India renews military relations with Nepal

Posted in India | 17-May-05 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava

A Nepalese soldier on patrols in Kathmandu.

NEW DELHI: In a triumph of realism over respect for democracy, India has quietly agreed to renew military relations with Nepal. The reality that one is talking about is the security threat due to the Maoists having a free run in the face of a weakened Royal Nepalese Army (RNA), the possibility of a third player (Pakistan, China) entering the fray and importantly disquiet within the Indian Army that boasts of thousands of serving and retired Gorkhas, who originate from Nepal.

It may be recalled that India, Britain and USA had suspended military aid to Nepal after King Gyanendra seized power on February 1 this year, firing the democratically elected government, imposing emergency rule and vowing to tackle the Maoist uprising that has claimed 11,000 lives since 1996. According to estimates, India has provided arms worth $ 93 million to Nepal over the past three years which form the key resource in the battle against the communist rebels who have caused rampant bloodshed since 1996 that has cost more than 11,000 lives.

While the Maoist have to be dealt with, dangerous portends were also being seen in withholding arms to the RNA which could sow seeds of resentment against India among the ranks. Pakistan has already announced that it is ready to provide arms and counter-insurgency training to help Nepal tackle the Maoists. The last thing turn India wanted was an 80,000 strong Army trained and equipped by Pakistan in a country with which it shares a 990 mile border.

Thus, it was fitting that it was the defense-ministry on the advice of the Indian armed forces that pushed for removal of military sanctions against Nepal. There are over 40,000 Nepalese serving in the seven regiments of the Gorkha Rifles and over 1,20,000 Indian ex-servicemen who reside in Nepal and form a big constituency that wants action against the Maoist insurgents. Serving as well as retired Gorkha Rifles soldiers are regularly harassed by Maoists.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh emphasized the close-knit dynamism that binds India and Nepal together. Manmohan, upon his return from Moscow after attending the V-Day celebrations to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, said Nepal is a ``close neighbor’’ and India could not hold on to what was in the pipeline for ever. ``Whatever happens there are implications for India.’’ But India would hold Nepal to a ``roadmap’’ that was promised by the king in Jakarta. Manmohan had met with King Gyanendra in Jakarta on April 23 that resulted in emergency being lifted in the Himalayan Kingdom, though the clamp down on politicians and the media continues, amid popular protests.

Interestingly, the renewal of supplies announcement coincided with the visit of senior US official Christina Rocca to Nepal. Some reports suggest that the Indian move was prompted by US fears about the Maoist insurgency getting out of hand which could have resulted in the release of US ``non-lethal’’ supplies soon. After the Maoist insurgency intensified in Nepal last year, US government increased its aid packages to Nepal, with development assistance of over $ 35 million and military aid $ 17 million to Nepal. The Indian decision was discussed and approved by US and UK, partners in this coalition. Rocca was briefed during her talks with officials.

There was always pressure on India to re-think its strategy in Nepal. Observers also point to the collapsing Nepalese economy and the specter of thousands of unemployed Nepalese citizens illegally migrating to India creating a fresh set of humanitarian as well as law and order problems. The force of international sanctions as well as heightened activity of the Maoists is beginning to tell on Nepal. After King Gyanendra assumed executive powers on February 1, tourist arrivals, a critical revenue earner for the economy that peaked at 500,000 in 1999 are down by 50 % while air traffic from India has virtually dried up; revenue collection in February was only 25 % of the target of six billion Nepalese rupees; according to official estimates, Nepal lost 1 % of its estimated GDP of 400 billion Nepalese rupees during the 15-day Maoist blockade last month. To add to Nepal’s woes, the World Bank has since held back a $70-million budgetary support package to Nepal.

Indo-Nepal joint businesses have been badly hit with Indian companies reporting a big dip in sales. The Indian involvement in Nepal extends from beverages, advertising, cement, steel, liquor. Several consumer goods companies such as Asian Paints, Nepal Lever and Surya Nepal are reporting more than 50 % drop in sales. The new regime has also suspended telephone services by United Telecom Ltd, an Indo-Nepal joint venture company that is the only private player in the telecom sector.

Defending democracy was one side of the problem. The emerging picture of a King Gyanendra holding control over Kathmandu with the rest of Nepal in a state of lawlessness, a collapsed economy and rising unemployment is not a palatable situation either. With countries such as Pakistan more than willing to play ball, a broader view of the situation in Nepal had become quite imperative.

However, the ideal of democracy has to be persisted. A comment in The Times of India reads: ``Nepal is in India's backyard. Instability there has already had serious consequences for India. The Maoist rebels have developed links with Indian Naxalite groups. They often make incursions into border-states. India should agree to resume military or any other aid, only if democracy is restored. If the king shows no sign of relenting India should stop pleading and play a more proactive role in saving Nepal from the king's grip.’’

It will also be in India’s interest that a solution to the Maoist insurgency in Nepal emerges within the precincts of the Kingdom without any spill over into India. A democratically elected government is Nepal is the best cushion not only against an all-out assault against the Nepalese Maoist but also the best bet for any form of dialogue happening, with the King playing an indirect role at best. The dismissal of democracy in Nepal will fuel the Maoist cadres who will be easily convinced of the anti-people nature of King Gyanendra’s move and add fire to the already existing angst against the monarchy.

(Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist)