The Nepal crisis and four lessons for Bhutan – Part 1

There is now little doubt that Nepal is undergoing an effective trade blockade by a combination of protesting Madhesi groups in Nepal’s southern border and Indian custom officials at the border who have used the excuse of the protests to strengthen checks and slow down or even stop trucks moving into Nepal.

As a result Nepal has only around a few day’s supply of fuel left and the prices of essential commodities are rising, not very different from the 13 months blockade of Nepal from 1989 to 1990. The blockade apart from causing a lot of hardship to the Nepalese has considerably worsened India-Nepal ties.

The dispute started with the new Nepal Constitution, aspects of which was not found acceptable to large sections of the Nepalese population comprising of Indian origin Madhesis, hill tribes and low caste Janjatis and other smaller groups who make up more than 50 percent of the population. Of this the biggest and most active group are the Madhesis inhabiting Nepal’s Tarai or southern plains.

If a comparison of the Tarai was made to Bhutan it would be our Assam and Bengal duars that Bhutan originally conquered from neighboring Indian princely states and then lost to the formidable British empire after the duar wars.

Drawing from the brief outline above are several relevant observations and also lessons for Bhutan.

  1. Nepal’s own southern issue and its hypocrisy

From the 1990’s during and after the southern problem in Bhutan, Nepal vociferously criticized and even defamed Bhutan not only in the region but also on the international stage. An army of Nepalese politicians, aristocrats, bureaucrats, journalists and activists mainly from the elite and dominant upper caste Nepalese section went around the world battering Bhutan’s image.

Their intervention was over the fact that they shared the same ancestry and culture with the people in the south and so wanted to influence the course of events in southern Bhutan. One of their major criticisms was over Bhutan’s citizenship laws. The issue of a demographic invasion of Bhutan, illegal immigration, laws of the land and the fate of Sikkim fell on deaf ears in Kathmandu. It must be clarified here that the majority of southern Bhutanese are patriotic and progressive citizens and it was only a disgruntled few who created problems in the 90’s.

Now years later the same group of mainly upper caste people who form Nepal’s ruling class are accused of coming up with various provisions in the new Constitution in Nepal that alienates the Indian origin Madhesis and would make it more difficult for their children to become citizens if they married outside Nepal. This is seen as being a major problem for the Madhesis who have close ties to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and marry from there. Though being Nepalese citizens it also excludes many of them from several high offices. The Constitution framing process dominated mainly by the upper caste elite of Nepal also limits the political muscle of Madhesis which they anyhow have due to their large numbers.

In short this shows the high levels of hypocrisy of the elite Nepalese section in Kathmandu who pointed fingers at Bhutan in the 90’s but are now accused of worse by their own citizens

  1. The Indian involvement

The Indian government has got involved in the current Nepal crisis for three reasons.

The first was that it was involved in the early days of brokering peace in the civil war between the Maoists and mainstream parties (who themselves did not hesitate to turn to India for support and shelter in their own early struggles). In short India was invited to be an interested broker between various competing factions all of whom while maintaining a stringent nationalist line in public, competed with each other behind closed doors to curry favor from New Delhi. Frequent trips were made to Delhi by Nepalese politicians of all hues and various in principal assurances were given there. Indian PM Narendra Modi also made what at the time was a popular visit to Nepal and all looked well.

Secondly the Madhesis comprise of both what could be defined as indigenous groups who at some point of their history was under Indian princely states and also later migrant Indians mainly from UP and Bihar. Thus many had Indian origins and close cultural ties with India. More importantly instability and violence in these areas could affect and boil over into the neighboring UP and Bihar region and especially in Bihar which has important state elections coming up.

The third reason for the involvement was that given Nepal’s diplomatic blunder of unwisely using the China card one too many times over the decades, India was left feeling insecure. It then saw the Madhesi people as a golden opportunity to have a strong pro-India support base within Nepal and so hedge against Chinese influence in Nepal. But since it takes two to Tango the Indian government also had to cater to the political interests and aspirations of the Madhesi people.

  1. The failed China card

An often quoted theory by hardcore nationalists in Kathmandu is that if India acts too tough then Nepal can turn lock,stock and barrel to China turning the China card into a whole pack of cards. This was in spite of the fact that there were no public or institutional assurances given from China.

Both the 1989-90 blockade and the recent ongoing unofficial blockade by India has shown how fundamentally flawed and unrealistic this theory is.

By the admission of Nepal’s own leaders Nepal is currently down to a week’s supply of fuel in spite of stringent fuel rations. In the past few weeks Nepalese leaders at the senior most levels have been hoarsely and repeatedly begging China to send fuel and supplies but there has been no response. China has so far not even sent the requested airplane fuel and as a result Nepal is asking international airlines to bring their own fuel.

In a realistic assessment of where Nepal stand’s on China’s priority list, China has not even bothered to properly repair the two highways from China into Nepal that was damaged in the quake months ago.

Now given that China’s economy is around five times that of India’s and its military is also much bigger, the Nepalese nationalists always calculated (in their own heads) that China would swoop down from the high Tibetan plateau and rescue poor Nepal from big brother India.

Yes, India and China are rivals and China is trying to strengthen its presence in South Asia and nothing would please China more than weakening India. However, where Nepal’s leaders have miscalculated their China card is both in terms of Geography and Strategy or Geo-strategy.

In terms of Geography the Tibetan plateau is one of the biggest and harshest land masses on earth. China with great difficulty built highway roads and later a single railway line to the plateau. It would rather use this transportation system to maintain control and stability on the bigger and more important Ugyhur Xinjiang and the Tibetan Plateau, both of which are far away from the mainland, than effectively supply seasonally disgruntled Nepalese in far away Nepal.

When you look at strategy, Nepal is too small and weak and shares too many ties with India to be an effective counterfoil to India for the Chinese. The Chinese also know that deep down Nepal has its own existential fears about red China.

Instead China already has a big, powerful and an all season asset to counter India in South Asia in the form of Pakistan. A bulk of Pakistan’s military infrastructure from high tech missiles and planes to low tech military aid that targets India comes from China. China also gives huge aid and investment to Pakistan including working on a new silk route.

For China its small Himalayan moves with Nepal or any attempted move with Bhutan is not the main game with India. It is only to irritate India or throw it off balance and then move out when push comes to shove. China does not really need Nepal or Bhutan in its strategic calculations as it already has an overwhelming geo-strategic edge with its massive military capabilities along its borders with India all the way from Ladakh to Arunachal Pradesh as demonstrated in the 1962 war.

For India, on the other hand, after the 1962 war it realized its huge vulnerabilities on its eastern borders and has been sparing no expense and effort in strengthening its position including ensuring that it has stable and friendly buffer states in Nepal and Bhutan without too much Chinese influence. Coupled with this is India’s ultimate nightmare of a two front war with Pakistan in the West and China in the East. In short India needs Nepal and Bhutan more than China which already has bigger fish to fry with Pakistan.

In many ways the former elected government of Bhutan totally underestimated the depth of insecurity and even paranoia of India when it comes to China.

  1. Good leadership separates Bhutan and Nepal

While India was blockading Nepal in 1989-90 and was also cancelling all its planned hydro project investments, the much smarter Monarchy of Bhutan in the form of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo ensured increased aid for Bhutan and got hydro power investments in Bhutan originally intended for Nepal.

There is no doubt that there are genuine issues between India and Nepal but the Nepalese leadership had made a mess of things and a series of diplomatic blunders to make a bad situation worse.

The situation has reached such a level that popular politics in Nepal and even to a certain extent Nepalese identity is being defined with being anti-India. Even domestic issues are no longer seen as being domestic and there is a foreign hand seen at every corner. While there is no doubt that India for its own security interests takes a keen interest in Nepal there is also a lot to blame on the failure of Nepal and particularly the Nepalese elite who have not given a coherent, unified and wise leadership to its people.

The very worldly and wise trait of the Bhutanese Monarchy extends all the way from His Majesty the First King.

Remember John Claude White who wrote highly of the First King and helped strengthen ties between Bhutan and the then British Empire.

The same John Claude White according to British sources was an arrogant imperialist as a Political Officer in Sikkim who, to put independent Sikkim’s Royal Family in line, locked up the then Chogyal and his wife in their palace without food and water for a while. He then also initiated the British policy of settling in large numbers of Nepalese into vacant Sikkim land.

In contrast John Claude White shared a close friendship and had deep respect for the much tougher but also wiser First King of Bhutan as evinced in his own memoirs.

Bhutan’s Monarchy in that sense has been able to make the best out of a tough neighborhood and the tough leaders in it. The Bhutanese people over the decades have trusted the Monarchy to make the right moves in terms of foreign policy be it with the British or India and the Monarch’s have in turn exercised great wisdom and long term foresight in their dealings.

In contrast the scene in Nepal has been one of chaos where the leadership has consistently failed and as a result pushed its country and people to the brink on several occasions. As is evident the end result is a lack of stable institutions in Nepal and policies and issues seem to be decided by volatile groups on the streets.

In nature scientists have observed something called ‘swarm intelligence’ or ‘group intelligence’ whereby certain species that have such higher levels of collective intelligence do better be they certain birds, insects like ants or even Wildebeests. On the other hand some species even if they have high levels of individual intelligence like the Zebra cannot function well as a group together making them easier targets for predators and as a result are smaller in numbers and less successful then the less glamorous wildebeests.

The ordinary Bhutanese may not be your average Einstein but the Bhutanese society and as a nation under the wise leadership of the Monarchy has a high level of this instinctive ‘group intelligence’ and an understanding to work for long term benefits that has served Bhutan well.

Op-ed by Tezing Lamsang

Editor in Chief


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