Threads of time & ties

The eminently readable book, ‘Kathmandu Chronicles’ — by KV Rajan and Atul K Thakur — goes beyond facts to delve deep into the socio-political evolution of Nepal and disentangle the intricacies of Indo-Nepal relation through centuries

Threads of time & ties

The story of Nepal is closely intertwined with Kalimpong, the place of my first posting as an Assistant Magistrate, and Dehradun, where I have hung my boots after superannuating as the Director of the LBSNAA. It was only after the Anglo-Gurkha war of 1814 and the Treaty of Sugauli in 1815 that Nepal had to cede both Darjeeling and Dehradun. Both became prominent towns, first of the EIC and then of the Empire; and both were home to educational institutions, clubs, hotels, Anglo-Indian establishments, and military installations. Many Gurkha soldiers who served the British Indian armies also opted to settle in Darjeeling and Dehradun, thereby changing the demographic profile of the two districts; in Darjeeling, the Gurkhas now constitute a majority and have been asserting their ethnic and linguistic identity. Dehradun boasts of a Nepali language radio station, and Nepali is an optional subject in schools in Gurkha-dominated areas. The valour of the Gurkha troops in all of India’s wars has been immortalised in the narratives of Gen Ian Cardozo, whose book Cartoos Saab is about his tryst with the fearless Gurkha Platan.

Therefore, when I came across Kathmandu Chronicles, I took to the book like a fish to water, because I was thirsting to place my anecdotal recall, supplemented by the occasional writings in the media about Nepal, into perspective. Kathmandu was also my first foreign visit – a college trip in the late seventies – albeit one without the need to have a passport, and one was struck by the poster on every shop ‘Jap Desh Jap Naresh’, from the roadside tea shop to the Youth Hostel where we stayed. These posters emblazoned the airport at Kathmandu as well as the Soaltee Oberoi when I was in the Valley for my first official visit in the early 1990s. By the time of my third visit in 2005, King Gyanendra was still the monarch, but the Jap Desh Jap Naresh poster was not mandatory. At the airstrip of Simikot, the Nepal police and the Maoist cadres were fully armed, and both charged their levies from the travellers!

This eminently readable 256-page book is a joint venture of Ambassador KV Rajan and Nepali scholar Atul K Thakur, which goes beyond facts that can easily be accessed from Wikipedia and JSTOR to build a narrative. The three sections of the book — Diplomatic Gleanings, first-person account by Ambassador KV Rajan, and the next two under their joint authorship, Transitions of the Himalayan Kind and Repurposing India-Nepal Relations — help us understand the current status of the relationship between the only two overwhelmingly Hindu majority nations with common places of pilgrimage, scriptural texts, and the cover of the mighty Himalayas. It tells us about the close but often tense relationship between two asymmetrical neighbours. While India believes that on account of its deep-rooted historical, cultural, and spiritual connection with Nepal, it has an important stake in the political economy of Nepal, the latter feels that India often behaves like a Big Brother, and therefore tries to counterbalance this by making tactical alliances with China. It is interesting to note that even though Communist China and the Hindu monarchy were poles apart ideologically, they were happy to collaborate to corner India. In fact, in the late nineties, this Hindu kingdom allowed the ISI to operate from its territory – leading to the hijacking of the Indian Airlines aircraft IC-814 which saw terrorists being swapped for the daughter of the political bigwig Mufti Sayeed.

Getting back to the book – let's get to the subtitle which talks about reclaiming India-Nepal relations – for the past is past: but we can draw some important lessons. From the times of King Tribhuvan who was able to shed the hegemonic control of the Ranas in 1951 (who had effectively become hereditary prime ministers, thereby the de facto rulers), there is one lesson that we are still in the process of learning. Writes Rajan “An important lesson from the Tribhuvan years was that with a small and vulnerable neighbour, the style of diplomacy matters as much as the substance; that even when Nepal appears to be seeking India’s advice and support, it is not necessary to broadcast it so loudly that it echoes and re-echoes in the mountain kingdom”. In fact, the prime minister who understood this sensitivity of a small neighbour was Lal Bahadur Shastri, who visited the kingdom twice – first as Home Minister and then as the Prime Minister. His personal rapport with King Mahendra — the successor of King Tribhuvan — and the great improvement in the relationship in that brief period has unfortunately been missed out by the authors. In my view, the reason for Shastri’s success in India-Nepal relations was based on the foundation that the government must not play favourites – either with the Place or the fledgling leaders of the democratic movement, and that India must publicly acknowledge that Nepal was a sovereign country with freedom to decide about her political choices. However, this is what Nehru, Indira, and later Rajiv Gandhi were not willing to accept. In their view, India was the ‘big daddy’ of South Asia and had to be seen and acknowledged as such. Moreover “the inability or unwillingness of senior bureaucrats to suggest alternative, or more moderate options to their political bosses” did not augur well for the connect between the two countries.

The relations between the two countries touched the nadir when, in the 1973 NAM conference, King Birendra insisted on protocol privileges higher than Indira Gandhi — he was after all the head of a state whereas she was only the head of a government. He also used the forum to float the idea of Nepal being declared internationally as a zone of peace. When Sikkim was merged with India, the anti-India sentiment in Kathmandu was quite high, and the late King Tribhuvan’s informal discussions about a federation of India and Nepal with Nehru were deliberately misinterpreted as an attempt by India to take over Nepal. In fact, there is no document or record to support the claim that even as Patel wanted the integration to take place, Nehru was opposed to it.

By 1990, Nepali Congress had proposed the new Constitutional monarchy with Parliamentary democracy and the country’s identity as a Hindu kingdom and, in 1991, Girija Prasad Koirala won. However, India was not fully invested in Nepal, and Pranab Mookerjee lamented that it was the short-sightedness of ‘our bureaucrats’ which stood in the way. By the late nineties, relations had deteriorated. The patricide and fratricide at the Royal Palace on June 1, 2001, in which the crown prince shot down his father King Birendra, mother Aishwarya saw the king’s brother assume power. His political thoughts and ideologies were frozen in time. Unwilling to read the writings on the wall, he dismissed his democratically elected Prime Minister, dissolved the Assembly, and drove the country to civil war by seeking to deploy the RNA against the movement for the restoration of democracy. It was the Constituent Assembly that abolished the 240-year-old Shah monarchy on 28 May 2008. And it was no longer the world’s only Hindu kingdom: it was now a federal democratic republic.

However, as the authors point out, the weak institutional structures along with the make-ups, break-ups, and fissures in the political parties of Nepal saw 11 governments since it abolished the monarchy in 2008. Nepal’s electoral system is such that it is almost impossible for any party to secure a majority in the 275-strong House of Representatives to form a government on its own. Of the 275 members, 165 are elected under the direct election system, or first-past-the-post system, and the remaining 110 are elected under the proportional representation system. The lessons for India are not to curry favourites, but work with every stakeholder in the system. Perhaps this has to be borne in mind when the competing political parties lay their claims on Kalapani in the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand and Susta area in West Champaran of Bihar. How do we repurpose these relationships? The authors have identified water resources, including flood management and hydropower, trade — with special status to goods of Nepali origin into India — and tourism as the key growth drivers. In fact, Uttarakhand is currently in the process of ensuring air connectivity between Dehradun and Kathmandu to give a boost to religious and adventure tourism. The authors make a case for people-centred development with a focus on health, education, skills, and livelihoods, rather than capital-intensive projects in an ecologically fragile environment. Nepal’s economic downturn is now a Victor Hugo movement for reforms. Finally, they talk of bilateral, regional and subregional cooperation, especially through waterways, rail connections, and highways like the THEC Trans Himalayan Economic Corridor as well. The way ahead is to focus on the long-term interests, more people-to-people contacts, perhaps a few concessions on the Agniveer scheme, and an understanding on the part of India that investing in its immediate neighbourhood for its economic development and political stability is best for India's own strategic interest in the region. A stronger Nepal is good for Nepal. It is equally good for India.

In fine I would strongly recommend the book, for a review is only an opening, an invitation to delve deeper! Please welcome the Kathmandu chronicle to your bookshelf!

The writer, a former Director of LBS National Academy of Administration, is currently a historian, policy analyst and columnist, and serves as the Festival Director of Valley of Words — a festival of arts and literature

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