Beyond Borders

Open letter to Shyam Saran

Published On: May 11, 2017 12:15 AM NPT By: Biswas Baral  | @@biswasktm

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral has been associated with Republica national daily as a journalist since 2011. He oversees the op-ed pages of Republica and writes and reports on Nepal's foreign affairs. He is a regular contributor to The Wire (India).
India under Modi didn’t care so much about the rights of the Madhesis as it did about bringing the Kathmandu establishment to its knees
Sir, greetings from Kathmandu. Hope you are enjoying your retired life. It is wonderful that you have taken to writing to pass your time and to share your wealth of first-hand knowledge on India’s foreign policy. As former foreign secretary of India and an ex-ambassador to Nepal, your words carry a lot of weight here. Let me not keep you for long and get straight to the point. I wish to bring to your notice some aspects of an article you recently wrote for The Indian Express.  
“Reinterpretation of historical events serves contemporary political objectives and this is what we witness in Nepal today,” you start your May 5 article titled Nepal’s history, revisited.  You imply that certain sections in Nepal are trying to deliberately rewrite post-2006 history in order to portray India in bad light. But I am afraid you too engage in selective interpretation of events and misrepresent facts, perhaps unintentionally, to establish that India has in all this while acted in the best interest of Nepali people and that, as a result, there is a wellspring of pro-India sentiment in Nepal.  
On the then-King Gyanendra’s April 21, 2006 declaration through which he restored the elected parliament he had earlier prorogued, you write “India’s role was limited to persuading the king to return to the twin principles of constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy.” Alas, “this belated gesture on his part proved too little, too late”. 
As the jana andolan threatened to go out of control and turn violent, you further elaborate, India had to make a choice of either aligning itself with “popular aspirations and democratic forces, or be seen as propping up an unpopular monarch who had lost credibility in the eyes of his people”.
It was an easy decision and “India chose to side with the people of Nepal”. On April 21, 2006, King Gyanendra made another declaration, through which he not only restored the dissolved house but also accepted that sovereignty was vested solely on Nepali people, thereby signing the death warrant of monarchy. 
This, sir, is indeed true, and as India’s foreign secretary at the time you no doubt had a vital role in the developments in Kathmandu that April. 
You then in your article express visible pride at India’s part in the mainstreaming of Nepali Maoists. As a result of India’s support for pro-democracy forces and its help in bringing the Maoists into national mainstream, in 2006 “India enjoyed unprecedented confidence among the Nepalese”. You are again on the mark. 
But then you venture into speculations and untruths. You imply that India to this day continues to enjoy great trust of Nepali people: especially “6 to 8 million Nepali citizens who live and earn a livelihood in India”, “several thousand Nepali ex-servicemen of the Indian army”, “the long suppressed Madhesis and ethnic groups living in the Terai adjoining India”. If I am not mistaken, the implication here is that the Nepalis employed in India and the Madhesis should be eternally grateful to India, so much so they stay mum on all depredations of Indian government in Nepal, like the imposition of the near five-month-long, inhumane border blockade. 
Interestingly, goods from India had stopped coming (on September 20, 2015) before the Madhesi parties had even started their border-centric protests (on September 24). Four-and-a-half-months later (on February 3) India lifted the embargo—four days before the Madhesi parties called an end to their border protests (on February 8). 
In other words, India under Modi didn’t care so much about the rights of the Madhesis as it did about bringing the Kathmandu establishment to its knees for refusing to follow New Delhi’s diktats over the constitution. The fate of the blockade thus depended less on India’s principled stand on Madhesi issues and more on Modi’s geopolitical calculations. Sir, unlike what you imply, the blockade increased the already worrying distance between Kathmandu and Madhes and further destabilized border regions. 
Your assertion that India has always supported the struggle of the Madhesis “to achieve equal rights” and that India should continue to do so sounds hypocritical to common Madhesis. As Upendra Yadav, the most prominent Madhesi leader who emerged after the 2006 change puts it, had India really been invested in the Madhesi cause, it could have solved the Madhesi issue long ago. 
Sir, you also conveniently overlook that since the 2006 change, India was actively involved in engineering fissures in the main Madhesi parties and thereby diluting the Madhesi cause. The only goal of the game of musical chairs that India was playing in Singha Durbar seemed to be to secure India’s stranglehold in Nepal, and nothing more.  
You further write, “It is claimed that while India has lost Nepal’s trust, China has gained its confidence as a true friend. This crude waving of the China card is pathetic.” Sir, there is no such thing as ‘China card’ here in Nepal. Reference to a ‘card’ implies we only want to be close to China when our relation with India sours. It is true that the public pressure for better ties with China increased after the border blockade. But there has always been a cross-party understanding in Nepal that as a country precariously sandwiched between two rising global powers, it is in Nepal’s interest to try to maintain a semblance of balance between the often competing influence of India and China in Nepal. It is a matter of principle, not part of a game of playing off one neighbor against the other, which, in fact, would be suicidal for Nepal.  
Sir, there are also some inaccuracies in your article. ‘The Chinese have encroached on and occupied a big chunk of Nepali territory in Mustang, but due to the “trust” China enjoys among these political elements, no protest is made,’ you continue. When I asked Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, former director general of the Department of Survey and a border expert, if that was the case, Shrestha categorically denied any encroachment on China’s part. 
“Saran must be referring to China building a barb-wire fence on its side of the border at Korala of Upper Mustang. But since this fence is at the end of the no-man’s land, China is perfectly entitled to build it. There is no question of encroachment,” Shrestha said. In fact, it is India which continues to illegally occupy huge swathes of Nepali lands, most notably in Susta and Kalapani. 
You, sir, then try to establish Chinese meddling in Nepali politics: “The Chinese now meddle directly in Nepal’s domestic politics, using threats and blandishments, but this too must demonstrate trust of a special kind since no complaint is heard”. It is true that the Chinese have of late started showing more interest in Nepali politics, but the level of Chinese ‘meddling’ in Kathmandu is nothing compared to India’s brazen interference in our internal affairs, including in the forceful appointment of the head of CIAA, Nepal’s chief anti-corruption body. Predictably, the footloose Lokman Singh Karki endlessly hounded India’s critics in Nepal. 
While there are some inaccuracies in your article, you also offer some timely warning to the Indian establishment. You hint that some elements in Nepal are trying to convince New Delhi that “since Nepal is the only other Hindu majority country, India must not do anything to weaken the religious affinities that bind them together”. 
A recent troubling variant of this message, you note, “is that these affinities are held together through the medium of the monarchy which also has religious attributes. Its absence has hurt Indian interests and hence, India must help restore the monarchy”. 
Your recommendation, which I fully support, is that “India must never fall into this trap”. There is indeed little support for the restoration of monarchy in Nepal. Most of the support in the institution evaporated with the 2001 royal massacre and the subsequent authoritarian rule of King Gyanendra.

Yes, there is greater support for Hindu state, but changing the country’s secular character at this point will invite more problems than it will help solve. Why try to fix something that isn’t broken, right? 
Sir, the best way India can help Nepal right now is to trust Nepali actors to sort out their own issues.

If we need India’s help, we will ask for it. But if India continues to offer unsolicited help with every little thing we do here in Nepal, it will needlessly fan anti-India sentiments. Please advise caution to the Indian establishment. It is not in India’s interest to push Nepal any farther. 
Twitter: @biswasktm

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