Sunday, January 22, 2012

Dr. Bhattarai And Our Strategy For Survival

Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai is getting grief from across the spectrum for having suggested that Nepal risked being merged into either China or India if it failed to redefine its geo-strategic self-interest.
Some have attributed pure diplomatic immaturity to the premier’s assertion. Others see a pronounced albeit misguided boldness in his attempt to contend with both powerful neighbors at the same time. Others still see a sense of insecurity transformed into a ploy to prolong his tenure in power.
Regardless of the motive(s), Maila Baje feels Dr. Bhattarai has made a positive and much-needed contribution to the national discourse. If such forthrightness had not come from the man on the top, it might not have left us scratching our heads with the intensity we are today.
Ever since Nepal – in the eminent historian Father Ludwig Stiller’s words – “passed definitely from the status of an insignificant state to that of a power in the Indian subcontinent”, stopping the juggernaut entailed utmost urgency for Qing China and British India. And this consisted of more than military means. As Nepal festered in domestic turmoil after its military defeats by China and British India, the two empires perpetuated their respective narratives in which Nepal was part of their historical inheritance. Manchu emperors, Sun Yat-sen and Mao Zedong all claimed Nepal as part of territories China lost to western imperialism.
To be sure, Nepal’s treaties with the People’s Republic of China have abrogated all past claims of Nepali vassalage to the Middle Kingdom and precluded the possibility of any resurrection of irredentist claims. But the historical and cultural legacies that feed the narrative are still very much alive among the Chinese, whose memory is legendary for its length in time.
Indians with a penchant for history have similarly been puzzled by the fact that Nepal managed to remain out of the formal British empire despite the East India Company’s decisive victory in the war. Indeed, if the Chinese shadow had not loomed so large on Governor-General Francis Rawdon-Hastings’ considerations before and after the Sugauli Treaty, the notion of a “limited war” would not have not existed. But for the Indians dominating the political security establishment in New Delhi, it is nonetheless intriguing that states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka – so distant from their version of Indianness – should be part of India but not Nepal.
As Nepalis continued to bicker, irrespective of the political system in place, this contested realm of overlapping orbits deepened among the Chinese and Indians. During times of peace, the fallout for us seems to have been calmer. During periods of tensions, greater convulsions have occurred. Sometimes, events have moved so fast that their impact on us has become quite inexplicable. The July 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship New Delhi signed with the Rana regime, for instance, was made utterly redundant merely by October that year, when Chinese communist troops moved into Tibet. A little over six months after Mohan Shamsher Rana thought his regime had attained some security vis-à-vis independent India, the Rana regime receded firmly in the dustbin of history. Not without the incongruity of the same Mohan Shamsher having become the first prime minister of democratic Nepal.
At other times, regional events have proceeded with greater placidity. With the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile in India in March 1959, Nepali democracy had virtually run its course – even before Nepal’s staggered first national elections had been completed.
For thirty years, the opacity and closed nature of the partyless system provided our two neighbors the kind of equilibrium they needed to calibrate their relationship. Whether Nepalis themselves would have volunteered to choose between full-fledged democracy and a sense of nationhood in the international community is debatable. That King Mahendra pushed us toward the latter course out of any consideration other than reinforcing his rule continues to be hotly debated. So is King Birendra’s Zone of Peace Proposal, which was prefaced by his 1973 interview with Newsweek that Nepal, consisting of three districts appertaining beyond the Himalayas, was not technically a subcontinental nation. King Gyanendra’s emphasis on developing Nepal into a transit hub between the two Asian giants continues to stir jeers of derision. Yet the Zone of Peace proposal has been gaining new interest, while the post-monarchy leadership has been touting the transit-hub model. If you really look for it, there is even a grudging admiration for King Mahendra’s notion of nationhood among his fiercest critics.
Put differently, Nepalis seem to like the way the country has survived in the international community with a distinct identity. Would the same have been achieved through the path of unshackled democracy and development? Probably. But the Cold War history of Asia, Africa and Latin America leaves us less sanguine. Other developing countries may have been liberated following the fall of the Berlin Wall. The Cold War that really matters to us has never really receded.
Our unrelenting march towards national newness has been marred by a lack of clarity on things that really matter. Manifestations of this contested realm of overlapping orbits, Maila Baje, feels will become more apparent in the period ahead from both our neighbors. By illuminating our geo-strategic vulnerability in so stark terms, Dr. Bhattarai has permitted Nepalis of all ideological persuasions to ponder a new – to borrow a worn but still worthy phrase – strategy for survival. It is only with life, after all, that liberty and the pursuit of happiness can follow.