Is a prolonged catch-22 situation something that Nepal or India can afford without inflicting irreparable damages on bilateral relationship? Would it look reasonable for a regional power to stop talking with a bordering neighbour simply because it registered a voice against occupation of a piece of land under dispute, especially when both sides have acknowledged that there are ‘outstanding boundary issues’ between them? And would it be plausible to allow this one single issue to adversely affect the ties having multiple dimensions?
Definitely not, and there is not much that Nepal can be blamed for a flawed relationship. Nepal government repeatedly communicated proposal for a foreign secretary level dialogue to sort out the issue, but has failed to elicit friendly, let alone enthusiastic response from Delhi. All the official spokesman has done thus far is to casually allude to conducive atmosphere as a pre-condition to get the parley started.
While nobody is saying what exactly vitiated the congenial conditions required for a frank talk, efforts now appear afoot ostensibly aimed at an ice-breaking motion. This is likely to happen during Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane’s visit to Nepal in early November. This opening of window can be expected to lead to a broader understanding which, in turn, can open the door for regular diplomatic activities. The mainstream Indian media outlets, which were notoriously belligerent towards Nepal until a few weeks ago, have now started reading General Naravane’s upcoming trip as a ‘sign of thaw’. In a recent newspaper article, Ranjit Rae, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, described army-to-army relations ‘a key pillar of the overall India-Nepal relationship.’
Unintended delay In fact, the initiatives being taken now could have been taken as early as last March. And General Naravane would have met Nepal Army Chief, General Purna Chandra Thapa, seven months earlier. The COVID-19 had not yet created havoc. Unfortunately, General Naravane himself made a remark which was bound to antagonise and alienate people of Nepal. In reference to Nepal’s legitimate claim over Kalapani area, General Naravane: ‘They (Nepal) might have raised this problem at the behest of someone else.’ He was hinting at China, without realising that Nepalis did not need somebody else’s prompting to raise the issue of that nature.
The Naravane statement became controversial and it attracted criticisms from within India. ‘The Army chief had really made an unnecessary comment’, The Print quoted S D Muni as saying. In the opinion of some Indian netizens, General Naravane should have sought advice from two of his predecessors, General Bipin Rawat and General Dalbir Singh Suhag, who hailed from the Gurkha regiment. In hindsight, it appears that General Naravane’s statement was essentially a follow-up of the event of May 8 when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s words at the time of ‘inauguration’ of an 80-km road to Lipulek which ran through Nepali territory.
As is often said, silence is sometimes the best answer. Nepal Army Chief General Thapa chose to remain unprovoked, and did not offer any instant reactions to the media. Ranjit Rae commends General Thapa for having ‘wisely refrained from commenting on the issue.’ The answer General Thapa gave through silence is now paying dividends. However, it would be preposterous to conclude that public resentment General Naravane’s remarks sparked off would be subsided anytime soon. Statements and incidents in intervening months make it clear that Indian politicians as well as policymakers swiftly realised that finding faults with Nepal would doubly harm their interests: it would further push Nepal towards north, and it would not help boost morale of the Gurkha soldiers who are facing their foes on two fronts simultaneously.
The climb-down was visible in Dehradun. On 13th June at the Indian Military Academy, General Naravane told the audience: ‘We have a very strong relationship with Nepal…We have very strong people-to-people connect…will remain strong in the future.’ A sort of U-turn was also made subsequently by the defence minister, Rajnath Singh. He extolled the Gurkhas for the contributions they have made to defend India’s frontiers. As can be easily understood, bilateral cooperation has never been a one-way traffic, India too depends on the continued goodwill and support from Nepal. The bulwark it offers to India on its northern flank is there for everyone to see.
The Indian establishment must also be knowing that by receiving the insignia for the rank of ‘Honorary General’ of Nepal Army from the President Bidya Bhandari, General Naravane would be sending the timely message to the troops in the line of duty. The honour he will obtain in Nepal is sure to enhance his military leadership in India. While negotiations - at diplomatic level - on border encroachments and cartographic aggression/assertion might a longer time period, General Naravane might be interested to do something concrete to make his Nepal visit more than a routine affair.
Inexpensive gestures And not all of such gestures entail commitment of additional resources. On the contrary, some can help cut expenses. For instance, pension-paying camps and district boards are unnecessary as remitting money to retired Gurkhas through banks is more efficient and less expensive. In fact, such camps are an eyesore to the conscious and patriotic Nepali people who convincingly contend that Nepal, as always, is capable of taking care of India’s legitimate security interests.
When in Kathmandu, General Naravane may find it useful to hold substantive discussions on the border itself as well as ways and means of regulating movements of people from either side. After all, the borderline separating the two countries is the ultimate responsibility of the institution of army. India’s paramilitary force tasked to conduct border patrolling SSB, for example, regularly attract media attention in Nepal for reasons ranging from intimidation of rural populations on flimsy grounds to snatching their money and valuables, misbehaving with womenfolk to gunning down youths who challenge encroachment of their farmlands. There is no compensation even for the loss of lives.
Once such grievances are addressed the public resentment against Indian establishment are sure to be reduced considerably. There have also been incidents when Indian security personnel in uniform have entered Nepal without permission, disregarding sanctity of the international border. General Naravane should check about such incidents with defence attaché in Kathmandu. General Naravane himself had had a stint as defence attaché in his country’s embassy in Myanmar (Burma).
Actually, it is the defence/military attachés in the embassies who have to conduct military diplomacy on a day-to-day basis. Understandably, they already have an unenviable workload. And the volume and number of priorities keep increasing every day. Hence there can be a mutual understanding at the highest military level to make their attachés efficient functionaries in their respective embassies - in Kathmandu and Delhi.