India steps into Nepal's fray

Posted in India | 19-Apr-06 | Author: Siddharth Srivastava| Source: Asia Times

Siddharth Srivastava is WSN Editor India.
NEW DELHI - After keeping silent over the past three weeks of anti-royal protests in Nepal, India has asked King Gyanendra to start immediate dialogue with political parties to end the instability.

Washington's tough stand against Gyanendra seems to have prodded New Delhi to move likewise.

After a high-level meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, India's ambassador to Nepal met with the king in Kathmandu and conveyed to him India's concerns at the situation and the immediate need for holding dialogue with political parties.

India's toughening stand comes in the wake of the most damning attack so far by the United States, describing the monarchy headed by King Gyanendra as having failed to restore democracy in the Himalayan kingdom. The US censure follows intense and violent pro-democracy protests and a Maoist backlash that has prompted a harsh crackdown by security forces loyal to the king.

On Tuesday, protest leaders and political parties vowed to carry on with a massive rally on Thursday to mark the start of the third week of their pro-democracy unrest. The government has warned of further crackdowns.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said, "As a friend of Nepal, we must state that King Gyanendra's decision 14 months ago to impose direct palace rule in Nepal has failed in every regard."

King Gyanendra seized power in February last year, firing the democratically elected government, imposing emergency rule and vowing to tackle the Maoist uprising that has claimed more than 13,000 lives since 1996. India, Britain and the US suspended military aid to Nepal in protest against the coup. Many other countries withdrew aid commitments. India subsequently partially lifted the arms embargo, but only for "non-lethal supplies".

There is no doubt that the widespread protests - the worst and most sustained the country has seen - from every walk of life have weakened the position of the king considerably. In a somewhat unexpected move, the leftist parties in India, which tend to sympathize with the Maoists but are virulent in their anti-US stance, have welcomed US statements against the king.

India has to date held its hand, fearing that a strong stand against Gyanendra would drive him into the arms of Pakistan and China, two countries whose influence India wants to minimize in Nepal. Gyanendra has been making efforts to build bridges with both these countries since the suspension of military aid.

India's decision to lean on Gyanendra is cause for concern in the palace, as Delhi's arms have played a key part in the country's struggle. India has provided arms worth more than US$100 million over the past few years to the Royal Nepalese Army (RNA) that is fiercely loyal to Gyanendra. The RNA led the coup in Nepal, and is fighting the Maoists as well as taking on the pro-democracy protesters.

As India shares a long and porous border with Nepal, it is extremely sensitive about any other nation having a say in the country. Even the US likes to keep its interactions with Nepal routed through India.

In the past, Pakistan has said it is ready to provide arms and counter-insurgency training to help Nepal tackle the Maoists. Beijing has not helped matters by declaring that the royal takeover was Nepal's internal matter.

New Delhi has been closely following interactions between China and Nepal. State counselor Tang Jiaxuan, who visited Kathmandu last month, was the highest-ranking Chinese official to travel to Nepal since the king seized power, though to the chagrin of the royalists he met some opposition leaders. The chief of the RNA has visited Beijing and talked about intentions to purchase military equipment from China. Nepal's foreign minister, too, has visited China.

On the other hand, New Delhi also believes that a democratically elected government is the best bet to solve the problems with the Maoist rebels, who nurse a deep hatred against the monarchy. If the hands of King Gyanendra are strengthened, India expects the Maoists to link up with radical leftist groups in India. The latter are the biggest cause of law-and-order problems in the northern Indian states of Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, as well as the southern states of Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh.

Indian intelligence agencies have been chaperoning Maoist leaders and organizing meetings with Indian leftist-party leaders. India is trying to persuade the Maoists to join the pro-democracy alliance in Nepal, not crush them, as Kathmandu wants. Indeed, this has now happened, with the Maoists and the political parties forming a loose alliance.

The US has, however, been hostile to the recent understanding between the seven-party pro-democracy alliance and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist), which has been declared a terrorist outfit by a number of countries.

Observers also point to the collapsing Nepalese economy and the specter of thousands of unemployed illegally migrating to India, creating a new set of humanitarian as well as law-and-order problems. According to reports, more than 10,000 Nepalese have already moved into India illegally after the recent crackdown on protesters.

The emerging picture of King Gyanendra holding control over Kathmandu with the rest of Nepal in a state of lawlessness, a collapsed economy and rising unemployment, and the Nepalese Maoists spilling over into India is not something that Delhi wants - or, it seems, is prepared to tolerate.

Siddharth Srivastava is a New Delhi-based journalist