The fall of absolute monarchy in 1990 was a demand of the Nepali people. But the show of political solidarity by Indian politicians including Chandra Shekhar was important, and is used by many kneejerk analysts to cry Indian heavy-handedness. It was the People’s Movement which ushered democracy and the new Constitution of November 1990, but it is also true that the new polity with its multiple power-centres provided more opportunity for Indian diplomacy to engage as well as for the spreading tentacles of the Indian intelligence, particularly R&AW and IB.
How these external and internal espionage agencies divided (and continue to carve up) the Nepal turf between themselves is a matter for some scholar/researcher to pick up in the days to come, for nothing that is done so openly should remain unremarked or un-analysed.
Right hand, left hand
Nepal became a playground for all kinds of Indian actors, and in hindsight, it becomes clear that so many roadblocks in bilateral relations have to do with the fact that one hand of the Indian state often did not know what the other was doing. Down the timeline this is seen in the rise of the Maoists (when some agency seems to have been involved in training the rebels), the Indian blockade of 2015 (when someone in a darkened New Delhi cubbyhole decided to teach Nepal a lesson for going its own way in adopting the new Constitution) and the latest India-Nepal tangle on the ownership of the Limpiyadhura-Lipu Lek stretch north of Kumaon (where the Indian Army’s plans to inaugurate the road to the Lipu Lek pass was not communicated to South Block).
In the democratic era since the 1990s, India got active in influencing Nepal in various ways, from relatively benign to nefarious. One surefire tactic was to send the children of Nepal’s politicians and senior bureaucrats to Indian colleges and institutions of higher learning, from college to medical studies to ayurvedic studies, depending on the influence and importance of the supplicant. Medical treatment of political leaders has been a potent tool for New Delhi to try to get its way, except when individual politicians emerged more wily and slippery than expected. India also exercised enormous soft power across the open border, from being an aspirational democracy that Nepalis looked up to for decades, to an India was the destination for the youth seeking quality higher education.
As Lainchaur’s influence grew in Kathmandu, gradually a rock-solid point of view developed with the political class that you had to have ‘New Delhi dahina’ if you wanted to move ahead in politics. Within its own geopolitical space, with the rise of Chinese interest and activity in Kathmandu still years away, Nepal was in a unipolar space where New Delhi’s goodwill became essential for success in national politics. While Nepal had evaded the fate of Sikkim and inherited a better historical deal that Bhutan vis-à-vis New Delhi, India managed ever-stronger lock-hold on the Kathmandu polity.
However, in equal and opposite measure, India’s tight embrace helped develop an anti-Indianism among the intelligentsia, also to be used by politicians out of power. It would seem that India was all-power and all-capable in pulling strings and levers on Nepal, often getting ‘credit’ for things it had no role in. For some in Kathmandu it seemed as if India’s entire foreign policy had nothing better to do than destabilise Nepal. The more likely scenario was that New Delhi’s rulers were so preoccupied elsewhere that the diplomats – and intelligence agents in particular – ran amok, with the policy-makers in New Delhi completely oblivious until after the damage was done.
When things get difficult, Nepal’s politicians relied on their links among the Indian political class. Indian princelings and royal families connected to Nepal’s Ranas or Shah royalty have always been for lobbying: from the Scindias of Gwalior to the Mayurbang royalty of Orissa, to Karan Singh of Jammu and Kashmir. Very few Nepalis had access to the higher echelons of power in Delhi, and one of the few who cultivated the top rung was the sagacious businessman with royal connections, Prabhakar Rana, whose passing in May 2019 has been a loss in terms of links to the Delhi establishment. The rise in power of the BJP/RSS combine has also added to shrinking connections between Nepali politicians and New Delhi.
Jai Prakash Narayan’s followers, Lohiaites, CPI-M leaders, all were active at one time or the other, maintaining links to Nepal and acting as go-betweens as and when required. At times, the rest of the population cringed as Nepal’s Parliament gave standing ovations to visiting Indian personages, such as Sitaram Yechuri after the end of the conflict in May 2006 and Narendra Modi in August 2014. During the 2015 Blockade, while there was goodwill all around from Indian politicians including Mani Shankar Aiyar and the just-departed DP Tripathi, it was the urging of the Indian Army (with its large contingent of Nepali citizens in the Gorkha battalions) that is said to have been effective the PMO having second thoughts.
Maoists approach Delhi
The unique and historically evolved open border between Nepal and India made New Delhi look at the northern neighbor from a security perspective. The fact that Nepal made up half of the strategic Himalayan ‘rimland’ meant that New Delhi was bound to pay inordinate attention to Nepali politics, which is probably why India is said to maintain its second largest embassy in Kathmandu.
The rise of the Maoists in Nepal gave different Indian functionaries further room to frolic. While at least some entity in the Indian security establishment seems to have worked to impart training to Maoists, other parts of the Indian establishment sought to take advantage of the weakening of the Nepali state during the conflict. When challenged on Maoists having a free run of India to make forays into Nepal, Ambassador Shyam Saran told this writer back in the day: “We can’t locate our own Maoists, how do you expect us to keep track of yours? India is a big country!”
The decisive entry of Indian intelligence into Nepal happened at the hands of the Maoists. The Nepal Army, which had kept out of the fray for six long years after the start of the conflict in 1996 while the Nepal Police very inadequately tackled the Maoists, finally picked up the gun, and after a few debacles gradually got the upper hand. The rebels felt the heat and began to look for a way out. Once a schism between the supreme Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) and chief ideologue Baburam Bhattarai (Laldhoj) had been patched up, it is said with the interlocution of Indian intelligence, the two leaders wrote a letter to the Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee asking for a hearing.
National Security Adviser to Prime Minister Vajpayee, Brajesh Mishra, directed the Maoist duo to write to the Intelligence Bureau, an instruction they dutifully complied with. Before long, the Dahal and Bhattarai had a deal with India’s spy-masters, and thereafter the Maoists had the run of India without having to face harassment, and they found it easy to make forays across the length of the Nepali border. Meanwhile, the Maoist leadership holidayed in Gurgaon and Noida.
This deal between Indian intelligence and Nepal’s Maoists meant that the leaders of the democratic parties of the Nepal, too, were forced to deal with Indian spooks in order to make contact and conduct negotiations with Dahal and Bhattarai, even as King Gyanendra was developing autocratic tendencies in Kathmandu. Indian intelligence thus got into the inside track of Nepal’s polity.
The 12-point deal with the Maoists that led to the Comprehensive Peace Accord in 2006 was negotiated between the Maoists and UML and NC leaders in and around Delhi. It was obvious that the Indian authorities were in the know, but it would be excessive to say that India brokered or directed the deal, as some self-flagellating Nepali analysts would have one believe. The reason the 12-point deal was vital, even if it was negotiated in a foreign land, is that in 2005 an average of 7-8 Nepali citizens were dying every day at the hands of fellow Nepalis.
Before long, the activism of the apparatchiks evolved from ‘handling’ Maoists in India to overt dealings in Kathmandu. Lainchaur’s diplomatic function was eclipsed by all manner of micro-management of politics by the agents even as the country got into the difficult phase of constitution-writing, where too they pushed and pulled. When we say India was micromanaging affairs in Nepal, it rapidly came to mean micro-manipulation by Indian intelligence officials.
Having made themselves comfortable in Kathmandu, the apparatchiks realised that they had a handle on the running of a good-sized country, not possible anywhere in the world. And so, with the blessings of the PMO in New Delhi, the spies went outward, and wayward. Perhaps the leadership felt that the perceived security threat represented by the open Nepal-India border required ‘handling’ Nepal differently than any other country, but again and again the adventurism has come back to haunt India. For example, the Blockade stiffened the spine of Nepalis and hence the state, and made Nepal look for the northward passage for commerce and connectivity, and elevated K P Oli to the prime ministerial seat with overwhelming mandate.
The question that has not been answered to satisfaction is why the spy agencies have been allowed to function so openly in Kathmandu. The utility of a spy agency is said to optimum when its work remains hidden, with full deniability. Yet in Kathmandu the only thing the agents do not do is give out visiting cards saying ‘Station Chief’. The intelligence-wallahs are by the very nature of their calling not accountable for what they wreak, forcing the political and diplomatic forces to pick up after the mess they create.
The agencies have access to slush funds for which they are not accountable, which itself should be a problem, but then there has been talk of plots and flats being purchased in Chandigarh and Lucknow from disbursements meant for Nepali ‘recipients’. Amongst all the shenanigans, a Nepali may be forgiven for taking solace in the fact that the spooks are above ground and very visible – something to be said for transparency.
In India’s engagement with Kathmandu, the Nepali side has been increasingly confused by who to believe, where the buck stops. They have had to decipher from the plethora of acronyms – MEA, NSA, IB, R&AW, PMO and so on. Who is in the driver’s seat? Lately, at the very least there has been evolving clarity, that it is not the behemoth MEA but the personage of the National Security Adviser Ajit Doval with shoulder-to-shoulder proximity to Prime Minister Modi who calls the shots.
As the Constitution-writing got underway in 2008, one can imagine that the Indian diplomatic corps was perturbed by what was being done by the agencies on the ground and in corridors of power in India’s name. In the meantime, the Nepali politicians had no choice but to engage with the intelligence fellows, either the station chief, or the R&AW or IB bosses who came on secret visits without doing much to hide their presence. Is a spy agency that does not bother to be undercover actually more benign?
Ever since the predictability and stability of the royal regime was ended, first with constitutional monarchy in 1990 and once-and-for-all in 2008 as Nepal transformed into a republic, the Indian establishment has been seeking a surefire means to control Nepal’s rollercoaster politics. When they got to make policy, the so-called spies thought the Madhesi fold could be used to control Kathmandu. Thus, somewhere along the way, Indian intelligence got it into its head to ‘utilise’ Madhesi politicians of Nepal, doing the great injustice of regarding the entire cohort as made up of fifth columnists. The possibility of violence across the open border, hard cash and ratcheting up of populist narrative made sure that many plains-based politicians and activists got in line.
During the term of the first Constituent Assembly, some extraordinary mind in New Delhi decided to use the opportunity to create a ‘buffer’ for India by proposing a One-Madhes-One-Pradesh formula for federalism. Any demographer, geographer, anthropologist or sociologist – let alone a politician – would have said that this was a crazy idea, to have a strip that is 500 miles long and less than 20 miles wide along the stretch of a Tarai so full of demographic, linguistic diversity, and which were connected economically to the hills and to the south across the border. This was made the main plank of Madhesi politics of the time, picked up by civil society and politicians alike. A lot of energy was used up before the first Constituent Assembly collapsed in 2013, to neutralise this odd demand that would have done injustice to the Madhesi populace of Nepal.
The Indian consulate in Birganj was a hub for politics rather than commerce, and the liaison office in Biratnagar that was opened after the Kosi embankment breach of August 2008, was kept open for years after its use was over and ignoring Kathmandu’s demands for closure. The injustice done to Madhesi politics by overt Indian intervention has not been remarked enough, but the repercussions are evident to this day. While there is no doubt that the Madhesi fold suffers the ‘double-whammy’ of identity-loss as well as economic marginalisation by the Kathmandu-centric state, equally, New Delhi policy-makers were trying to exploit the Madhesi disgruntlement for their own geostrategic purposes. This has hurt the Madhesi cause.
Back in Kathmandu, the Indian Embassy became a player even in the mid-level appointments to government positions, the police, and elsewhere. Lainchaur was able to utilise its influence over the less-than-dozen Indian multinationals in Nepal, who are the primary advertisers, to indirectly influence the mainstream media. In the meantime, during the last term of Surya Bahadur Thapa as prime minister (2002-04), India even got the go-ahead to directly provide development aid to recipients across the country without going through the Ministry of Finance, which all other donor governments and INGOs were required to do.
While many have remarked that during the 2000s, the US began to outsource its Nepal policy to India, the more egregious reality was that Indian establishment itself had outsourced much of its Nepal policy to the intelligence agencies. From my time as a law student in Delhi University in the late 1970s, I knew that the best and the brightest applicants to Indian officialdom joined the IFS, IAS and IPS, in that order, and not the intelligence agencies. What would Nepal have to bear, being thus saddled with spies who were neither capable nor accountable?
Indeed, who but the most unaware would think of something as outlandish as one province along the entire stretch of the Nepal Tarai, or the enthronement of Lokman Singh Karki at the CIAA? What to do when fools wade in where the more circumspect among the diplomats fear to tread? Besides the attempt to co-opt Madhesi politics, Indian intelligence in coordination with the Embassy tried to control Nepali politics through the appointment of Karki, a defrocked former bureaucrat and power-broker. At that time when the influence of Indian intelligence was at its peak, and the entire political class from the opposition leaders to the prime minister and president blanched. The term they all used when challenged as to why they agreed to Karki’s appointment was “badhyata”, that they had no choice. The last chapter on the Karki episode has yet to be written.
To give them due credit, the politicians of Nepal were responding to reality when they rolled with the punches that the Indian political, diplomatic and intelligence establishments threw at them. Besides, for all the pressures to kowtow to India, the careers of individual politicians required that they not to be seen as doormats for India – only the Madhesi politicians were not given that privilege.
The idealised world for a Nepali citizen is one where India sheds its imperial attitude and evolves into a benign neighbor, to be dealt through regular diplomatic and political channels, rather than an interventionist with ‘big brother’ delusions who cares little for Nepali realities and sensitivities. Incongruously, it was New Delhi itself that helped correct the situation and led to an evolution in bilateral relations, through its overreach during Constitution-writing, and the slapping of the five-month Blockade in 2015 and into 2016.
When the time came, after the failure of the first Constituent Assembly, and for the second one to adopt the Constitution in September 2015, the New Delhi establishment decided unilaterally that the date should be pushed back to accommodate what it stated were Madhesi concerns. Then Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was sent as personal emissary by Prime Minister Modi to stall the proceedings in 2015, he arrived with a viceregal attitude only to be roundly rebuffed. When the final negotiations were happening on the constitutional text, the key political players kept their mobile phones switched off so as to avoid frantic calls from Lainchaur.
The Constitution was promulgated, but New Delhi did not take it well. In a press note, South Block merely ‘noted’ the adoption of the document, and it would be another four years before it would deign to congratulate Nepal on Constitution Day. To show its displeasure, and indicating the lack of knowledge or caring about Nepali society’s sense of self and its resilience, New Delhi imposed an economic blockade on Nepal starting 23 September 2015. A narrative was sought to be created that the closure was actually the handiwork of Madhesi activists blocking off the rest of the country and fellow-citizens.
Due to understandable pressures, some Madhesi politicians and activists brashly insisted that it was indeed they who were at the Raxaul-Birganj bridge blocking traffic, which did not explain the miles of trucks stranded across the border in Bhairawa, Biratnagar, Nepalganj and Kakadbhitta. Indian media went along with the fiction of a Madhesi blockade, and so the world was made to believe, and it took another couple of years before New Delhi analysts began to concede the reality.
Excesses of the Kathmandu-centric state, and the harsh response of the security agencies against the demonstrators who were part of the Madhes Movement and the scores of deaths which resulted, are yet to be properly investigated and accountability assigned. Similarly, the Blockade was imposed by New Delhi for its own supposed ends rather than for any category of the Nepali population. The Indian mainstream media once again became a readymade ‘force multiplier’ for the Indian state, given its proclivity to speak from government handouts when it comes to foreign affairs, particularly in South Asia. One reason that the world did not understand Nepal’s predicament enough is that the news out of the country has always been filtered through the New Delhi lens.