Book Reviews

Knowing Thy Neighbor…

The Raj Lives: India In Nepal By Sanjay Upadhya
Vitasta Publishing Pvt. Ltd., New Delhi 350 Pages; Hardbound Edition: 2008
ISBN: 81-89766-73-2 Price: Indian Rs. 645    

India’s Central Board of Secondary Education has incorporated Nepal’s political transition in the Class 8 curricula. Ostensibly, the aim is to teach students the value of a constitution during political change at the highest level. Latest events in the Himalayan nation, however, underscore the urgency of explaining to Indians in general why our country has remained such a politically explosive factor next door.

Kathmandu and other Nepalese cities were gripped by noisy protests after Parmananda Jha, the newly elected vice-president, took his oath of office in Hindi. The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist has explicitly criticized the move as unconstitutional. A Nepali lawyer has filed a case at the Supreme Court demanding that Jha’s oath be declared null and void. While other parties have been less scathing in their response, student groups allied to them have condemned Jha’s act as part of an expansionary (read Indian) conspiracy. Parties and politicians trying to defend Jha’s act find themselves on the defensive.

Anyone familiar with the Nepalese plains, which Jha’s Madhesi Janadhikar Forum represents, knows how Hindi binds peoples speaking local languages and dialects of the region. Over 1,600 kilometers of open and largely unregulated border with India has facilitated diverse links. Many hills-people settled in the south, too, tend to use Hindi interchangeably with Nepali. The controversy is merely the latest manifestation of the antipathy Indians have long incurred in Nepal.

Indians, however, deem it unnecessary to respond to each outburst. Some of us see silence as an act of altruism we can easily afford as the larger neighbor. Others find the triggers of the periodic flare-ups too outlandish to merit any response. Regardless of our motives, India’s silence has helped to entrench Nepali attitudes. The growing influence of external players in the affairs of the world’s newest republic – many of them overtly inimical to Indian interests – requires us to gain a better understanding of the Nepali psyche. A new book, “The Raj Lives: India in Nepal,” has come as a useful resource.

The author, Sanjay Upadhya, a Nepalese journalist, explains how India has been a central feature in Nepali affairs since British colonial times. Kings and courtiers actively sought support from the British rulers for their machinations and then struck an anti-British posture to burnish their nationalist credentials. The practice continues to this day.

In the first half of his 350-page book, Upadhya echoes the general thrust of contemporary Nepali scholarship, which more often than not runs counter to Indians’ understanding of events. Thus, Jawaharlal Nehru mediated a compromise between the Rana shogunate, the monarchy and political parties in 1950 only to perpetuate Indian primacy by pitting each against the others. Indians know very well how, between 1960 and 1990, the monarchy and the political parties saw India as siding with their rival.

Upadhya brings the post-1990 period in interesting light. Relying on published material, mostly media accounts in Nepal, India and the West, the author creates a larger-than-life visage of India towering over every Nepali nook and cranny. Admittedly, New Delhi lacked coherence in its approach to Nepal and other South Asian neighbors since the mid-1990s, partly resulting from our own transition from Congress party dominance to coalition governance. From Upadhya’s vantage point, Indian policy often emerges as a rudderless enterprise, with various agencies working at cross-purposes. Mostly, though, New Delhi comes out as a macabre agent of destabilization.

The Nepali political class’s own history of squabbling and ineptitude, resulting in the frequent shuffling of prime ministers, is attributed to some diabolic plot originating in the Indian Embassy. The Maoists, who launched a bloody decade-long insurgency on a charter top-heavy with anti-Indian demands, appear as India’s creation. The Kandahar hijacking, which marked one of the low points of modern Indian diplomacy, is presented as an Indian design to expose the weakness of the Nepali security system. (This based on one Nepali newspaper report suggesting that an Indian intelligence operative was among the passengers!)

Indian intelligence agencies allegedly masterminded the June 2001 palace massacre, which wiped out the entire line of King Birendra’s family, to check the monarchy’s growing proximity to China. Yet Gyanendra, the most anti-Indian of royals, happens to survive and ascend to the throne. New Delhi then somehow instigated Gyanendra to seize power in February 2005 only to instantly condemn him, in order to further destabilize the country.

Ordinarily, such bizarre parallel history need not be dignified with a response. The important fact here is that Upadhya has not created it; he has merely echoed what is considered serious inquiry in Nepal. India’s calm endurance of calumny erodes our initiative. During the 1990s, for example, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence actively strengthened its base in Nepal by infiltrating anti-Indian constituencies in all the major parties. India repeatedly sought Nepali cooperation in dismantling this network, but Kathmandu, even during the supposedly India-friendly Nepali Congress governments, dragged its feet. 

After the overthrow of the royal regime in 2006, China has stepped up its ties with the Maoists as well as the mainstream parties. Today the Chinese demand action against protesting Tibetan exiles and the Nepali coalition government is ready to brave widespread international condemnation to appease Beijing. 

India has high national-security stakes involved in Nepal. Apart from the Chinese angle, the precise nature of the Maoists’ ties with our own Naxalite insurgents and Northeastern militant groups remains unclear. The Gorkhaland agitation has opened up another vulnerable front. It is not difficult to foresee a multiplicity of other threats hostile Nepali public opinion amid the country’s general political fluidity would pose.

“The Raj Lives” lays bare the basic malady in the bilateral relationship. In the final chapter, Upadhya even attempts to scribble a prescription. New Delhi, however, must commence its own investigation.


More by :  Alok Bhatnagar

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