Reflections on India’s Nepal policy

What should India do in response to the protests on the Indo—Nepal border?

by Pranay Kotasthane (@pranaykotas)

Creating a new Republic is, at any rate, a gargantuan task. Seldom do states come out unscathed from the process. The task is compounded further in a networked society where failure to reconcile conflicting political demands can quickly escalate into a political crisis.

This is exactly the situation that Nepal’s seventh constitution has led the state to. Failure to accommodate the interests of the people from southern Nepal has led to widespread protests in the Terai region. Because of these protests, the flow of essential supplies into the landlocked country from India has ebbed, leading the pahadis of Kathmandu to label these protests as India sponsored interference. The Indian government has denied any blockade of trade, but has publicly expressed that some sections of the new constitution do not have broad-based ownership and acceptance.

The political protests have shifted the focus back to India—Nepal relations. While many commentators have opined on the hits and misses of the new constitution itself, there’s no assessment of how the latest political upheaval in Kathmandu is going to impact India’s national interests.

Before addressing India’s concerns, a brief review of the geopolitical realities of India—Nepal relations will help understand the situation better. First, Nepal being a landlocked country is heavily dependent on India. Dependence on another nation-state for its own survival is suicidal in international relations. So, it is perfectly understandable that any dispensation in Nepal will seek to reduce this dependence on India by breaking the Himalayan barrier and securing alternate trade and travel routes through Tibet.

Second, some anti-India sentiments in the hill regions are likely to continue for the foreseeable future. This is because any move by India on behalf of the ethnically similar Madhesis is likely to be seen in Kathmandu as a proof of India’s hegemonic stance. Issues of identity are sensitive and can quickly cloud even good karma from the past such as India’s effort in Nepal’s reconstruction following the disastrous earthquake or the fact that as much as 6 million Nepalese prefer to stay and work in India.

With these two conditions as the starting point, what does India seek from Nepal going ahead? One, Nepal has long been used as a conduit by terrorists from Pakistan. Thus, India wants sufficient leverage in Kathmandu such that terrorists attempting to use Nepal can be eliminated.

Second, Nepal is also the route for many organised rackets including human trafficking, circulation of Fake Indian Currency Notes (FICN) and drug peddling. Again, India would want cooperation from Nepal to address these mutual concerns.

Third, India fears that China sponsored Maoists can cause disturbances in the eastern part of India, though this fear has subsided following the waning of the Maoist movements in both India and Nepal. And fourth, India wants to limit the impact of the unrest in Nepal on its own people in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

Given these policy objectives and the geopolitical backdrop, India should not be eager to throw its weight behind any side in the ongoing confrontation in Nepal. India’s call of advocating for a representative constitution, without any attempt to project its power in Nepal is a reasonable policy option. Such an approach will calm the Indian borders while also ensuring that India retains enough power in Nepal to prevent it from becoming an anti-India laboratory.

The key for India is to have friends from across party lines in Nepal so that when the dust from the protest settles, India would be in a position to resume its collaboration with the new Republic seamlessly.

Pranay Kotasthane is a Research Fellow at The Takshashila Institution. He is on twitter @pranaykotas

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