Author name: 
Dr. Anshuman Behera, Assistant Professor, Conflict Resolution Programme, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

A joint military exercise has been planned between Nepal and China to be held in February, 2017 causing serious discomfort to India’s strategic interests. The joint military exercise, first of its kind between the two countries, named Pratikar-1, will be training the Nepalese armed forces to deal with hostage kind of scenarios involving foreign terror groups. While the officials in Nepal have played down the exercise terming it to be ‘small scale’, it has certainly raised serious concerns for India. Reacting to the exercise, S. D. Muni, the leading expert in South Asian studies said, “Nepal can conduct military exercises with other countries without violating the agreement with India, but the upcoming exercise with China is certainly unconventional and alarming as China’s definition of terrorism covers Tibetan agitators.” The declaration of the aforementioned exercise came a month after India and Nepal held a similar military exercise and the Chief of Indian Army’s visit during 11-13 November 2016 to strengthen military ties between the two countries. Though the exercise is understood not to be violating the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal, it is certainly seen as “unconventional”.


The joint military exercise involving Nepal and China is going to be yet another incident adding to India’s growing strategic concerns in Nepal over the last one decade. The main factor contributing to these concerns is the anti-India rhetoric in Nepal. The anti-India sentiment in Nepal is nothing new, so to say. But the trend and pattern of this sentiment have changed over the past few years. The political elite, whether it is in power or in opposition, seems to be more critical of India in the recent past. Moreover, India is being blamed for all the internal disturbances and mishappenings in Nepal. This was clearly evident during the constitutional crisis that led to violent agitations in Terai region of Nepal in 2015. The agitations for constitutional rights by the Madhesis were reported to be planned by the Indian state in the Nepalese media. At the same time the political elite and the media of Nepal blamed India for the shortage of supply of goods and commodities – thanks to the protracted road blocks by the Madhesi agitators. “Economic Blockade”, as it was termed in Kathmandu, provided an opportunity for Nepal to come even closer to China. Nepal signed a deal with China to get petroleum products to meet the dire need. Khadga Prasad Oli, the then Prime Minister of Nepal, went on record to blame India for the internal disturbances that his government faced in promulgating the constitution.


The agitations in the Terai region in Nepal over the demand for equal constitutional rights have provided enough bread to the political elite to sharpen their stand against India. The common public perceptions, which otherwise take a reverse stand, are also seen to be changing. The prolonged internal instability can safely be argued as the single most important contributor to the prevailing anti-India sentiment in Nepal. There prevails a sense of insecurity among the political contenders in Nepal concerning India’s role in micro-managing the country’s internal affairs. Though the fear is not entirely baseless, most of the time it is seen to be over-hyped depending on the vested interests of the political elite. The decade-long violent movement led by the Maoists followed by another decade of instability has attracted a number of foreign powers to Nepal. The involvement of foreign stakeholders in Nepal has compromised India’s strategic interests in the country to a great extent. 


The growing proximity between China and Nepal is another important factor causing discomfort to India’s strategic interests. There has been a long history of Nepal playing China as a bargaining card to maximize its interests vis-à-vis India. However, in the recent years China has involved itself more aggressively than before. Reacting to India’s displeasure over the upcoming Sino-Nepalese joint military exercise, China’s Global Times warned India that it was neither realistic nor possible for India to always regard Nepal as its backyard and put pressure on Sino-Nepalese cooperation. Chinese involvement in Nepal has been in a number of sectors. China’s decision to invest in the hydro power sector has come as a major challenge to India’s similar interests in Nepal. The Chinese presence in sectors such as health, road construction, and education among others has grown substantially in the recent years. The over-presence of Chinese companies in all these sectors poses serious threat to India’s business interests in Nepal. The participation of 90 Chinese companies in the Fifth Nepal trade fair at Kathmandu in March 2016 speaks volumes about China’s interest in Nepal. The ruling elite in Nepal are seen to be siding with China to counter the perceived ‘Indian hegemony’.


India has to accept its own share of blame for the failure in Nepal. Despite strong cultural, historical and people-to-people ties India has failed to achieve politically much in Nepal. One of the major factors in this regard is the lack of clear policy frameworks vis-à-vis Nepal. India’s Nepal policy has always been confusing. During the Maoist insurgency in Nepal India followed a twin-track policy: a constitutional monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. Such a stand could not yield much. The stand in favour of a constitutional monarchy was not well-received by the democratic forces and Maoist insurgents alike. At the same time, its stand on parliamentary democracy did not put India in the Nepalese King’s good books. India’s inability to check the Nepalese Maoist movement within the India territory was perceived as its failure by the monarch and the political parties of Nepal. India’s limited success in Nepal can also be attributed to both hope and suspicion of the Nepalese political elite with respect to India. On the one hand, they recognize that India has played, can play, and should play a positive role in the peace process. On the other, there is an all-round unhappiness about how India is seen to be playing this role. India’s style of functioning is questioned openly.


Apart from the political line, India does not have a good record of delivering on tall promises it makes. A number of collaborative projects between India and Nepal have not yet been executed. The Pancheshwar Multipurpose Project as part of the Mahakali Treaty of 1996 remains unattended till today. A “generous gift” by the then Minister of External Affairs (India), Pranab Mukherjee, to develop 250 MW hydro project in 2008 was also dumped by India citing it as “not feasible”. Similarly, two more mega-projects, Saptakoshi and Karnali-Chisapani have been on the drawing board for almost three decades. Such failures to deliver on promised assistance has prompted Nepal to believe that “India promises and China delivers.” Such failures play a major role in shaping the public perception against the Indian State, which goes against India’s interests in Nepal.


India’s strategic interests in Nepal are enormous considering the changing dynamics in South Asia and a growing China. The porous and not-so-well guarded boundary, being a hub of all sorts of illegal and criminal activities, is of serious security concern to India. The growing presence of China and favourable reception offered by the Nepalese political elite add up to India’s discomfort. Considering its strategic interests, India must ensure political stability in Nepal. A stable democracy in Nepal will serve India’s interest. India must not overstate the anti-India rhetoric in Nepal as it is mostly used by the political parties for domestic consumption. That said, India must plan its policies carefully to avoid any criticism of interference in the internal affairs of Nepal. At the same time, Nepal must acknowledge India’s importance for its socio-economic and cultural interests. 


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.