Stuck in the middle: how Nepalis figure into the India-China Doklam standoff

The Foreign Ministry in Kathmandu has maintained a studied silence on the issue, but not a day passes without someone vilifying New Delhi. 

C.K. Lal

India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is likely to sail through the deliberations at the BIMSTEC foreign ministers’ meet scheduled for 10 and 11 August in Kathmandu. But she will notice that the heat of the India-China standoff over Doklam has reached Kathmandu.

India hasn’t made its official stand clear to Nepal and the Foreign Ministry in Kathmandu has maintained a studied silence on the issue, but not a day passes without someone vilifying New Delhi.

On 29 July, Nepal Workers’ and Peasants’ Party (NWPP) lawmaker Anuradha Thapa Magar took the Doklam standoff to the floor of the legislative parliament. In a calling attention motion, she asked that Indian forces withdraw from what she called “the Chinese territory” in the spirit of Panchsheel.

The NWPP is a fringe party confined largely to the ethnically homogeneous Bhaktapur town in the Kathmandu valley. Its supremo Narayan Man Bijukchhe, better known by his nom de plume Comrade Rohit—a great fan of the North Korean regime— has not lost an election since 1990. He commands his flock like a shepherd. His Chinese proclivities are also well known. Yet the composure with which NWPP lawmaker read out a prepared statement in the house was disturbing.

Along with the NWPP, a few other self-proclaimed nationalist communist parties such as the Mohan Baidya Maoists, the Janmorcha (People’s Front) of former Deputy Prime Minister Chitra Bahadur KC, and some other Marxist-Leninist radicals are always looking for an issue over which to lambast “expansionist” India. Their posturing doesn’t carry much political weight, but they have considerable nuisance value in that they can raise decibel levels in the public sphere.

The three biggies of Nepali politics that together constitute nearly three-fourths of the legislative parliament—the Nepali Congress, the Communist Party of Nepal (United Marxist-Leninist) and the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist Centre) have so far followed the government line and maintained a restrained silence. That is exactly what the Chinese want: the mainstream parties’ silence lends credence to the outcry of marginal politicos.

Chinese diplomacy runs on an empire model, where hints are offered, suggestions are floated, possibilities are shown and then loyalists are expected to carry out the intended agenda in their own ways. Indian diplomacy, however, follows a colonial system where high level envoys offer detailed instructions for implementation. At its worst, China sometimes risks being misunderstood. Even at its best, India leaves behind a lot of rancour and resentment in its wake. On the Doklam issue, the Chinese way seems to be working better.

In the short and succinct “Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the Government of India and the Government of Nepal” signed in Kathmandu on 31 July, 1950, parties to the pact are obligated 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”.

Doklam isn’t such an issue—but in the unlikely event of war breaking out, Nepal will be caught in the middle, just as it was during Indo-China border skirmishes of the early-1960s. With Nepalese nationals serving in the Indian defence forces, Nepal can’t afford neutrality. But the ruling regime in Kathmandu lacks the moral strength and diplomatic wherewithal to withstand Chinese pressures. Unable to ignore the meaningful suggestions of its northern neighbour, Nepal joined the imperial OBOR scheme with little to no prospects of benefiting from it. The predicaments of a country caught between the region’s biggest economic and military powers can indeed be debilitating.

The Nepalese territory beyond the Himalayas is inherently vulnerable to sudden Chinese incursions. Doklam’s outcome may adversely affect territorial disputes over Lipulek in western Nepal’s Kalapani tri-junction, where India and China have resolved their issues without Kathmandu’s consent. A possible flashpoint could also be around Jhinsang Peak on Nepal’s north-eastern front. During times of conflict, the risk of long-buried issues coming to the surface is always high.

The monarchists, Maoists and Marxists are one in defining Nepalese nationalism as essentially an anti-Indian concept. That’s the reason the annexation of Sikkim continues to be an emotive issue in Kathmandu, whereas China’s occupation of Tibet is seldom mentioned in public. When the Chinese Vice-Premier Wang Yang comes to Kathmandu on 14 August, ostensibly to discuss OBOR (but more likely on a propaganda mission), he will be pleasantly surprised that Nepalese nationalists are already at work serving Beijing’s interests.

Meanwhile, Indian strategists must grapple with the paradox of proximity: Nepal is next door, but diplomatically distant.

C.K. Lal is a Kathmandu-based columnist and commentator. Twitter: @CKlal_Archive

2 COMMENTS

  1. We need to win back the affection of ordinary Nepalis. Some of them are still holding 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, which we ought to have made arrangements to exchange.

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