Nepal: Dictated by Geography

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From the Winter Issue "Faceoff: China/India"

By Kunda Dixit 

KATHMANDU—“A yam between two stones” is how Nepal’s founding monarch, Prithvi Narayan Shah, described the Himalayan kingdom he forged out of dozens of feuding principalities in the 18th century. Even 250 years ago, it was evident to the country’s founder that his new nation had to contend with the geopolitical influences of its two powerful neighbors—China to the north and British India to the south.

Indeed, the British were immediately wary of the belligerent and expansionist new Himalayan kingdom. They invaded Nepal in 1814, and an ensuing two-year war ended in a stalemate. The 1816 Sugauli Treaty allowed Nepal to retain its independence in return for ceding more than half of its territory to British India. Great Britain then opened a legation in Kathmandu and began recruitment of Gurkha soldiers into its army. The warlike Nepalis also ventured north, crossing the Himalayan mountains to invade Tibet twice in the 19th century. But what the Nepali generals hadn’t bargained for was that the Chinese would come to the aid of the Tibetans. At the end of one campaign, Chinese and Tibetan forces chased fleeing Nepali troops almost back to Kathmandu itself.  

Nepal is South Asia’s oldest nation state and was never colonized, but its history has been dictated by its geography. Today, it is the world’s most densely populated mountain nation, its 30 million people sandwiched between China and India. The country is like a planet between two suns, pulled by competing gravitational tugs.  


The uneasy relationship between the two Asian giants has evolved. China is now India’s largest trading partner, overtaking the United States. Both countries have shelved their bilateral disputes to concentrate on investment-led growth, providing jobs for their huge populations. Some see the relations between China’s one-party command economy on an inevitable collision course with India’s Westminster-style democracy, but others say the two nuclear-armed countries have no option but to cooperate.  

Nepal finds itself, quite literally, in the middle of all this. In 2006, it emerged from a 10-year Maoist revolution that left 17,000 people dead. Since then it has been struggling to write a new constitution as former guerrillas fight elections, and the country grapples with the new political reality—that power today comes from the ballot instead of the bullet. The Chinese have always been embarrassed by the Nepali’s Maoist revolution, fought in the name of a leader they embalmed and placed in a mausoleum in Beijing nearly 40 years ago. This is why Chinese state media has never called Nepal’s revolutionaries “Maoists,” referring to them instead as “anti-government rebels.”  

India, dealing with its own virulent Maoist insurgency, gave Nepal’s revolutionaries shelter and safe passage—a strategy designed at once to co-opt them and also use them against a king they found too independent-minded. But even India was surprised by the victory of the Maoist party in 2008 elections for a Constituent Assembly. That assembly, in one of its first acts, voted to turn Nepal from a monarchy to a republic. A messy transition and political deadlock followed, leading to the dissolution of that assembly, and results from a new election not expected before the end of 2013. However, after being elected to power in 2008, Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal fell out with his erstwhile Indian handlers. New Delhi remains suspicious of Beijing’s behind-the-scenes moves to court India’s smaller neighbors, and is wary of Chinese inroads in trade and investment in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Nepal. In the past, both China and India have backed a less-than-democratic absolute monarchy in Nepal because it provided the stability both needed in a Himalayan buffer state. Neither of Nepal’s large neighbors are overtly for or against democracy. They simply want to ensure  that whatever political system prevails in Nepal neither provokes political volatility nor destabilizes the region. 

Much of this is a striking reflection on some of Nepal’s earlier history as an independent monarchy. After taking power in a bloody coup in 1850, General Jang Bahadur Rana wanted to go to war with Britain to wrest back territory lost after the Sugauli Treaty. But to gauge the military strength  of the British Empire, he sought and won an invitation to London from Queen Victoria. Jang thus became the first royalty from the subcontinent to break the Hindu taboo of crossing the “black waters.” However, his real intention was to spy on the cannon factories, naval yards, cavalry, and infantry divisions. Suitably impressed, though, Jang and his descendants turned into avid Anglophiles, so much so that they rushed troops to rescue Britain from the Sepoy Mutiny in India in 1857.  

When India gained independence in 1947, the Rana dynasty’s days were numbered. The Shah kings were reinstated, and Nepal had its first democratic elections in 1959, becoming a constitutional monarchy. But New Delhi needed a pliable and friendly leader in Nepal, someone who could be tempted with rewards. So, when King Mahendra dissolved parliament in 1960, imprisoning Prime Minister B. P. Koirala and reverting to absolute monopoly, New Delhi was not especially miffed.  

By 1962, the post-colonial and anti-imperialist solidarity between India’s  Jawaharlal Nehru and China’s Mao Zedong had broken down, and the two countries fought a brief but fierce war across their Himalayan frontier. Gurkha soldiers from Nepal, the same brigades the Indian Army inherited from the British, fought valiantly against the Chinese, and many thousands were killed. Mahendra took full advantage of the ensuing cold war between India and China, playing one deftly against the other, winning new highways, bridges, and hydropower plants for his nation. This balancing act was fraught with danger, and whenever it looked like the country was tilting toward China or India, Mahendra would replace his prime minister to restore the balance.  


India and China maintain the demarcation of their spheres of influence—China ceding the region south of the Himalayas to Indian oversight in return for New Delhi accepting the Chinese annexation of Tibet. Beijing is  happy to let India handle Nepal, as long as the Americans and Europeans don’t use Nepal to support Tibetan nationalists. This accommodation is at times strained when Tibetan activism peaks, as it did during the run up to the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and Kathmandu saw sustained and sometimes violent anti-Chinese protests. The Chinese persuaded the Nepal Army to maintain a sentry post at a point above Base Camp I on Mt. Everest to conduct security checks on climbers. An American mountaineer with a Free Tibet flag in his rucksack was promptly flown out and deported. Beijing recalled its ambassador and then sent a slew of delegations to Kathmandu to inform the Nepali government that there would be costs to failing to rein in the Tibetans.  

Despite their competition in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean, however, India and China are not rivals for influence in Nepal. Indeed, there are indications that New Delhi and Beijing consult each other quite regularly about their shared neighbor. There is a convergence of interests since neither country wants an unstable Nepal to upset their détente. After King Mahendra, successive rulers in Nepal have learned that it does  not pay to play India against China anymore. In fact, Beijing has often summoned Nepali Maoist leaders to China and lectured them on the need to sort out relations with India.  

Though Nepal and India are both democratic states with vibrant free media, Nepali politicians are often tempted to stoke populist anti-Indian feelings, especially during election time. There is a tendency to bend over backwards to be friendly to China, simply to counterbalance Nepal’s increasingly overwhelming economic and political dependence on India. Criticism of China and coverage of human rights issues in Tibet are either muted or non-existent in the Nepali media, whereas every incident on the border with India makes headlines. In September 2013, at a Nepal-India  soccer tournament in Kathmandu, 50,000 spectators chanted ultra-nationalist, anti-Indian slogans and rejoiced wildly when the match ended in a draw. Ironically, the same people would go home to watch Indian soap operas on cable or listen to Bollywood music on their FM radios.  

Indian high-handedness and crude attempts to pressure Nepal haven’t helped since there is historical memory of how India punished Nepal for buying anti-aircraft artillery from China with a crippling two-year blockade of the Indo-Nepal border in 1989. Nepal is amply aware that it is not only land-locked, but India-locked, and the blockade showed how easily a dis- pleased India could choke Nepal’s imports of oil, food, and most essential supplies. More recently, the Indian embassy displayed its displeasure over coverage in Nepal’s largest circulation newspapers, Kantipur and The Kathmandu Post, by openly pressuring Indian multinationals not to advertise in them. When that didn’t work, the delivery of their imported newsprint was stopped at the port of Kolkata. The punitive action eased only after the Indian ambassador was recalled after four months, and New Delhi came to terms with a new Maoist prime minister.  

After political parties failed to agree on an election for a new government in the past year, Indian intelligence has become closely involved in the formation of an administration led by Nepal’s Supreme Court Chief Justice. Agents from India’s secret service, known as the Research and Analysis Wing, are reported to have been involved in micromanaging Nepal’s politics, including the composition of the interim government and the appointment of an ex-bureaucrat as the powerful head of a corruption  watchdog. A few large scale Chinese-supported infrastructure projects, including airports and hydropower, are either stuck or have been cancelled, reportedly under Indian pressure. Even within India, there has been criticism in the media that various Indian agencies are working at  cross-purposes in Nepal. While the foreign ministries in New Delhi and Beijing have a working relationship, and there are long-standing fraternal links between Nepal’s political parties and the Chinese Communist Party and India’s Congress and BJP Parties, Nepal’s military intelligence agencies and those of its two neighbors remain wary of each other.  

Ultimately, the only real way to reduce Indian political interference in Ne- pal is for its politicians to set their house in order. Landlocked Nepal does not have petroleum and has no outlet to the sea, so the only interest its neighbors have is to ensure that chronic political instability and poor governance doesn’t turn it into a volatile failed state. Nepal’s future lies in hitching its wagons to Asia’s biggest economies for trade and investment. After all, the last thing China and India want is for Nepal to turn from a “yam between two stones” into dynamite between two boulders.  

India is the world's largest democracy, and political freedom is restricted in China. But China is growing faster and has succeeded in building 10 times more foreign investment than India. Nonethless, in 1990, Nepal’s first People Power movement turned an absolute monarchy into a constitutional monarchy, allowing multi-party rule after 30 years of dictatorship. In 2006, a second People Power uprising brought an end to the monarchy. Although the euphoria over democracy has waned, and there is disillusionment with elected leaders who have squandered hard- won freedoms through self-interest and greed, Nepalis value their free- dom and know from experience that dictatorships are far worse.  

We cherish freedom of expression and democracy because we  know it is the only path to economic development, social justice, and long-term peace, but must still find a way of surviving between two large, powerful, and quite disparate neighbors.  



Kunda Dixit is the editor and publisher of The Nepali Times in Kathmandu.


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