Tracing the ups and downs of the Nepal-India relationship

  • The collection of US state department cables published by Wikileaks allows us to chart one such period between 1974-1976, when events in Sikkim that led to the former Himalayan kingdom being integrated into India as a state resulted in tensions between Ne
- Amish Raj Mulmi

Apr 19, 2019-

The visit of Indian foreign secretary Vijay Gokhale to Kathmandu last month served as a reminder that Indo-Nepal relations have arisen from the trough that was 2015. That this bilateral relationship has its ups and downs is a constant in the modern history of the two neighbours. A trend can be established; certain events cause a deterioration in relations, followed by a cooling of ties, a period in which terse words are spoken on both sides. Subsequent to Indian concessions and Nepal’s withdrawals on its erstwhile positions, ties slowly crawl back to a state of relative normalcy, despite the shadows of the past affecting future ties.

The collection of US state department cables published by Wikileaks allows us to chart one such period between 1974-1976, when events in Sikkim that led to the former Himalayan kingdom being integrated into India as a state resulted in tensions between Nepal and India. The spectre of ‘Sikkimikaran’, or ‘Sikkimisation’, haunts Nepali commentators and policymakers to this day, the analogy between Nepal and Sikkim ever-present in their discussions. While the bilateral relationship between Sikkim, then ruled by the Chogyal dynasty, and India is not the focus of this essay, it should suffice to say tensions erupted in April 1974, when the Chogyal rejected state elections that won the Sikkim Congress 31 out of 32 seats after a history of polarisation between the Chogyal and popular leaders. Sikkim Congress leader Kaji Lhendup Dorji demanded a more representative constitution that reduced the Chogyal’s role. The Government of Sikkim Bill 1974, drafted with the help of India, ‘largely gave the Chogyal a constitutional role without tampering with precedence or personal privileges.’ This bill, also the new constitution, was passed in June 1974 and called for an economic integration with India.

Fear of encroachment

At the time, Nepali ministers and the press vociferously recorded its protest at what they saw as Indian manipulation of Sikkimese events. After the Sikkim government brought a bill that declared Sikkim would be ‘associated with India’, student demonstrations erupted outside the Indian embassy on 3 September 1974, shouting slogans such as ‘Nepalese are one’, ‘Indira Ghandi [sic] stay home’ and ‘India out of Sikkim’. As a Wikileaks cable recorded, ‘Following abortive attempt to burn down [a] movie theater owned by Indians, [the 500-strong] group marched to [the] gates of [the] Indian compound where they were stopped by troops.’ Fourteen students were arrested, and while foreign minister Gyanendra Karki rushed to assure all that ‘traditional Indian-Nepali friendship would not be adversely affected by recent events.’ Nepal had made its point, and now began to withdraw itself from the Sikkim affair. But, as the US embassy noted, much depended on the Indian reaction.

When the then Indian ambassador MK Rasgotra flew to Delhi on September 23 that year, Nepalis feared a ‘prolonged period of tension including [the] possibility that India may impose some form of economic and/or political pressure designed to achieve more submissive and malleable GON attitude towards India’, and the government instructed the media to back down. Three editors were asked to explain anti-Indian articles published in their papers, ‘a none too subtle warning that there were limits to what Delhi or Kathmandu would tolerate.’

Once Rasgotra returned from Delhi in November, he explained the Indian position in a conversation with unnamed US officials. ‘He insisted that while [India] had been deeply angered by [Nepal government’s] position on Sikkim, India had not made and did not plan to make any significant changes in its relations with Nepal.’ In an oblique reference to the then banned Nepali Congress party’s members operating out of India, he assured US officials it was up to Nepal to decide its political system, and ‘if there was political trouble in Nepal in the future it would not be related to any steps which India could take.’ But most importantly, Rasgotra ‘repeatedly’ insisted that Nepal needed to recognise the new realities of the bilateral relationship. If some Nepali officials believed India should be grateful its ‘defence perimeter began at Kodari and not Raxaul’, Rasgotra said this would have been the Indian view in the early 60s, but no longer. In a candid expression that also has relevance today, he said ‘if Nepal wished a closer relationship with China, India would not object but it could not then expect the past special relationship to continue unchanged.’

Return to normalcy

By April 1975, one senses that ties had improved, despite the shadow of the Sikkimese referendum that had voted in favour of joining India. The then acting deputy chief of the Nepali mission in Delhi, Jai Rana, told US officials on April 23 that India had taken a ‘softer line’ on its decision earlier that month to raise the prices of essential commodities as India did not want to ‘seriously hurt’ the Nepali economy. ‘Jai Rana also noted that problems the Nepalese were having in getting berths for ships which had been standing off Calcutta for several weeks with loads of cement and other commodities for Nepal had been suddenly solved.’ By May that year, the outgoing Nepali ambassador to India, Yadunath Khanal, agreed relations had ‘passed [the] low point’, and while ‘Nepal could not undo [the] situation’ in Sikkim, he hoped ‘India would understand Nepalese nervousness in spite of Indian assurances that what happened in Sikkim would not happen in Nepal.’ On May 16, 1975, Sikkim became the 22nd state of India.

In September that year, King Birendra visited India on an official visit. Following an hour-long meeting on 30 September between him and Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, which took place ‘without advisors’, the US embassy in Kathmandu tried to summarise the meeting through a ‘variety of official and unofficial sources’. Terming its summary as ‘probably speculative’ or ‘at best’ a version the Nepal palace released to lower-level functionaries, the embassy noted the meeting was ‘cordial and productive’ according to Nepali sources, and ‘frank and realistic’ according to Indian sources. ‘Most persons agree that [the] king made genuine effort to be conciliatory and that he expressed his oral support for Madame Gandhi's Emergency measures.’ Gandhi had imposed the Emergency in June 1975.

Gandhi continued to refuse Birendra’s pet Zone of Peace (ZoP) proposal, but India agreed to increase economic assistance. A few weeks later, US officials in Delhi met with royal counselor Narendra Bikram Shah, who provided a more detailed explanation of the meeting. The Indian view was that the ZoP proposal would fundamentally change the relationship between the two countries, which Shah acknowledged was correct. Senior Nepali officials did not trust Gandhi, he said, ‘specifically’ excluding the king. But he agreed the visit had ‘cleared the air’ between the two countries post the Sikkim distrust.

The rest is history

By 1976, it was apparent that the question of Sikkim had been seen as a fate accompli in Nepal, despite dissatisfactions within the popular press. A November 1976 cable from the Delhi embassy suggests Nepali officials were more displeased about ‘rigid Indian positions’ in the trade and transit treaty negotiations, which reflected Delhi’s attempts to preserve its economic leverage over Nepal. There were also discussions over recent Indian attempts to impose travel restrictions on Nepalis, but these issues were tied to the larger ZoP proposal that had irritated India. Note that this was also during the Emergency, a time in which Indian political processes were notoriously authoritarian.  

From the cables (and a third-country perspective, albeit an American one), it seems the cooling of ties had originally resulted from Nepal’s attempts to carve out a new relationship via the ZoP proposal, which India (correctly) surmised as Nepal’s attempts to change the ‘fundamental nature’ of the bilateral relationship. The referendum in Sikkim only helped to stoke Nepali fears of Indian hegemony, especially after the 1971 break-up of Pakistan that resulted in the creation of Bangladesh. As in 2015, India used its economic leverage to suggest Nepal could not demand special privileges if it was not willing to recognise India’s security interests. The downturn in the bilateral relationship was the result of ‘conflicting foreign policy objectives’ of the two countries. Although these cables do not provide the complete picture, they allow us to get a sense of Nepali fears and Indian concerns that still find credence in the modern day, and tell us why, despite close cultural and social connections, the two governments rarely see eye to eye.

Finally, despite the royal counselor’s view that Indira Gandhi could not be trusted, an ex-Indian intelligence official in his memoir recalled a most interesting offer by King Birendra. In 1977, after the lifting of the Emergency and the electoral defeat of Gandhi, King Birendra sent her a message ‘through an intermediary’ advising her to shift to Nepal with her family. The official recalled Gandhi did not want to shift herself, but asked her sons Sanjay and Rajiv to move with their families. However, her advisor Rameshwar Nath Kao, ex-spymaster and the first head of the Research and Analysis Wing, said no. ‘He felt this could damage her political career beyond repair. She gave up the idea.’

Like they say, in international relations, there are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.

Mulmi tweets at @amish973

Published: 19-04-2019 07:47

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