998 was Rs 5.16 billion. It jumped 300 percent in 2002/2003 to Rs.15.09 billion. (37*)

Dr Shankar Sharma, Vice Chairman, National Planning Commission, was quoted as stating that “shrinking social sector spending in a country with one of the lowest social indicators would have serious implications for long-term growth and productivity of the economy.” (38*)

The Army’s strength is 69,000; efforts are reportedly underway currently to increase it by 8,000. (39*)

External Angle

Nepal’s grave internal security situation has impacted on her foreign relations, principally with India, the United States, the UK and China.

The Maoists’ alleged Indian nexus has been the most controversial though a portion of their original 40-point charter of demands opposed Indian hegemony.

Although India declared Maoists terrorists before Nepal did in November 2001, “it was common knowledge in Nepal that Baburam Bhattarai and other top leaders were being provided safe haven in India while Maoist cadres who were injured were being given sanctuary and, often, medical care.” (40*)

Indeed, Communist Party of Nepal, Unified Marxist Leninist (UML) general secretary, Madhav Kumar Nepal, has made a “secret” visit to Lucknow to meet Maoist leaders, including Prachanda, (41*) thereby underscoring their undeterred presence on Indian soil.

Yet India has, periodically, been extraditing Maoist cadres, offering military assistance and hardware to Nepal. Recently, Indian police seized 7 tonnes of suplhur at an Indian border village destined for the Maoists. (42*)

Indian Ambassador Shyam Saran admitted that cadres from Indian terrorist groups, the Maoist Co-ordination Committee and the People’s War Group, were coming from India “to training camps in western and mid-western Nepal.” (43*)

On a Nepal Television programme, Saran declared that the Maoist insurgency is a problem for India, too. He denied India was supporting the Maoists. (44*)

However, in an interview, Mohan Bikram Singh a militant Left leader, termed Maoists as an “Indian weapon” to destabilise Nepal. (45*)

American interest began to focus on Nepal and the Maoists only after 9/11, although the problem had been around since 1996. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited in January 2002, followed by a mission to Washington in May 2002 by Prime Minister Deuba when President Bush committed modest military assistance and increased development assistance to Nepal.

Stung by Maoists’ murder of two Nepali embassy security guards, the US has placed CPN (M) in the State Department’s “Other Terrorist Groups” listing (46*). Following the Maoists’ vow to target America, the US declared it a threat and ordered the freezing of all assets in the US and banned most transactions and dealings with the organisation.(47*)

US concern was thus graphically summed up by Ambassador Michael E. Malinowski: “We don’t want to see areas of Nepal become chaotic so as to create a vacuum for mischief makers to come in. You know, the nest of al-Qaeda was broken in Afghanistan, but the birds are still flying about. We don’t want that bunch to land in Nepal, for the region’s sake, for Nepal’s sake and for our own. ” (48*)

A Kathmandu-based diplomat explained: The ‘neo-cons’ in Washington see “the very real possibility in Nepal of a conjunction of their worst nightmares, communism and terrorism.” He, however, saw a “silver lining” in America’s current interest saying that a major positive change was registered in Nepal’s Army gradually replacing “Indian SLRs by American M-16s” adding: “Indians don’t like it, but they can’t do anything about it.” (49*)

While, by and large, the British government shares the American concern on the internal security situation and has provided valuable non-lethal military assistance, some analysts note tactical differences with Britain, and the Europeans, placing greater hope on a negotiated settlement. One, in fact, claims that “Maoists have not inflicted any physical harm on personnel, projects belonging to either India or Britain.” (50*)

Beijing’s policy has been clear and consistent. Declaring that the use of the term “Maoist” is an insult to China’s great leader Mao Zedong, China labels CPN (M) as an “anti-government outfit.”

There have not been any reports of contacts between Nepalese Maoists and Chinese officialdom. Neither has one ever heard of Maoists either being assisted in any way or being offered sanctuary or safe haven. However, reports have lately come in of clandestine arms smuggled in from Khasa on the border, for the Maoists. Four Maoists were arrested by Chinese police very recently in the first instance of its kind. (51*)

Significantly, Chinese Ambassador Sun Heping scoffed at a Maoist claim that the US wished to establish a military base in Nepal to target India and China. In his words: “We can’t comment on it before we get evidence.” (52*)

With the security situation extremely fluid, external forces’ interest and activities opaque, or dubious, it is impossible to say what’s next. The political gridlock gripping the nation since King Gyanendra’s intervention of October 4, 2002 has further complicated matters. Some argue it has hindered the search for a peaceful outlet to Nepal’s serious political-cum-security problems; others are equally convinced it will help.

Only the future will tell if Nepal will survive as an independent nation state.

(Published in South Asian Journal.)

M.R. Josse
M. R. Josse is a writer on Nepal and the author of Nepal: Politics of Statemate, Confusion and Uncertainty and Nepali Politics 2002-03: Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods.