April 25 marked a year since the start of a series of devastating earthquakes that shook Nepal to its core. The 7.8-magnitude quake and subsequent aftershocks killed over 8,500 people; thousands more were wounded. At least half a million families were rendered homeless. It was easily the biggest natural calamity to hit the small, landlocked country in South Asia since the great earthquake of 1934. Economic damages from last year’s earthquakes were estimated at $5 billion, around 25 percent of national GDP.
But little did Nepalis know that an even bigger calamity was around the corner. When the Constituent Assembly elected to write a new constitution for Nepal produced a charter on September 20, 2015, there were spontaneous protests against the new document in the southern parts of the country. The political parties representing these regions felt that the constitution discriminated against the natives of the southern plains. As a part of their protest, they set-up temporary camps on Nepal’s key border points with India, from which the country imports nearly all its fuel and other daily essentials.
The protestors wouldn’t allow any vehicles to enter Nepal from India, effectively closing the landlocked country’s lifeline. But the border-centric protests of small parties would most certainly have failed if they didn’t have the support of India.
India, the preeminent power in South Asia, was also unhappy with the new constitution, which it felt ignored India’s major concerns even as it went out of its way to accommodate the concerns of the West and particularly the Chinese, India’s geostrategic rival in Nepal.
The “blockade” thus imposed on Nepal lasted for four and a half months before it was lifted in early February this year. It did great damage to the already-battered Nepali economy; the blockade, according Nepal’s finance minister, inflicted greater economic damage than the earthquakes. It also led to a humanitarian crisis. “The declining stocks of gas, food and medicines, together with the closure of schools… and shortages of fuel throughout the country, are not only inflicting damage to the lives of the children now—they threaten the future of the country itself,” said UNICEF.
Although India all along denied it had any role in the disruption of supply of essential goods into Nepal, few in Nepal were inclined to believe it. As one Nepali commentator wrote at the time: “To signal its unhappiness with the Constitution, India has responded with an ‘unofficial’ blockade of goods on its side of the border, a breathtaking intrusion upon our sovereignty.”
Following the unofficial blockade, Nepal has warmed up to China, the only other country besides India with which Nepal shares a border. There is a feeling in Kathmandu that if Nepal does not diversify its trade away from India—with which it now does 70 percent of its business—it could again be made a victim of India’s high-handedness in the future. This explains Nepal’s recent overtures toward China to balance India’s influence. Such rebalancing, Nepalis feel, was long overdue.
What galls Nepalis is that after India’s independence in 1947, it has been treating Nepal as its “backyard” where it won’t tolerate the presence of any other country, especially China. Particularly after India’s loss in the Indo-China war of 1962, India has been paranoid about protecting its old “sphere of influence” in South Asia against Chinese incursions.
Smaller South Asian countries like Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka thus often find themselves caught between the geostrategic rivalry of India and China. The Indians seem especially insecure. Whenever one of these smaller countries is seen as getting close to China, India reacts furiously—and often counterproductively—employing highly coercive methods to bring these countries in line.
But such petulant diplomacy against its small neighbors doesn’t behoove the world’s largest democracy. In a sign that China is more comfortable with the idea of cooperating with India in South Asia than the other way around, Chinese President Xi Jinping recently proposed the idea of making Nepal an economic bridge between India and China, to the ultimate benefit of all three countries. But India isn’t sold on the idea.
Historically, unlike India, China has looked to maintain strict neutrality in Nepal, leaving Nepalis to decide what is best for their country. But following Nepal’s recent overtures to China —which, among other things, resulted in a historic transit treaty between the two countries that now allows Nepal to import goods from third countries via Chinese territories—China has seemed more comfortable making “suggestions” to Nepal. In fact, it is believed that was it not for last-minute Chinese intervention, the Nepali government headed by “pro-China” Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli would have collapsed by now.
But if India’s goal was to keep the Chinese at a safe distance from Nepal, its recent “sledgehammer-diplomacy” has been a spectacular failure. In the 70-year-old bilateral relationship between independent India and Nepal, anti-India feelings among common Nepalis (and the corresponding goodwill for China) have never been higher.
If India wants to retain its status as the predominant power in Nepal—and South Asia by extension—it must learn to keep a carefully calibrated distance. Thanks to its recent intervention, political polarization in Nepal has greatly increased and extremist elements in the areas that border India have been emboldened. Instability in Nepal could easily spill over into India through the open border.
India must also be more comfortable with the idea of Nepal dealing more with the rest of the world, including with China.
Just because Nepal wants better relations with China does not mean it undervalues its relations with India or is working against Indian interests. In fact, all the major political parties in Nepal are acutely aware of Indian sensitivities. They also realize that the deep people-to-people contacts between Nepal and India would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate with China. The cultural influence of India remains as formidable. Hindi songs, movies and soap operas are wildly popular in Nepal, but most Nepalis don’t know a single word of Mandarin. Likewise, the people of India and Nepal easily commingle through the open border, but the border with China is strictly regulated and Beijing will not agree to completely open Tibet just for the benefit of Nepal.
So India’s paranoia with China is unwarranted. It’s about time it started behaving as a more mature power that is comfortable with its role as the undisputed leader in South Asia.
Biswas Baral is a Kathmandu-based journalist who writes on Nepal’s foreign policy. He tweets @biswasktm