Two takes on the Nepal-India nexus
Nepal Nexus, the English translation and updated version of the 2013 bestseller Prayogshala by editor Sudheer Sharma, offers readers a vivid account of Nepal’s ten-year conflict, the 2006 people’s movement, the fragile transition that followed, to the Maoists’ subsequent rise to power. The English version was translated by Sanjaya Dhakal for Penguin India and released last year.
Sharma, who was and is once more the editor of Kantipur, begins with a personal account of his experience as a war reporter during the time of the state-Maoist conflict. Although he describes the book as an inside account of the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), the reader finds it more of an account of Prachanda’s rise to power, and only tangentially of the party he led.
Sharma has a soft corner for Prachanda, and does not conceal his sympathies for the erstwhile revolutionaries. ‘It is my view that the major credit for restructuring the state should go to the Maoists,’ may come across to many as giving too much credit to the CPN(M) for what was essentially a violent shortcut to power. To be fair, the journalist in Sharma tries to be objective and balance his views with those of others with explanations, experiences, and interviews. (See box, below)
The translation may not exactly be a page-turner, but has gripping revelations about the dynamics between the palace, Parliament, the (Royal) Nepal Army, Nepal Police and the Maoists between 1996 and 2006. The account of just how much India’s intelligence agency RAW was micro-managing Nepali politics through the conflict, during and after the 2001 royal palace massacre gives new insight into the cloak and dagger world of spooks.
One of the highlights of Sharma’s book is the treatment of Nepal’s relations with its neighbours, in particular India’s role in helping the Maoists join mainstream politics – apparently as a way to weaken a nationalist monarchy as well as to show India’s own Maoist revolutionaries that there was an electoral path to power.
Shyam Saran, who was Indian ambassador to Nepal (2002-2004) and went on to become foreign secretary (2004-2006), looks at the broader question of India’s place in the world in his book. There are sections in How India Sees the World that deal with the same historical period as Nepal Nexus, but from New Delhi’s perspective. Saran came as envoy after the royal massacre and witnessed Gyanendra’s four years of steady power consolidation. By 2005, the king was in open confrontation with New Delhi, and Saran writes that India's ‘twin pillar’ doctrine to support constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy became untenable, and Delhi turned to the seven party alliance with the Maoists (nicknamed ‘SPAM’).
Almost every Nepali is an expert on relations with India, and social media has profuse conspiracy theories about Big Brother. Many writers and diplomats have dissected Indo-Nepal relations during the turbulent period from 1990-2017. For his part, Sharma tries to provide evidence of India’s constant meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs – right from the 1950 Treaty to the 2015 blockade.
Sections of Saran’s book that deal with Nepal see things quite differently, of course, and that is to be expected. He has an opposite take on New Delhi’s behind-the-scenes dealings in Kathmandu. In the chapter ‘India and Nepal: A Relationship of Paradox’, Saran describes the souring of the relations between the neighbours after the promulgation of Nepal’s Constitution and the economic blockade that followed in 2015.
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Saran defends India’s handling of that tumultuous period, absolving South Block and the PMO of all blame for allowing bilateral relations, which Prime Minister Modi had normalised with his 2014 visit to Kathmandu, to disintegrate. The chapter may as well have been titled: ‘How the Indian State Wrecked Relations with Nepal’.
Saran describes how it was India that steered the Maoists into above-ground politics in 2006, introduced secularism into Nepal’s new constitution, and how it opposed that same constitution for the sake of the rights of Madhesis. Ironies of ironies: regime change in India meant the BJP is no longer a big fan of Nepal’s secular constitution.
Sudheer Sharma’s analysis of the Indian blockade calls a spade a spade: India was angry about not being consulted about the new Madhes province which did not include five contentious provinces: Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari in the east and Kanchanpur, Kailali in the western Tarai. ‘After it refused to entertain India’s counsel and coercion, many in Nepal thought India decided it was time to teach a lesson to its small neighbour … with the ultimate weapon of a border blockade,’ writes Sharma, providing examples of covert Indian involvement in supporting the Madhes agitation.
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Shyam Saran sees it differently: ‘Supplies from India to Nepal were blocked by the Madhesis in the border leading to hostile sentiments among Nepalis.’ Saran sticks with the story that India supported the rights of Madhesis in the writing of the 2015 Constitution. He writes, rather condescendingly, that India has always been generous towards Nepal and that, despite all the help, Nepalis always misunderstood its large neighbour.
Interestingly, Shyam Saran himself reviewed Sudheer Sharma’s Nepal Nexus in the India’s Business Standard newspaper. He wrote: ‘The book creates the impression that the Madhesi issue is somehow created by India and that it flows from the ethnic links of the people of the Nepal Tarai and those living across the border in UP and Bihar. However, there are several million Indian citizens of Nepali origin especially in Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Assam, and they are all from the hill districts of Nepal. Mr Sharma could have at least acknowledged some of these additional and significant dimensions of the relationship between the two countries.’
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Shyam Saran goes on to accuse Sharma of making an ‘illogical claim’ that India was afraid that the communist insurgency would spill over from the Nepal into the Gangetic plains and destabilise the entire region, and that this was why it felt Nepal’s Maoists needed to be mainstreamed.
Bilateral relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi are once more at a low point because of the border dispute over Kalapani, and perspectives that do not engage beyond the state’s official line will not help find common ground. Hopefully, both political leaders and the general public in India and Nepal and India will better understand the complex chemistry of their ties, and will find common ground. Alas, neither of these two books will help do that.
Sudheer Sharma on Nepal Nexus
Sudheer Sharma has returned once more to Kantipur as editor, and speaks about the English translation of his book, The Nepal Nexus. He spoke to Nepali Times this week about how it has been received in Nepal and India.
Nepali Times: What has been the reaction to the translation of your book?
Sudheer Sharma: I have always wanted English readers to be able to read and have documentation that would help them in research. I have been to various book shops in and around Kathmandu to sign my books, but it was in Pokhara, that I saw the overwhelming reaction of readers. At this week’s Kantipur Conclave there was much positive response. It has been selling well in Delhi’s Khan Market.
What is different in Nepal Nexus compared to Prayogshala?
Prayogshala was released in 2013 after the Constituent Assembly had just been dissolved. Since then there have been significant changes in Nepal’s politics. Nepal Nexus is not just a translated version of Prayogshala but is updated with four additional chapters that look at the promulgation of constitution in 2015, the Madhes movement, Indian blockade, the rise of KP Oli and Narendra Modi and the growing relationship with China.
How did the idea of Nepal Nexus come about?
Soon after the release of Prayogshala, Penguin India contacted me to release the book in English as well. It sounded interesting. Sanjaya Dhakal did the translation and with initial help from Thomas Bell.
While many have appreciated your book, some have not.
Whether official or unofficial, India never declared the 2015 border blockade. But I have documented the facts with research and investigation. Naturally, some people do not like what it reveals. Some readers think the book is based on the history of Maoists movement, but in reality, it’s about three entities that have shaped Nepal – the monarchy, Maoists and New Delhi. The monarchy is gone, and the Maoist party is dissolved, and we are still trying to mend our relationship with New Delhi.
Former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran criticised your book in a review.
He has not challenged me factually. We all have different interpretations and it is fair to have different opinions. As a matter of fact, I liked his review. The book is now public property, everyone is entitled to pass on their opinions. More discussion, the merrier.
Where is India-Nepal relations now?
Nepal and India need to have a relationship that is built on equality and respect. India has always tried to micromanage Nepal, and that was clear when they sent a special envoy to stop the Constitution in 2015. It was the border blockade that really damaged relations. Nepal and India should have a vibrant relationship, there are problems and we need to jointly find solutions to. There are more problems from India, but Nepal too has problems.
How can the two neighbours redefine their relationship?
There are many clauses and treaties that should be revised. Particularly the 1950 treaty and some other clauses that have kept Nepal in an unequal and unfair position. India needs to change its mindset and should not treat Nepal like its ‘little brother’. Nepal also has to change its behaviour. We are overly dependent on India, and this needs to be reduced. If treaties and agreements are revised, I am sure the relationship between these two neighbours will be stronger than before.
It is strange that the role of China did not find a mention in this interview with Sudheer Sharma. Everything said an done, China has figured as the new critical variable for redefining and mending Nepal's ties with India. Compared to the 2015 days, India is more amenable and respectful in its dealings with Nepal . For instance, the cross border petroleum pipeline that has been on the anvil for ages has since been realized, only because, following China's major inroad into Nepal, India found out that its traditionally sadistic attitude of browbeating Nepal into submission would work no longer. While India has been viscerally unprepared to deal with smaller nieghbours in equal terms, Nepal's own politicians of whichever stated ideological hue have been unprepared to put Nepal First in their dealings with their overlords in India. Much has happened since India pushed Nepal into China's embrace beginning 2015 blockade. The troublesome Madhesi front has quietened. Open interferences from New Delhi or its outpost at Lainchaur have become things of the past. The belligerents in New Delhi have learned their lesson: Today, the whole of India blames them for pushing Nepal into China's embrace. While Nepal must be enormously grateful to China, there is much more that the country should be doing towards helping the Nepali politicians to put Nepal First in their own ideological commitment s and dealing with the rest of the world.
Bihari Krishna Shrestha