In the summer of 1960, a thousand People’s Liberation Army troops crossed into Nepal and advanced towards Bu Ba La. Ever since the Tibetan rebellion began the previous summer, Bu Ba La had become a base for insurgents who, aided by the CIA, were staging strikes against Chinese troops. Nepal’s King Mahendra had given China permission to strike deep inside his territory, even arranging for police to arrest the insurgents as they fled.
New Delhi reacted to the news with cold fury. In December 1960, the king sacked his pro-India prime minister, B P Koirala. The next year, he authorised the construction of roads from Lhasa to Kathmandu. “Once these roads are open,” China’s Mao Zedong told a Nepali delegation, “India may be a bit more respectful towards you.”
India responded by beginning to support the Nepal Congress Party’s fledgling armed struggle against the King — and backed down only after the defeat in the 1962 war.
As New Delhi contemplates its next steps in the wake of Monday’s dramatic Nepal police action to clear protesters blocking critical road lines to India, both sides ought be drawing lessons from that old crisis. The real problem here is India’s almost paranoiac urge to project power in Nepal, fearful that they will have consequences for border states like Bihar, and for its geostrategic balance of power with China.
The reality is that both the concerns, and the tactics used to enforce them, have long crossed their sell-by date.
Nepal’s police action is, in essence, a shrewd poker move: by raising its bet, it has forced India to either escalate, or leave the game. Ever since protests against Nepal’s new constitution began in the Terai region, New Delhi has been claiming the threat of violence is deterring truckers carrying fuel and supplies from crossing the border. Kathmandu, noting that India wasn’t using its influence to clear the road, claimed it was colluding in the blockade — an allegation that New Delhi has stoically denied.
Trucks from Kathmandu have, though, now made their way from Nepal into India — making it harder to explain why they aren’t moving in the opposite direction.
New Delhi’s gains from the crisis haven’t been great. It has won some friends among the Madhesi, Tharu and Janjati in the Terai, but in the process alienated much of the rest of Nepal, where anti-India feeling is at a record high — undoing what goodwill was won by generous aid given after the earthquake.
Worse, it has strengthened the hands of those in Nepal’s strategic community who favour a deeper relationship with Beijing — signalled by Kathmandu’s decision to import oil from China.
New Delhi has tried, time and again, to force its will on Kathmandu, and come away with precious little to show for it.
In 1960, India’s support to a domestic actor in Nepal gained no results: it was unable to compel Kathmandu to stop building the road from Lhasa. It reverted to form, focussing on aid and soft power. Following an earthquake in 1966, the IAF flew hundreds of sorties to help survivors, while the government and Red Cross pitched in with medical supplies and corrugated iron for reconstruction.
Then, in 1969, crisis loomed again. Even as it sought to renegotiate transit trade rights with India, Nepal insisted on the removal of Indian military observers along its border with China. The regime also pushed to back down a January 1965 agreement not to import weapons only from India, and make up any deficits from the UK and US.
India imposed a blockade — but though it got the treaty it wanted, it entrenched King Mahendra’s outreach to China. King Birendra, Mahendra’s successor, seized on India’s annexation of Sikkim in 1974 to leverage record levels of aid from Beijing — which for the first time near-equalled Indian assistance.
Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi again used a blockade in 1989, after Nepal decided to build a second highway to China, cutting through the Mustang region, and linking Pokhara with the Xinjiang-Lhasa road. Nepal’s decision to purchase munitions in 1989, along with the award of construction contracts on the Indian border to Chinese firms, finally broke New Delhi’s patience.
The blockade devastated Nepal — and brought down its monarchy. King Birendra’s hope that China would fill the breach failed, in the face of Beijing’s own post-Tiananmen internal problems. And the cost of transportation across Tibet was simply too high.
It is debatable, though, whether India won in the long term: public suspicion of India became deeply entrenched, and Nepal’s leaders, aware of Birendra’s fate, became more energetic in the pursuit of access to China.
For more than a century, Imperial Britain was Nepal’s sole security guarantor. “There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between the Honourable East India Company and the Rajah of Nepal,” reads the treaty signed between the two in 1815. India inherited this paradigm.
Change is now imminent. The growth of the economy in China’s Xinjiang, along with Beijing’s success in pushing rail lines into the region, make a deepening of Nepal’s eastern relationship inevitable.
It’s remarkable how much Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s purportedly radical neighbourhood policy draws on the failed paradigm of Rajiv Gandhi. Indian policy still consists of the unsubtle use of carrot and stick, with few creative ideas on how to address the fundamental geostrategic reality of our time — the rise of China.
New Delhi will be served best by understanding that its neighbour — one with whom it has profound civilisational and people-to-people ties but which is nonetheless a sovereign state — will ultimately chart its own destiny. Failing to accept this will take Prime Minister Modi’s neighbourhood-first foreign policy into the morass of resentments and bitterness that his predecessors manufactured.