India noted constitution means it’s a major development
Nov 9, 2015-Nepal-India ties have been at a low point since the promulgation of the constitution in September. This is primarily because there is a fundamental difference in how Kathmandu looks at the unrest in the Tarai and Delhi’s view of it. There are also major differences between the two sides on a couple of other critical issues: first, Delhi’s position on Nepal’s constitution endorsed through a resounding majority by a democratically elected body; and second, the ‘unofficial’ blockade imposed on Nepal by India. Indian Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae argues with Akhilesh Upadhyay and Sudheer Sharma, that the current crisis in Nepal is due to Nepal's internal factors and, once they are sorted out, supplies will resume, and that Nepal-India releationship will again return to its firm footing.
When will this blockade end?
Our reporters on the ground in the Tarai and their visits across the border tell us that trucks loaded with cargo have been stopped on the Indian side.
The very fact that the trucks are there means that there is no blockade. This means that the trucks are waiting to cross over to Nepal. In case of a blockade, these trucks loaded with cargo would not be there in the first place. Earlier, you asked when will this disruption end. I think the disruptions will end as soon as the agitating groups at the border cease their protest. And for that, as the reasons for the protest that are political in nature should be addressed politically. We are very happy that dialogue has begun to address the issue.
The blockade has led to a humanitarian crisis alongside polarising of communities in Nepal. Does Delhi plan to review its foreign policy?
The government of India constantly reviews its foreign policy. This is a very sensitive and difficult situation that is going on in Nepal. We are aware and understand the suffering that the people are undergoing. But as I said before, our fundamental understanding of the situation is that this is due to political difficulties within Nepal and we hope that there will be an early resolution of the issues which would facilitate an uninterrupted supply from India.
Besides Birgunj, there is no protest or disruption at other border points—in the Eastern and Western regions. But Indian officials at border points are saying that there is a strict order to not allow supplies to pass from uninterrupted border points as well.
See in the Far West there is no problem. And there are no problems in the Eastern side as well, which is Panitanki/Kakarbhitta. Supplies have been passing through these points. But in other places, such as Sunauli/Bhairahawa there have been incidence of thrashing of truckers and some trucks have been burned as well. Recently in Birgunj, there was an incident. So there is a certain degree of apprehension. But the main issue, of course, is the fact that the main supply route [Birgunj/Raxaul] from India to Nepal has been blocked. But whatever can come from other routes is coming into Nepal. Of course, after the recent incident in Birgunj, I think the supplies have come down a bit. Once the Raxaul/Birgunj position improves, hopefully there will be an improvement in supplies as well.
Until now, there has never been any practice of demonstrating or protesting in the ‘no man’s land’ at the Nepal-India border. Nepali officials say when the Nepali side in Birgunj tried to vacate the protesters from the no man’s land, there was no cooperation from the Indian side. That the Indian local authorities even allowed demonstrators to sit on the no man’s land.
I am a close friend of Nepal. Let me explain to you how I see the situation and what are the available options for Nepal to deal with these protests that are taking place at the border checkpoints. The protests have been going on for almost 80-90 days, so one option could be to do nothing so that the agitating groups tire themselves and stop the protests. The second option is to use force and remove them. And the third option, of course, is to resolve the issue through dialogue. So I think your government needs to examine the pros and cons of each of these available options. The government of Nepal has the freedom to decide what it wants to do. But as far as India is concerned, we feel that the best way of resolving this issue is through dialogue and negotiation. The recent incident in Birgunj has shown the depth of the problem.
One Indian national involved in the demonstrations was killed in the Birgunj incident. Two Indian citizens were also detained as they were found to be participating in the demonstrations. What are your thoughts on this Indian involvement in Nepali protests?
First, it is naturally a great concern for the government of India that an Indian citizen has been killed. We have formally asked the government of Nepal to launch an investigation on this incident and give us the facts on the case. As far as we are aware, this young Indian boy, who was 20 years of age, was not involved in the protests and he has been shot in the head from the back. So this is very disturbing.
Second, you know the nature of the relationship between Nepal and India, as we share an open border. There are relatives on each side of the border and it is common for people to easily travel across to each other’s side. This is something very unique and underpins the kind of relationship the two countries share. But to say that Indians were involved in demonstrations and organising protests in Nepal is without foundation. And of course, if there is some evidence with your government to support such accusations, then we would request them to share it with us.
Should it not be a concern for the Nepal government that Indian citizens can come over to its territory to express solidarity with the protesters and such an incident could pose a security challenge in no man’s land and beyond? Is that not a valid concern of a sovereign nation?
Certainly, I can understand that it is a concern, but the nature of the relationship between the two countries is so unique that thousands of people are crossing the border every other day and I think that is one of the positive aspects of Nepal-India relationship. But to suggest that people from one side are deliberately doing something to harm the other side is carrying this a bit too far. And please do not forget that there are family relationships between the two nations in the Tarai, in the Far West as well as in Kathmandu. So I do not think there will be a deliberate attempt on the part of the either side to create disturbances and unpleasant situations on the other side.
Going back to the prolonged blockade, don’t you think it has polarised the Nepali communities even further?
My understanding is that the growing polarisation in Nepal is a worrying factor because given the great diversity of this country, social cohesion is very important for long-term stability and development in the country. If the country is polarised between large communities, then it will not be good for the country. As to why this polarisation is occurring is not something I would like to get into because it is very much an internal issue of Nepal. The issue is between the large communities in Nepal and as a foreigner, I am not in a place to comment on it. But all I would like to say is that social cohesion is very necessary for the stability of the country and lack of the cohesion will not yield positive results in the future.
We have constantly argued in our editorials that Madhesi grievances need to be addressed. But when a third party, in this case New Delhi, steps in, how does it help social cohesion?
This is a matter for Nepal to decide as to how it wants to address the issue of the grievances of certain disgruntled groups.
Then why the blockade?
There is no blockade, as I conveyed to you earlier, and the reason for the interruption in supplies is because of the communities that are protesting within Nepal.
India is seen to be supporting the agitating community, does that not polarise Nepali society?
India does not have separate policies for different communities in Nepal. Our foreign policy towards Nepal is for the entire country. The only policy objective of India is to have a peaceful and stable Nepal. India believes that given the great diversity of your country, issues that tend to polarise the society should be resolved through dialogue and all issues can be solved through talks and negotiation. If the issues are not resolved through peaceful means, then there is risk of instability in the country. And India, which shares open borders with Nepal, will clearly feel the impact of such instability; for instance, in the Tarai. The threat of instability in Nepal spilling over to India is always there and this is not limited to just one part of Nepal. If there is instability in any part of Nepal, it will have implications for us as neighbours. So you need to understand where we are coming from. We are not trying to support a particular community.
But India has not been very supportive of the new constitution of Nepal, which was passed by a democratic body in a sovereign nation. Is there not a problem in Delhi’s policy towards Nepal?
India has been at the forefront of the whole peace process in Nepal, which started many years ago. And India views the new constitution as the culmination of the peace process. We were expecting the constitution to bring peace and stability in the country. The friendly message India has been conveying in the whole constitution-making process is that take all the communities along. We have been saying so precisely to avoid the current situation that has developed. There are a few communities that feel left out from the process.
So these are the reasons why India does not support Nepal’s constitution?
India noted the constitution, which means that it is a major development. But we had hoped Nepal would take everybody along. But this in no way to mean that India rejects Nepal’s new constitution, as who are we to reject it.
But the lukewarm response from India to the constitution and what is now happening on the ground—you call it obstructions and we call it blockade—isn’t that crossing the diplomatic red line in a sovereign nation?
You continue to use the term blockade and I keep asserting that there is no such policy on the part of the government of India and the obstructions in the supplies have arisen out from the circumstances that prevail within your country, not because of something that India has done. We still hope that the dialogue process will move forward as a result of which the situation on the ground will improve, and especially so given the onset of major festivals that are to begin in not only in Nepal but also in India.
As the Indian ambassador to Nepal, are you responsible for the current failure of Indian policy on Nepal or is it the failure of Delhi?
In any relationship, there are two sides involved. For you to suggest that everything that happens in Nepal is because of the Indian ambassador or Delhi is fundamentally flawed. Personally, I believe that this situation could have been avoided if stronger efforts had been made to accommodate the dissenting parties. Since the agitation began three months ago, there have been many opportunities, even after the promulgation of the constitution, to resolve these issues. But for one reason or the other, this has not happened. Still, I am optimistic that both sides are sincere towards dialogue and that the issues will be resolved.
Don’t you think that the Nepal government is capable of solving this issue and that the blockade has only diverted attention from the need for immediate dialogue among Nepali actors?
We have a difference of opinion regarding the cause and effect of the current situation. We believe the interruption has been caused because of the situation within Nepal. But you seem to have a different perspective and that is where we disagree. We feel that once the reasons for these domestic disturbances are resolved, then hopefully the supply situation will also improve.
Do you agree with the analysis that the Indian involvement at the ground level has made the Madhesi movement lose its moral high ground in the eyes of other communities?
This analysis to me seems like a relatively academic one. I am a pragmatic person and I believe that if there is a problem in society, it is best to resolve it. Only the academics can enjoy the luxury of judging what strategy is right or wrong. I believe that these are serious national issues and should be resolved. The sooner it is resolved, the better it is for everyone, including the neighbouring countries.
Prime Minister Oli and his close advisors seem to think that India was not too keen to have him as the prime minister, and that India will do all it can to bring his government down. What are your thoughts?
Nothing could be further from the truth. We have great respect and admiration for Prime Minister Oli. As soon as he was elected, Indian Prime Minister Modi personally congratulated him and invited him to pay an official visit to India, and it was subsequently followed by a written invitation. So let me clarify it to your readers that we have the highest respect for his Excellency the Prime Minister of Nepal and we look forward to working closely with him to further strengthen bilateral cooperation.
There is a perception here that India always wants to micro-manage Nepal and the current situation is also a result of that.
You had asked me this exact question two years ago. I had said then, and I again repeat myself, India has never tried to manage Nepal’s internal affairs. Our only intention is to ensure there is peace and stability in the country. Because an unstable Nepal will not benefit both of us. This is a clear strategic policy and the objective of the government of India. In the implementation of this policy, some people might react in a different manner and it is possible that a few people might feel that there is micromanagement of Nepal by India. As you said, there is this perception in Nepal so clearly there is resentment towards India because of this and I am personally conscious of this fact. So we would definitely not try to micromanage anything in Nepal, especially if it has a negative effect as you mentioned because it will be counterproductive.
Even your intelligence agency is accused of being too active in Nepal.
Every country has its intelligence agency working in other countries, so this is not new. They have their own mandate. And when I say that we are not micromanaging anything in Nepal, it applies to all the wings of the Indian government.
Perhaps it is in India’s interest to keep Nepal under its influence. But do you think, it might slip away from the Indian sphere of influence because of the current events Nepal?
This is old thinking. India feels that it cannot develop without peace and stability in the neighbourhood. So it is in India’s own interest to have peace and stability in its neighbouring countries. Moreover, we would like to increase economic interaction with our entire neighbourhood. We want South Asia to develop like the Asean and European Union. There are huge opportunities for much stronger economic integration and that is the direction we want to go. I do not think this should be interpreted as ‘sphere of influence’ type of a policy. Today, the world is completely interdependent; thus, what happens 10,000 miles away can affect your interest.
Indian Prime Minister Modi started a great tenure as far as his Nepal policy goes—two successful visits to Nepal and some major agreements followed. Now due to diplomatic blunders by Delhi lately, including the current blockade, hasn’t the good work suffered a huge setback?
Like I said earlier, there are always two sides to a story. So I think we should leave it to the historians to analyse why Nepal-India relations fluctuates in this manner. When you look at it, when you are going through a difficult time, that moment you feel more overwhelmed by it. So I think a few years down the road, when we will look back at this situation, you will get a better perspective. Fundamentally, I think our relation is extremely strong and India attaches great importance to Nepal. Our prime minister in particular has a very close attachment and warmth towards Nepal. I personally hope that this phase will be only a temporary aberration in India-Nepal relations and in the future, we shall strengthen our relationship further.
Recently, in Geneva, India raised concerns and criticised Nepal’s human rights situation at an international forum for the first time. What is India trying to indicate?
I do not think India criticised Nepal. The Universal Periodic Review session (UPR) of the UN Human Rights Council is such that every few years all the countries have to submit a report of their rights situation and the remaining countries can comment on it. This is the standard procedure of the session. India simply expressed its views on Nepal’s rights situation. This should not be viewed as a criticism.
We were told by a very senior political leader that a couple of weeks ago, the Indian establishment, had warned them that this could come up in Geneva. Is India trying to use the UPR session as a leverage against the government it does not favour at the moment?
No, I am not aware of such a communication between the Indian leadership and Nepali leadership.
Does this not reinforce Kathmandu’s perception that you are supporting one community over the other?
Like I said earlier, we are not supporting any particular community. We simply feel that if there are issues with the communities then, they should be resolved through dialogue and that is what we are articulating.
Don’t you think supporting one community can have repercussions as well, as there are thousands of Nepali-speaking Gorkha soldiers serving in India and millions of Nepali-speakers living in your territory? It can potentially deteriorate relationships at the people’s level.
It is in India’s interest to maintain the solidarity and friendship between communities. There are large numbers of Indians that work in Nepal and large numbers of Nepalis that work in India. So we would definitely want to maintain the solidarity and the friendship between Indians and Nepalis. The nature of the relationship should continue as it has in the past. But if the current problem is left to fester, then there are chances of tensions arising between the two countries. If the current issue is resolved, then there should be no problem in the relationship of the two countries.
Recently Nepal signed an agreement to import oil from China. This is the first time Nepal has reached an oil agreement with a company besides the Indian Oil Corporation in 40 years. How do you feel?
As I said, our relationship with Nepal is strong. Two-third of your trade comes from India. You also need to consider the logistical and cost factor. There are so many factors that determine this relationship between India and Nepal. So keeping the temporary aberration aside, I feel that our bilateral cooperation will be back on track in the days to come.
Do you think there is a geopolitical dimension to all this trouble, that there is something beyond what seemingly looks like unrest in Tarai that Delhi wants us to believe?
There might be a few armchair strategists that are looking at this geopolitically. I am just the ambassador to Nepal. I look at this in terms of Nepal-India relationship, so I am not the right person to comment on it. But I feel that it is not just about Tarai but an issue that can hamper permanent peace and stability in Nepal, which India does not want to see.
Published: 09-11-2015 08:18