Saturday, May 03, 2008

India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950: Prachanda's Views and Its Consequences

The Hindu recently published an interview with Prachanda, one of the top leaders of the Maoists in Nepal in which he conveyed his views on India. While much of it was the usual stuff about the need for good neighborly relations, his views on Nepal’s foreign policy vis-à-vis India and China, while not altogether surprising, have received far less attention than they deserve. Here is what he said:

Q: There has been some apprehension in India about the meaning of your statement that Nepal should be equidistant from India and China. What exactly did you mean?

A: In political terms, we will maintain equidistance because to have an alliance and go against anyone would violate the geopolitical conditions and needs of our country. This is what we mean by equidistance. But we need to look at the ground reality too: the historical, cultural and geographical relationship with India is very different from China and this has to be acknowledged and factored into how we define our relationship. So in this sense, there cannot be equidistance with India and China. There is no open border with China, so how can there be equidistance? But as far as the question of an “alliance” is concerned, of siding with one against the other, it is in that sense that there is equidistance.

He also repeated the long-standing demand to scrap the India-Nepal Friendship Treaty.

Q: Your party wants the 1950 treaty scrapped and there are many in India who agree this treaty is no longer relevant. But what sort of changes would you like to see in a bilateral treaty?

A: The 1950 treaty exists but based on the situation in the first decade of the 21st century, we feel it will be better for Nepal and India to have a new treaty. This is our clear and categorical belief. Our people have the feeling that somewhere along the line, the kind of benefit Nepal could get is not there, so the Nepali people’s aspiration has been to change this. Second, we would like to review all the other treaties to see what revisions or further enhancements are necessary. What we want is new unity on a new basis with India. Far from wanting to damage our relations, we want to make them even better. That is why we speak of new unity on a new basis. This basis has been established by all that has happened from the 12-point understanding till the elections, so the two sides should sit together and review the relationship with an open mind and see how we can move it forward.

In an editorial on the 1st, the paper endorsed his views on the treaty unreservedly.

New Delhi must also prepare itself for a formal request from the first government in republican Nepal that the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship be replaced by a more contemporary and even-handed agreement. The truth is that the treaty — some of the features of which were a legacy of British colonialism — was concluded between two unequal partners in a world that no longer exists. Among the provisions that offend national sensibilities are those giving New Delhi a say in Kathmandu’s purchase of military equipment from a third country and granting India ‘first preference’ for industrial and natural resource projects in Nepal. Such provisions are clearly inconsistent with the small Himalayan nation’s sovereignty and have, in any case, proved unimplementable. With respect to the advantages Nepal enjoys under the 1950 treaty, New Delhi will be wise to follow the ‘Gujral doctrine’ — which states as its first tenet that “with its neighbors like Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Sri Lanka, India does not ask for reciprocity, but gives and accommodates what it can in good faith and trust.”

The reason the treaty requires Nepal to grant first preference to India in Nepalese industrial and natural resource projects is that India was expected to provide assistance to Nepal in a variety of forms and this was a way to return payment in kind. India may well be willing to concede on this score provided it is compensated in other ways. That provision has not, as far as I know, been the most controversial. Economic aspects of the treaty, as K.V.Rajan conceded yesterday in his op-ed, are seen even by Nepalese leaders as being in their interest. It is the other one over Kathmandu’s right to purchase military equipment from a third country that has caused the greatest friction in the past. This was a major source of conflict between the two countries in 1988-89.

Nepal being wedged between India and China, India has long had major security interests in that state right from British times. The Nehru government, continuing the ‘Himalayan frontier policy’ of British India, intended to fortify its relations with that country thus ensuring that it remained firmly within India’s security orbit and zone of influence. Pursuant to this goal, it concluded the Friendship Treaty of 1950. Under the provisions of the said treaty as well as later arrangements, India was (and continues to be) expected to provide Nepal with the bulk of its military supplies which in turn had to consult New Delhi on security issues. The most prominent instance of trouble that has been recorded arose when King Birendra sought arms from the government of India twice during the early ‘80s and on both occasions, for reasons that are not clear (to me at least – I have not come across any article that explains the rationale behind India’s actions), India did not respond positively to these requests (it did not decline them either but chose to remain silent in public; the official Indian excuse was that this was due to bureaucratic lethargy but there may have been weightier reasons that were not voiced). In any case, the King finally decided to purchase them from China in 1988 which triggered a sharp response from the Rajiv Gandhi government that Nepal’s actions violated its agreements, a charge disputed by the latter (whether the text of the agreement was violated is debatable but New Delhi claimed that the spirit was breached, a more difficult charge to put one’s finger on). At the same time, some other disputes also came up with regard to transit rights for Indian goods through Nepal. Several of these agreements were allowed to lapse with trade, transit facilities (vital to landlocked Nepal) and Indian financial assistance to that nation sharply curtailed. While Nepal tried to compensate for its loss by seeking Chinese assistance, China’s own domestic problems at the time (this was around the time when the Tianmen Square massacre took place) as well as logistic difficulties limited the utility of this option. These ‘sanctions’ caused considerable hardship that led to a decline in the monarch’s popularity forcing him to restore democracy and appoint K.P.Bhattarai as the elected PM (it is said that the Indian government actively assisted the pro-democracy movement). Bhattarai quickly halted Chinese arms shipments, concluded negotiations with India and a joint statement was issued with Rajiv Gandhi indicating its resolution.

There have subsequently been other instances where the treaty has been questioned. Overall, it has been a source of considerable chagrin for Nepali politicians. The Nepali communist party (United Marxist Leninist) which rode to power in the mid-'90s demanding its dissolution quickly changed tack and lowered its demand to only seeking its amendment.

India and China have been engaged in competing for Nepalese minds and hearts for some time now. When India concluded the treaty in 1950, there was no transport link between Nepal and China, so Chinese involvement was not a serious concern at the time. However subsequently rail and road connections have been built with mainland China and Tibet. In addition, Chinese financial assistance for various projects has increased manifold over the years. Thus over time, China has emerged as a formidable player on the scene. During the periods when its relations with India were troubled (and there have been several instances of this through the years starting from the late ‘50s when the democratic dispensation was dismissed by the King), Nepal’s relations with China became stronger. A fundamental fault line in terms of foreign policy preferences thus emerged over the years between the two countries.

While India has naturally sought to keep Nepal within its firm embrace, Nepali political leaders began to perceive their own best interest to lie in political neutrality. The calculation, it appears, is that by remaining neutral, they can conveniently play off India against China so that each would compete with the other to become its principal benefactor. King Mahendra first announced this sometime in the late ‘60s. King Birendra followed it up with a call to make Nepal a ‘zone of peace’ in 1975, a proposal that offended New Delhi but was strongly supported by China. It did not however deter the King from seeking international support for it in the UN and was able to eventually garner the endorsements of 112 nations. In this background, the Chinese arms shipments came to be perceived as a direct threat by India.

Prachanda’s call for a policy of equidistance and a new treaty negotiated on a new basis with India ought to be seen in this light. If India chooses to accept, it will open up India to a much wider and more aggressive competition with our bigger and more powerful northern neighbor. K.V.Rajan, in yesterday’s edition, said:

It has taken the remarkable electoral success of the Maoists to bring the issue again to the forefront. Should India continue to evade the issue, despite the widespread sentiment in Nepal favoring a revision? The treaty is nearly six decades old; its relevance for India’s security in today’s context is limited and questionable. China is no longer the only security concern in the sub-region, and in any case it is doubtful if it needs to ally itself with Nepal in order to create problems for India. The Himalayas have been replaced by the open border as India’s main defence perimeter.

These claims are all dubious. As explained above, the treaty may be old but its relevance is no less today. While India may have important security concerns along the Pakistani border, its interests along the northern and north-eastern frontiers is by no means diminished - the border dispute with China continues to fester and the latter's growing economic prowess coupled with her recent claim over Arunachal Pradesh have possibly rendered her concerns only more acute. The idea that Chinese penetration of Nepal ought not to be of much concern because China does not need that country to create problems for India is laughable. Political and military strategists look at advantage, not bare necessity - China does not need Burma either but it has nevertheless established military bases in that country and is said to be actively monitoring Indian Naval activities from there. The U.S. sought transit facilities from Turkey to launch its invasion into Iraq again not because it was required – they achieved their objectives without it anyway – but because it would shorten the campaign and would have potentially made it easier. The same is equally true in case of Chinese interest in Nepal – it would be the height of folly for India to plan its own strategy based on whether China needs Nepali support to confront India.

In conclusion, Prachanda’s stated goals are something to be wary about. It is one thing to echo what other Nepalese leaders have said before but quite another to actually renegotiate the terms of an agreement without compromising vital Indian security interests. The Hindu’s unconditional embrace of his demands is, at the very least, imprudent. One is also left to wonder whether the Hindu, in exhorting the Center to be accommodative on this score, is merely being sympathetic to a long-standing Nepali demand or is seeking to advance Chinese interests at India’s cost.

PS: B.Raman’s piece in the current online issue of Outlook cautions the Indian government not to fall for Prachanda’s charm and to deal with the Maoists cautiously. He also points out potential dangers from integrating the Maoist insurgents with the Nepalese army. A must read for those interested in geopolitical affairs.


Anonymous said...

Equidistance as a first step, eventually leading to the privileged status of "autonomous region" is perhas what the Chinese are wishing for.

Pilid said...

Anon, equidistance followed by its inclusion within the Chinese 'sphere of influence' is probably more like it.

Dirt Digger said...

The problem for India over the decades has not been external threats. The larger problem is the various special interests do not have any patriotism and would sell anything including their own mother to meet their needs.
The interview with Prachanda is clear and exposes exactly what he wants is to be able to show a sign of exterior friendship but in the interior sell out Nepal to the communists. The lack of vision amongst the foreign policy experts and any cogent planning by the political parties ensures that Nepal is fallen, the same way Sri Lanka and Bangladesh have in recent times.

pilid said...

Communist parties have historically been a fifth column in every country. Before the Soviet Union collapsed, communist parties faithfully echoed the Soviet line in their home states all across Europe, Middle East and Africa.

The CPM in India is playing the same game except that it seems to want India to play second fiddle to China while having friendly relations with Russia - in other words, a new communist bloc led by China. Now in the coalition era, even a small contingent of 60 MPs is sufficient to act as a force multiplier.

The CPM accuses the dominant national parties of similarly trying to tie India up with the US. The foot dragging alleged to have been going in case of the Iran pipeline project is being alleged to be at the behest of the US. The shunting out of Mani Shankar Iyer from the Petroleum ministry is also said to have been at US insistence. No one really knows how true these allegations are. So is this a case of proxy war between the US and China being waged in the corridors of power in New Delhi?

Also read the article by Manoj Dahal in Outlook on the implications of Maoist rule in Nepal.

Laxman said...

नेपाल र भारत बिचको त्यो समयमा बनाइएको सन्धिलाई सुधार र नबिकरणले दुईमुलक विचका जनतालई मात्र नभई सम्पुर्ण देशलाई समय अनुरुप परिमार्जन गरे फाईदा धेरै नेपाल जस्तो एक भु-परिवेष्टित राष्टलाई त हुने नै छ र भारत-नेपालको सुमधुर सम्बन्धले अन्तराष्टिय जगतमा ठुलो रुपरेखा परिवर्तन ल्याउछ भन्ने मेरो बिचार छ।
धन्यवाद !
लक्ष्मण (नेपाल)

Laxman said...

नेपाल र भारत बिचको त्यो समयमा बनाइएको सन्धिलाई सुधार र नबिकरणले दुईमुलक विचका जनतालई मात्र नभई सम्पुर्ण देशलाई समय अनुरुप परिमार्जन गरे फाईदा धेरै नेपाल जस्तो एक भु-परिवेष्टित राष्टलाई त हुने नै छ र भारत-नेपालको सुमधुर सम्बन्धले अन्तराष्टिय जगतमा ठुलो रुपरेखा परिवर्तन ल्याउछ भन्ने मेरो बिचार छ।
धन्यवाद !
लक्ष्मण (नेपाल)

Prithvi said...

I find it absolutely erroneous to claim that with some Chinese presence in Nepal they would suddenly gain some strategic advantage ala the Kurdish front against Saddam. If like me you have visited the Nepal India border areas. They arent exactly the best connected regions. Not the mention the terrain would make any significant land assault logistically untenable. Even on the Indian side of the Indo-Nepal border the Himalayan mountain ranges are quite formidable and not well connected. It would be in India's strategic favor if the Chinese do intend to move forward militarily into those regions.

As for Nepal playing India off China and vice versa, that kind of cloak and dagger game would work for a while but would end up always in detriment to the people of Nepal as it has with to the people of Myanmar as each side forsakes any principles of humanity and takes the game to the next ruthless level. I hope the Nepalese are prepared for that if they choose so.