Rebalancing Foreign Relations
Ritu Raj Subedi
Sandwiched between two giant neighbours, Nepal has been treading a fine line when it comes to maintaining relations with them since its unification some two-and-a-halfcenturies ago. Nurturing independent and balanced relations with the neighbourshas been a big challenge to the successive executive heads of the country. Nepal’s first prime ministerBhimsenThapafaced the most hostile situation in the country’s life. He was forced to wage an all-out war against the mighty British empire. His call for Asian solidarity to flush out the invading British forces from the sub-continent was not heard and received well by the then divided rulers in the region. He singlehandedly waged a war against the Britishthat ended with the country losing a vast tract of land.
First Ranaprime ministerJangaBahadurRana refused to butt heads with the British, considering that Nepal could not roll over their superior military power. He opted to ingratiate himself with them to ‘protect’ national sovereignty. Nonetheless, he had not totally sucked up to the British Empire. He erected 252 'Jange Pillars' along Nepal-India border. He was the only prime minister of Nepal who showed the guts to send a protest letter to the East India Company when it encroached upon 160 bighas of land in Bankein 1860. So border expert Buddhi Narayan Shrestha says: “Many kings and prime ministers came and went since his demise but none of them has corresponded with India over the encroachment of thousands of hectares of land till date.”This historical reference is very relevant in the wake of a bizarre case in which Nepal lost 50 bighas of land in the same district when the authorities from Nepal and India installed pillars along the border recently. Nepali farmers have been tilling the land for decades with official documents that show they have been paying land taxes to the Land Revenue Office. The biggest irony is that neither the government nor the opposition has lodged a protest against this encroachment. The democratic and republican parties failed to demonstrate a modicum of guts as illustrated by autocratic JangaBahadur around one-and-a-half centuries ago.
First democratically elected prime minister BP Koirala and founder of despotic Panchayat system king Mahendra were more or less on the same page on the matters of foreign policies. During his brief stint in power, BP Koirala stood up to Indian prime ministerJawarlal Nehru’s paternalistic attitude with Nepal. He also presented himself with dignity while holding negotiations with Chairman Mao and China’s Number One diplomat Zhou Enlai, and did not compromise on national interest. King Mahendra also adopted shrewd foreign policies and skillfully implemented them to preserve the country’s independence and sovereignty at the height of Cold War as well as rivalry between India and China. He was accused of playing the Chinese card and promoting ‘MahendriyaRastrabad’, a term coined by Nehru to deride his domestic and foreign policies.No doubt, ‘MahendriyaRastrabad’ lacked democratic credentials but one can’t underestimate its role in protecting the national interest and sovereignty.
With the promulgation of new constitution in 2015, Nepal endured another trying moment on its foreign policy fronts. CPN-UML chair KP Sharma emerged as the most vocal figure in the defense of national sovereignty. He led the promulgation of the new constitution, defying the Indian diktats against it. This resulted in the stifling blockade against Nepal in the wake of devastating earthquake but the nation rode out the storm with pain and dignity. The country was forced to look to China for economic survival. The historic trade and transit treaty with China ended Nepal’s dependency on the southern neighbour. It provided Nepal with the much-needed access to the sea via Chinese territory, ensuring energy security and diversification of trade.
With the Left Alliance sweeping the three-tier elections held last year, it is in a position to reset the foreign policy agenda, building pressure on India to review the 1950 Nepal-India Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The Nepali members of Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India relations publicly said that Indian side was ready to revise the treaty by addressing Nepal's concerns. The two sides have extensively discussed the whole gamut of bilateral relations in their altogether six meetings and EPG members of both nations are expected to submit a common report to their respective governments to define Nepal-India relations in the spirit of changing dynamics witnessed at home and in the region.
It is learnt that Nepal had demanded to review Articles 2, 5, 6 and 7 of the treaty as they harm its interest in the fields of trade, economic development and movement of people of two nations. Article 2 of the Treaty states that ‘the two Governments hereby undertake to inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighbouring State likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two Governments.’On the face of it, the provision puts both countries on equal footing when it comes to national sovereignty. But this is guided by the military concept that violates the Treaty's title of ‘peace and friendship.’ India had fought wars with China and Pakistan but Nepal was not informed about the armed conflicts in advance. Given the dichotomy in soft and hard power between the two nations, the idea of ‘mutual security commitment’ has become passé.
Article 5 of the Treaty reads that ‘the Government of Nepal shall be free to import, from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunitions or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal. The procedure for giving effect to this arrangement shall be worked out by the two Governments acting in consultation.’ The Indian side has been interpreting that Nepal should consult it if the former imports weapons and military materials from other countries. India had imposed an economic embargo on Nepal in 1988, accusing Nepal of purchasing weapons from China.
Revise 1950 treaty
Article 7 reads, “The Governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on a reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.” The Letter of Exchange of the Treaty insists that Nepal give priority to Indian government or its citizens to harness the natural resources and open industrial estates here. India is far bigger than Nepal in terms of economy, population and geography so this provision clearly disfavoursthe latter. The new government of Left Alliance should convince the southern neighbour to revise or replace the treaty so as to rebalance relations with the neighbours based on the principles of Panchsheel, UN Charter and other international conventions.