India’s relations with its northern neighbor, Nepal, are once again in the limelight with reports of diplomatic tensions and the recent memoir by former King Birendra’s military secretary.
Indian strategists and policy makers consider Nepal as critical to India’s security. The British Indian Empire saw Nepal as the buffer with China and after 1947 India continued with that policy. Any signs of close ties between Nepal and China are anathema to New Delhi.
While Nepal and India have close historical, religious and cultural ties, Nepal’s strategic ties with India date to the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 signed between the Nepalese monarch and the British East India Company. As per the treaty, large parts of the Nepalese kingdom (including parts of present day Uttaranchal, Himachal Pradesh and Sikkim) were annexed by the British empire, a British resident was stationed at Kathmandu, Nepal agreed to defer to the British with respect to its foreign policy and Gorkhas were recruited in large numbers by the British for military service. Nepal regained some of the lost territory when the monarch helped the British during the 1857 uprising. However, even today Nepal lays claim to certain parts of Indian territory, like Kalapani, along the India-Nepal border.
Modern day India and Nepal signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1950 which in addition to respecting each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity granted rights to Nepalese and Indian citizens to reside and work (and even obtain citizenship) in India and Nepal respectively. Further, India granted Nepal the right to transit trade across its territory and to the use of Indian ports for importing and exporting commodities free of customs duties. Furthermore, Gorkhas still form a key part of the Indian army.
Over the decades New Delhi has consistently sought to influence Nepalese politics, sometimes directly, often indirectly. India was instrumental in helping the Nepalese monarch regain his traditional power and reduce the powers of the powerful hereditary prime ministers, the Ranas.
While supporting the Nepalese monarchy, India also gave refuge to the Nepali Congress party for decades and helped the democratic movement. This often led to tension and friction between Kathmandu and New Delhi. In 2005 New Delhi helped broker the 12-point understanding between the Maoists and Nepal’s other political parties enabling the rebels to emerge from the underground. India also played a key role in convincing King Gyanendra to step down.
While supportive of democracy in Nepal, New Delhi is apprehensive of the growing power of the Maoists. Not only does India fear that Maoists in India would benefit if their Nepalese counterparts came to power but India is also concerned that Chinese influence will grow in Nepal.
Indian leaders and strategists treat Nepal as falling under India’s sphere of influence—India’s backyard—and are suspicious of any warming of ties between China and Nepal. Nepal is India’s sole buffer with China, especially after Tibet was absorbed by China during the 1950s. The growing Chinese economic investment in Nepal, China’s rising military aid to Nepal and the political power of the Nepalese Maoist party are giving nightmares to New Delhi.
While India and Nepal share close ties, as seen from the high peaks of the Himalayas the Nepalese leaders have always feared absorption by India, not just of a physical nature but also economic and cultural. The fear of physical absorption increased after India’s role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and Indian absorption of Sikkim in 1974.
In the economic arena Nepalese resent the large Indian business diaspora and friction over transit trade has never been amicably resolved. While India and Nepal share rivers, they have not been able to come up with a solution whereby India could fund hydro-electric projects in Nepal and benefit from the large energy production. Over the decades many Hindi-speaking ethnically Indian migrants settled in the deltaic Terai region of Nepal. Nepal has been reluctant to offer these madhesis citizenship which has only aggravated existing tensions with India.
In addition to these issues there are also various sins of omission and commission which have hurt Indo-Nepal ties. India’s relations with its neighbors in South Asia—all of whom are smaller in size than India—have never been amicable and tension-free. India has often acted as the big brother and not taken adequate notice of how its behavior is perceived in these countries.
Indian ambassadors and diplomats have often thrown their weight around and interfered in domestic politics which has only hurt India’s case in the long run. Rumors in Nepalese media about Indian diplomats trying to influence voting in the Nepalese parliament have not helped. Neither did the passport printing fiasco help where the Indian embassy was supposedly involved in lobbying for the particular contract.
Nepal has often tried to play a balancing act between India and China, with some degree of success. For China ties with Nepal are also important with respect to Tibet: China has often pressured the Nepalese government to take action against Tibetan activists.
However, just as India needs Nepal for its strategic interests so does Nepal need India for its political and economic interests. Friendly and peaceful relations with Nepal are in India’s interest and the Indian government can offer no-strings attached investment aid to Nepal, send diplomats who have knowledge of Nepalese affairs and are more attune to media management and perception management and offer more scholarships to Nepalese academics and media personalities to build deeper ties.