In 1991, as the editor of Deshantar weekly, I was part of a visiting team of journalists accompanying Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala on his state visit to China.
Nepal had just become a constitutional monarchy after the Peoples’ Movement, there was no Google yet, and we did not have too many China watchers in Nepal.
To prepare for my Beijing trip, I was directed to the Center for Nepal and Asian Studies (CNAS) where I first met Dhurba Kumar. He gave me monographs and papers to read, and the professor knew so much that he overwhelmed me with information.
Dhruba Kumar took great interest in geopolitics vis-a-vis Nepal, and was a self-taught expert on China. Over the years, as Nepal transitioned into multiparty democracy, the Maoist conflict and finally became a republic, I came to rely on Dhurba Kumar for guidance and contributions for Himal Khabarpatrika, the magazine I edited.
He did not miss any details, and could present them in fluent, easy-to-grasp language, translating concepts from academese into Nepali or English with equal ease.
In 1986-87, when the Indian Peace-keeping Force (IPKF) landed in northern Sri Lanka, there was fear that like Sikkim, Nepal could be the next place for Indian intervention.
The theory was that the Indian Army could foment internal conflict in Nepal as well, and use the same pretext of ‘peace-keeping’. The IPKF soon got embroiled in a war with the Tamil Tigers and had to retreat.
Through this period, I relied on Dhruba Kumar for sage advice and analysis. Under his tutelage and with Director Khadga Bikram Shah, CNAS produced quality research on the Nepal dimension of the Indian Army’s presence in Sri Lanka.
When India and Pakistan conducted nuclear tests in 1997, there was consternation in Nepal that we would be downwind for any radiation fallout. I interviewed Kumar about the implications for Nepal of antagonistic nuclear-armed neighbours with both of which Nepal had cordial relations.
No one else at the time had the expertise and insight to analyse this from a Nepali perspective. I sought Dhurba Kumar’s inputs on many other security matters for Himal. Having not written in Nepali previously, he was initially reluctant.
I persuaded him that writing in Nepali would not be as difficult for someone with his educational background. Dhruba Kumar was not one of those arm-chair analysts, he did painstaking research, looked at issues objectively and his conclusions would be evidence-based.
When the Maoist conflict was at its peak, his analysis of the geopolitical dimensions of the insurgency would be a cover story in Himal.
Two years ago, we approached Dhurba Kumar to write for us once again after Shikshak began to co-publish the magazine Niti-Bimarshsa. We had been constantly in touch with him up until the time he was admitted to hospital. He was not meeting people during the pandemic, but I visited him with a copy of Niti-Bimarshsa.
Nepal has signed the ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) project with China, and the US Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant has been ratified by Parliament. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi is in Nepal, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is going to New Delhi soon, and a US delegation arrives next month.
To make sense of this new geopolitical Great Game churning in our neighbourhood, we would have relied on Dhruba Kumar to explain what the real implications for Nepal would be.
Nepal has now edged closer to the United States, the other global power that China is suspicious of. We must win China’s trust, while keeping a balance with India. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a lesson of what can happen if we lose that balance.
What is Nepal’s relationship with China? How do we maintain cordial relations with both neighbours, while keeping both at arms length? And what should the basis of Nepal’s foreign policy be in the context of the Ukraine-Russia war?
As journalists, those are questions we would have posed to Dhurba Kumar if we were trying to make sense of the region today. In fact, we did send him an email recently asking for an interview, but there was no answer. We then went to his house, and found out that he was not well.
I cannot see anyone else in Nepal’s academia today that can make the kind of sharp dissection of current affairs and security matters like Dhruba Kumar did. That is not to say that there are no other analysts, but none come close to doing justice to the issues like he did.
The demise of Nepal’s foremost analyst of political and security issues leaves a big void not just for us journalists, but also as a researcher and adviser to Nepal’s foreign policy establishment. There is a vacancy for the post Dhruba Kumar has left.
Translated by Shristi Karki from the Nepali original in himalkhabar.com