Talk by Retired Indian Army General Ashok Mehta
On Repairing Nepal-India Relations
July 18, 2016
[Abstract of the address: Retired Major General Ashok Mehta observed in his address that many changes took place in and around our region and added that the relations between India and Nepal should be based on equal footings. He also said that India on its part should not try to micromanage the Nepalese affairs. He added that both sides should be cognizant of this fact.]
It is a great honor for me to be here in front of people who conduct the foreign policy of Nepal. I am a good friend of Nepal and I have spent a lot of time here. My association with the Gurkha regiment is still strong. I came here first during the time of King Mahendra’s reign in 1959 and at that time relations between India and Nepal was very bad. I was a young second lieutenant when I first came here to Nepal. I have literally walked from Mechi [Eastern border of Nepal] to Mahakali [Western
border of Nepal].
In those days, Kathmandu was Nepal. Life was Kathmandu-centric. Now, that deficiency has been repaired to some extent by the federal system. All the relations that India has with Nepal are is the most vital. They are also the most unique relation. Nowhere in the world do you have an open border and 7-10 million Nepalis are inside India at any one time. Nepalese enjoy in India all the benefits that Indian citizens enjoy. Nepalis can even become Army Chief of Staff in India. The only post that Nepalese cannot achieve is the Foreign Secretary.
When you have such a close relationship, there are bound to be some irritants. In this region, only Nepal, Bhutan and Thailand are the countries that have never been colonized and so Nepalese have a good reason to feel proud. Nepalese should be proud of your strategic autonomy. Prithvi Narayan Shah had described Nepal as a yam between two rocks. Now that analogy is no longer relevant. India and China are two giants, fast-growing economies. You are in a position to take advantage of this. However, you have also used your geostrategic space to your advantage.
You have used China against India. That is understandable. I want to stress the point about the location of Nepal. General Sinha told me that King Birendra once asked him why India doesn’t consider Nepal to be an important country in the 1990s after the restoration of multiparty democracy. A lot of people, like General Sinha, have failed to see the geostrategic importance of Nepal. I think that for India, Nepal has the highest geostrategic value. Prime Minister Modi wanted to visit Nepal first; however he went to Bhutan. Nepal guards its sovereign space because it doesn’t’ want to be seen like Bhutan. I think there is no comparison between Nepal and Bhutan. India’s relations with Nepal are different from its relations with Bhutan.
The third point: India has been involved in all the major changes that have taken place in Nepal-- right from 1950. India played a very important part in recalibrating the relation between the Ranas, the Monarchy and the Nepali Congress. In 1990, India played a big role for the restoration of democracy in Nepal. In 2005, India brokered the deal that led to the bringing of the Seven Party Alliance and the Maoists together and the signing of the Delhi Declaration and the 12- Point Agreement. India’s objective from 2006 onwards has always been (or was) the mainstreaming of the Maoists and the democratization of Nepalese polity. India-Nepal relations were based on a two-pillar policy -- constitutional monarchy and multiparty democracy. There is a new political scene following the Maoist revolution and that has not been recognized in its entirety by the people of India. What has happened is that you have new political actors -- who themselves are divided.
The exercise of mainstreaming the Maoists has not been done yet. There are also Madhesis and marginalized groups whose grievances have not been addressed in their entirety. We in India have a new government. This is a substantially different government from past governments. For the first time in 30 years, this government has had a majority on its own. Compare that to the situation in Nepal. One of the reasons that there is political instability in Nepal is because no single party has a majority in Parliament comparable to the situation in India.
Significant change has occurred in Nepal; however, many Nepalese have not recognized this because you are too close to the change. The way that Indian diplomats handled the perceived deficiencies in the Constitution and the way that they tried to get it rectified was anything but diplomatic. One of India’s greatest concerns emanating from the open border is security. I look at the open border of Nepal and wonder what might be coming from China.
I look at China as both a threat and opportunity for India. In 1975, I was the group leader of a group called ‘Operation Tribhuvan’ and in that year we predicted the Maoist insurgency and the fall of the monarchy. We also predicted that in the event there was conflict again between India and China as China could come into the Indo- Gangetic plain using Nepalese territory. The other threats we talk about are terrorism and fake currency can be connected to the open border. The short point I want to make is that India’s security concerns are very important in viewing this relationship. You can argue by saying that China is not a threat but an opportunity.
If there is any internal disorder or law and order problem in Madhes , a region contiguous with India, the problems can spill over into India. The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office of 1903 said that if there is any disorder inside Nepal the spillover will trickle into India. It will furthermore have negative effect on the strategic Indo-Gangetic plain. During the Maoist Movement years, hundreds of thousands of people had been displaced and they came into India.
The army to army relations are a very big constituency. After the 7th Pay Commission, the salary of the soldier will be equivalent to that a middle-ranking officer of the Nepal Army. The 7th Pay Commission and the One Rank One Pension have done great things for the Indian Army, and by extension, the Nepalese who serve in the Indian Army. People in India think that Nepalese who work in the Indian Army are Indian Nepalese. For the first time, we have raised a Gorkha Battalion constituting of only Nepalese from India.
Your leaders say why should Nepalese join the Indian Army? Well, in India many Indian born Nepalese are looking for jobs. In the future, Nepalese may decide not to join the Indian Army. But for the time being, army to army relations between Nepal and India are very strong. Nepali concerns The relation between India and Nepal should be more equal. India should not micromanage Nepal. This is something that has to be understood by both sides and India should be cognizant of the fact that this is an irritant for Nepal.
Revision of Treaties
India unilaterally revised the Treaty with Bhutan. If Nepal wants these treaties to be reviewed, if not revised, then it must be done. Pashupati JBR once said, concerning the 1950 Treaty, “let sleeping dogs lie”. The revision of treaties is something that must be addressed cautiously. Rishikesh Shaha once gave me a map of Nepal and told me that in 1921 the Tri-Junction Kalapani area was given by Chandra Shumsher JBR to the British. There was a joint working group that was set up to resolve the dispute during I.K Gujarat's time.
Question: How do we restore the friendly relationship between Nepal and India?
Answer: Prime Minister Oli said there are some misunderstandings between India and Nepal without talking about the blockade. Mr. Oli said that the misunderstandings have been removed. However, I do not think that is the case. The blockade was a very serious mistake. Whoever was actually responsible for the blockade, the people of Nepal think that India did it. Both the governments have to go about to rectify the perception in the minds of Nepalis.
Question: Does India want Nepal to be a Hindu country or to return to monarchy?
Answer: It is up to the people of Nepal. In their constitution, Nepal has chosen to be a democratic, federal, secular republic. Now, if Nepal holds a referendum to become a Hindu republic or a monarchy, India would not be unhappy with that. Don’t forget what work the Indian Army did during the earthquake. It is a positive thing. India made mistakes in the way it handled the constitution and the economic blockade; these have to be rectified.
India must assist the way forward, after we have removed these misunderstandings. India must assist Nepal in its economic development. The potential of Nepal has not been tapped because political stability has eluded this country. Unfortunately, the features of the new constitution also do not auger well for political stability.
I will end by saying that India remains Nepal’s best friend. We have made problems on both sides and that have to be rectified. India must assist in the economic development of Nepal, particularly in the fields of hydropower, tourism and natural resources. Relations between the two countries must be restored to the high pedestal that they were in before because the mutuality of relations is so important.
Question: Is there a consensus in Delhi among the agencies regarding Nepal?
Answer: I don’t think there is any conflict in Delhi. There hasn’t been a proper appreciation of the changes that have taken place. Our Foreign Office still thinks this is the old Nepal and I have spent some time trying to explain the new political dynamics. Because our understanding is not correct, we have misunderstandings. The situation in Nepal is still dynamic. There are problems with your constitution and India has concerns with that but it has not expressed those concerns in the proper diplomatic way.
Question: India looks at Nepal’s linkages with China from a security perspective. However, we in Nepal want to develop relations with China for developmental and economic reasons. How can India address its security concerns without hampering the economic development of Nepal?
Answer: It is your sovereign right that you take advantage of these two economies. In the old days, we had an understanding at the highest levels that the Terai is the red-line. If you recall, the East-West Highway was being made and the lowest bidder of the Western region was a Chinese company. India objected to that and expressed its reservation to King Birendra. King Birendra cancelled the contract and awarded it to an Indian company. The understanding was that the Nepalese would not allow the Chinese to penetrate into the Terai. I am not saying that the same red line is to be maintained. India and Nepal can now discuss this.
Question: Is there scope for trilateral relations between Nepal, India and China?
Answer: India-China relations are sustained on trade. With respect to Nepal, we are concerned that we are losing political space to China. We would rather be dealing bilaterally with Nepal. This is something that needs further discussion.
Question: Indian relations towards Nepal are sometimes regarded as having double standards.
What is your view on this?
Answer: Yes, that is why there is a misunderstanding between Nepal and India. On the question of Madhesis, there are legitimate concerns that are going to be addressed now. The fact that you have parliamentary amendments addresses those points. As an immediate and very important neighbor, ndia pointed out those points which are also connected with bilateral relations between the two countries and their own security concerns. The manner in which they were addressed was not right.