Reinterpretation of historical events serves contemporary political objectives and this is what we witness in Nepal today. On April 21, 2006, the then-King Gyanendra of Nepal announced the restoration of the elected parliament he had prorogued earlier. He handed over executive power to a prime minister selected by the political parties themselves. This he did as a popular revolt, or jan andolan, against the autocratic monarchy swept across the Kathmandu Valley and beyond. India’s role was limited to persuading the king to return to the twin principles of constitutional monarchy and multi-party democracy — principles he had so brazenly flouted since succeeding to the throne in 2001, in particular, by assuming absolute power in a royalist coup in February 2005.
It is true that this belated gesture on his part proved too little, too late. As the jan andolan threatened to go out of control and turn violent, India had to make a choice — either align itself with popular aspirations and democratic forces, or be seen as propping up an unpopular monarch who had lost credibility in the eyes of his people.
India chose to side with the people of Nepal by declaring that it would respect whatever the people of Nepal chose as their political future. This was a correct decision and for the first time in recent history, India was seen as a benign and friendly power by all sections of the people of Nepal, except those who found themselves on the wrong side of history. There is an attempt by these rejected elements to revive their fading fortunes through their recent clamour that April 21, 2006 marked the point at which India began to lose the trust of Nepal’s people. On the contrary, this was when India enjoyed unprecedented confidence among the Nepalese.
An argument is being advanced that India opened the door to bringing the Maoists into the political mainstream and that this is the root cause of the current political instability in Nepal. In actual fact, in the wake of the royal coup of February 5, 2005, it is the mainstream political parties, as the Seven Party Alliance, which negotiated a 12 point agreement with the Maoists, on November 21, 2005, for establishing multi-party democracy.
The Maoists agreed to give up violence and transform themselves into a civilian political party. The Indian role was limited to facilitating the conclusion of the agreement. The responsibility for legitimising the role of the Maoists rests with the monarchy which threatened the survival of political parties and the Maoists by assuming absolute and dictatorial powers. India cannot be blamed on this count. Up until the February coup, the consistent Indian effort had been to bring about an understanding between the monarchy and the political parties, so that they could together overcome the Maoist threat. The king consistently frustrated such efforts because of his penchant for authoritarian rule.
Those who now consider the political mainstreaming of the Maoists a mistake also conveniently ignore the endemic and debilitating violence that the ordinary people of Nepal had been suffering for over a decade, caught in the crossfire between a violent insurgency and an equally violent military response. Thanks to the peace agreement, Nepal has, over the past decade, been generally free of violence and intimidation.
Has India really lost the trust of the people of Nepal? Which people of Nepal are we talking about? Surely not the 6 to 8 million Nepali citizens who live and earn a livelihood in India and sustain their families back home? Are they streaming back to Nepal because they have lost trust in India? They have lost trust in the self-entitled elite which rules Nepal and which is unable to meet their minimal needs, let alone their aspirations.
Or, has India lost the trust of several thousand Nepali ex-servicemen of the Indian army, spread across the length and breadth of Nepal, who retain their respect and affection for that army? Otherwise, why should several thousand Nepali youth gather at Indian army recruitment camps each year for a chance to serve in that army, if they did not trust India? And what about the long suppressed Madhesis and ethnic groups living in the Terai adjoining India? They see India as upholding an inclusive democracy, led by a prime minister who talks of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikas”. Have they lost trust in India? They will if India now abandons support to their struggle to achieve equal rights. What would that mean for the security of the open and sensitive India-Nepal border?
It is claimed that while India has lost Nepal’s trust, China has gained its confidence as a true friend. This crude waving of the China card is pathetic. The Chinese have encroached on and occupied a big chunk of Nepali territory in Mustang, but due to the “trust” China enjoys among these political elements, no protest is made. Nepali authorities routinely hand over hapless Tibetans escaping Chinese persecution to their tormentors across the border, in another display of “trust” which smacks instead of fear. The Chinese now meddle directly in Nepal’s domestic politics, using threats and blandishments, but this too must demonstrate trust of a special kind since no complaint is heard.
Since 1960, when the then-King Mahendra abolished multi-party democracy and concentrated political power in the monarchy, every ruling dispensation in Kathmandu has used two political cards to compel Indian acquiescence to its narrow interests. One is the China card; the other is the Hindu card. The crude message is that if India does not support the ruling dispensation, Nepal may turn to China and India must shoulder the blame. Two, since Nepal is the only other Hindu majority country, India must not do anything to weaken the religious affinities that bind them together.
A recent variant of this message is that these affinities are held together through the medium of the monarchy which also has religious attributes. Its absence has hurt Indian interests and hence, India must help restore the monarchy. These cards are now being waved with particular vigour in the expectation that the current Indian government will be especially susceptible to them.
India must never fall into this trap and confront a 1960-type situation all over again.