By Dhruba Adhikary
KATHMANDU – If media reports are accurate, Baburam Bhattarai, Nepal’s prime minister since August 28, will receive an exceptionally warm welcome in India on Thursday as he starts a four-day official visit.
This isn’t because Bhattarai spent more than a decade of his academic life in the Indian capital, Delhi, nor because he met his wife there. It also likely isn’t because Bhattarai and several other leaders recently admitted that they spent eight years coordinating Nepal’s decade-long Maoist insurgency from hideouts scattered over India.
Rather, the invitation is to mark Bhattarai’s election as prime minister in August, with a note sent the day he took power from his Indian counterpart, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
“Our relations are special,” Manmohan wrote in the congratulatory letter that contained the invitation. Though Bhattarai accepted, Kathmandu’s intelligentsia saw the remarks as condescending, as use of the term “special relations” to describe bilateral ties has been controversial in Nepal since the 1960s.
Bhattarai initially received the invite through a letter, and it was personally renewed by Manmohan when the two met in New York in September on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
While India appears enthusiastic about the Bhattarai visit, the general mood in Nepal is apprehensive. This is mainly due to concerns that New Delhi might ask Bhattarai to ink agreements that could either compromise Nepal’s external security or dilute its rights over precious Himalayan waters.
Bhattarai has tried to allay fears by stating that as head of a transitional government he will refrain from entering into agreements that have long-term implications for the country. Nepal is led by Constituent Assembly (CA) elected in 2008 with a two-year mandate to write a new constitution following the end of the civil war between Maoist rebels and the state and the abolition of the 240-year-old monarchy.
However, there are long-held suspicions that he – and the ministers accompanying him – will surrender to too many of New Delhi’s demands on contentious issues. These include an extradition treaty made controversial by a provision enabling India to pick up third country nationals on Nepali territory, and permission to deploy “sky marshals” in Indian aircraft flying to and from Nepal.
New Delhi has sought the marshals arrangement since the 1999 hijacking of an Indian airplane that had took off from Kathmandu airport. But Nepali officials wonder what would happen if Nepal’s other neighbor, China, or the dozens of other countries flying from the country sought a similar deal.
Concerns that Bhattarai will concede too much are rooted in simmering Nepali anger over the country’s Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950, which is often cited as an example of how adept New Delhi is at imposing unequal pacts on unsuspecting neighbors.
The ruler who signed the treaty on Nepal’s behalf, prime minister Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana, was overthrown in a pro-democracy movement seven months later. But nine years on, the prime minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, publicly disclosed that letters had been exchanged but kept secret. The documents contained a provision that requires mutual consultations for counter-measures in the event of a security threat by “a foreign aggressor”.
This was an anachronism primarily aimed at showing China as a potential warmonger. Yet India did not consult Nepal during its war with China in 1962 or its conflicts with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971.
In any case, “Nepal must maintain best of relations with India but never at the cost of national interest,” former prime minister Kirtinidhi Bista said in a newspaper comment on Sunday. It was Bista who first rejected the theory of “special relations” in 1969.
Along with displaying strength in the face of India, Bhattarai also has to deal with internal fractures in the Maoists. A key faction has publicly rejected a four-point agreement he concluded with a political front comprising pro-India regional parties hours before his election. On August 28, Bhattarai defeated Nepali Congress leader Ram Chandra Poudel by garnering 340 votes from 575 present CA members.
It’s been reported that the four-point deal by Bhattarai and Maoist chairman Prachanda with regional leaders saw Maoists agree to certain points in anticipation of support that could ultimately lead to a disintegration of the country.
The agreement stated that under a proposed federal structure, southern states bordering India populated by the Madhesis would be given the “right to self-determination”, among other things. The controversy led to charges that Bhattarai was a pro-India figure who’d been promoted to eventually oust the nationalist Prachanda as the Maoist’s leader. (See Nepalese victor seen as pro-Delhi plant , Asia Times Online, September 9, 2011)
“We have clearly cautioned the prime minister about possible efforts [by his Indian hosts] to shortchange, if not cheat, us,” Chandra Prakash Gajurel, a leader of the Maoist faction that has rejected the four-point deal, told Asia Times Online.
If Bhattarai ignores our advice, we will certainly disown liabilities he might create for the country, Gajurel added.
Although Nepal has a long-standing commitment to prevent anti-China and anti-India activities on its soil, protracted political instability and short-lived and weak successive governments have lately increased the concerns of its neighbors. A rapidly changing security scenario in particular has prompted Beijing to be more sensitive than before, especially over the Free Tibet campaign.
Two days before Tuesday’s protest rallies by Tibetans in New Delhi, China’s ambassador to Nepal, Yang Houlan, told a media forum that “international forces” were inciting anti-China activities in Nepal. He did not blame Nepali authorities directly and this was likely a reference to the United States and India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based.
An official belonging to the Chinese diplomatic circle said the visit by former Indian foreign minister Nirupama Rao to Dharamsala to meet the Dalai Lama in June contradicted New Delhi’s commitment to a one-China Policy. Chinese officials are also concerned that Tibetans entering Nepal through trek routes in remote districts will be lured by Western intelligence or forcibly relocated by the United Nations’ refugee agency.
The latter involves separating under-age children from their parents for the rest of their lives and is a violation of human rights; but this is precisely what the outside forces are doing, argued the Chinese official, citing various incidents in recent months.
“Our geography requires us to be aware of our neighbors’ sensitivities,” said Professor Lalbabu Yadav, who teaches political science at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan University. “However, that does not mean that the Nepal government has to remain always alert for others and be careless about our own concerns.”
Initially, Bhattarai planned to follow his visit to New Delhi with a similar trip to Beijing. But subsequent meetings with Chinese envoys in Kathmandu and in New York have apparently changed this schedule. Official sources are now hinting that a very high level visit from the Chinese side is likely in the near future.
Ambassador Yang has also remarked on this. While a Chinese premier has not visited Nepal since May 2001, speculation is rife over a visit by President Hu Jintao, as he also served as party secretary for Tibet from 1988-1992.
In the meantime, local media have reported that Bhattarai wants his Indian hosts to approve funds for trade, infrastructure and development projects. If India does prove generous – as is expected – Bhattarai could use it to good political effect.
However, analysts believe the agenda Bhattarai has stressed in public is very different to his private one. It is known that Bhattarai was instrumental in involving New Delhi in the 12-point agreement in 2005 between Maoist insurgency leaders and seven pro-democracy political parties. In other words, he was helpful in devising a plan that created a “role” for New Delhi, at least until the completion of the peace process.
That gives him some wriggling space, analysts say, for some reciprocity. It’s expected this will take the shape of two key demands from New Delhi: firstly raising his contact level from the intelligence apparatus to the political leadership; secondly, that the Indian prime minister use his influence on Nepal’s other major political parties, namely the Nepali Congress and UML, so that they join the Bhattarai government and it is transformed into a government of national consensus.
While the proposition appears innocuous and logical, observers say it would merely invite more Indian interference. Bhattarai also may like to bring other parties into the fold to share the blame should – as is widely expected – a new, republican constitution not be drafted before its November 30 deadline.
Stalemate on the statute, originally due by May 2010, refuses to disappear, with the Maoists wanting to lay the foundations of a “people’s republic” and the rest of the major political forces adamantly seeking a commitment to democratic principles.
As the world’s largest democracy, India is expected to support democratic values, but its current policy on Nepal appears to have precisely the opposite objective.
Dhruba Adhikary is a Kathmandu-based journalist.