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The five volumes on Nepal-India and Nepal-China relations is probably his magnum opus. The list of documents continues seriatim from Vol. 1 and the last item in Vol. V is 1501 at page 3584. Incidentally, significantly it is an editorial in Rising Nepal dated 5 December 2003, which carries an appreciative comment on two separate agreements on China’s aid for development activities.


Bhasin has not taken the easy path of putting together these documents chronologically but classified them subject-wise for easy reference. Vol. I, Section 1 starts with an item entitled “Nepal is a sovereign independent state”. It is the text of a reply dated 22 July 1949 from General Bijay Shamsher, Director General, Foreign Affairs to a note from the Chairman of the Committee on the Admission of New Members in the UN organization. The Committee had sent the text of the resolution it adopted on 26.5.1949 and enclosed the Secretariat paper and the record of the relevant proceedings. The Nepalese reply offers comments and amendments on the Secretarial paper. The six enclosures give texts of previous treaties of Nepal, notably the treaty with the British Indian Government signed on 23rd December 1923. It also contains the text of the treaty of Sewgolie of 1815 with the East India Company and the 1792 treaty following the defeat of Nepal by China, the 1856 treaty after a victory over Tibet and the 1860 post-mutiny treaty, which was a sort of reward to the Rana oligarchy for assistance in the suppression of the “mutiny”. It lists diplomatic missions of Nepal from 1850 onwards to and from foreign countries. The essential thrust made by the Nepalese Foreign Ministry, was that though Nepal had had exclusive standing relations with the British (Indian) government for 150 years previous to the transfer of power in India, Nepal was always sovereign and independent. Documents 2 to 687 cover India-Nepal political relations. It throws light on the background leading to the conclusion of the Treaty of 1950, the escape of King Tribhuvan, the Rana’s recognition and the eventual revocation of “the Boy King” Gyanendra. Bhasin’s compilation reproduces long letters and extensive notes of Nehru himself. They are quintessentially Nehruvian. Time after time, he acknowledges Nepal’s historical independence but also alludes to India’s commitment to championing freedom round the world, crusading against tyranny, authoritarianism and racial discrimination everywhere. He is on guard against the charge of interference, but he is not totally unsympathetic to demands for reforms and democratization of the Rana regime led by fellow freedom fighters. He shows urgent concern for the contagion of militant ides of Communism flowing out of Tibet, but it does not amount to overbearing counsel to Nepal. What comes through is articulated poetically during Nehru’s visit to Kathmandu in 1951, “Nepal: a mountain girl; Nepal, the daughter of the Himalayas, the younger sister of India etc.” and this reflects the deep down conviction that the two countries have a common intertwined destiny. Section III in Vol. II is on the Development of Water Resources; Vol. III covers the tortuous ups and down with India firmly believing in a common umbrella for “Trade and Transit” and Nepal that bracketing was a slur on its independence. Vol. IV is on Economic Cooperation for development and India-Nepal Boundary Questions and Vol. V is exclusively on Nepal-China relations in all aspects. I do not know of any other scholar who has put together so much contemporary raw material on relations with the neighbours. Only Pakistan and Bhutan are not fully covered; the latter will be brief and easy but the former will be a massive task going well beyond the last 75 days of 1947. I hope he will nevertheless attempt it and so make himself the preeminent custodian of India’s diplomatic archives. These volumes would become compulsory reference for Foreign Service officers posted to the concerned divisions in the ministry or the respective capitals and invaluable for prospective authors of every academic specialization. When I was asked to launch the Ministry’s Policy Planning Division in 1966 and was, perhaps the first to argue that success or otherwise of the country’s foreign policy hinged on relations with our neighbours, I wish I had had such compilations. Bhasin’s work builds on his service in the historical division of the ministry and as an Officer on Special Duty in the Nepal division itself. But it is his love of history and interest in South Asia, which led to this service to future historians and operational officers. All of us associated with the Foreign Service must salute Avtar Singh Bhasin. I would like to illustrate from my own experience that without availability of guidance sources there is the terrible risk of the happenstances in bureaucratic deployment which makes functioning very hazardous. My first two postings were in Europe with German and French as my languages. I had not even been to Calcutta when in 1956 I was assigned to the “Eastern Division” as Deputy Secretary to deal with NEFA, Nepal, Bhutan, Sikkim, Tibet and the Fat East. China was the least troublesome part of my charge, but after the Sino-Indian crisis in 1959, it became the most important. When leading the Indian official team for the six-month long discussions, for the first time we consulted the files—sometimes 100 years old and often in district archives or travellers tales—to get the historical background. Fortunately, the Chinese had even poorer access to the archives which at times were reposited in Tibetan monasteries and were even more perfunctory. China remained in my horoscope for the next 23 years but I was embarrassed to be considered a pseudo-expert while I was only training on the job. There was only Richardson’s Tibetan Precis, but if some of Bhasin’s compilations had been available, it would have provided convenient reference, at least on part of my charge, which included Nepal. We do not even weed and print our old files now as was done regularly in British times. Policy making is far too often based on half-baked conveniently remembered history, sometimes from experience of a posting, often only in an adjacent country and at times, as happened to me, in a different continent. There is great risk when we start in ignorance and get influenced often by populist thinking. As Foreign Secretary, I used to tell new colleagues to spend at least three months studying non-current files just to be vaguely aware of past decisions and debate. As a preliminary, Bhasin has a 40 pages long Introduction summarizing his own analysis, which ends with a thoughtful advice on policy. It starts with the situation as prevailed in 2005 after King Gyanendra suspended the Nepalese Parliament and the functioning of the multi-party democracy. The King’s assumption was that to fight the Maoist insurgency required a firm authoritarian hand, but he was ill-advised in thinking that in the 21st century, democracy can be smothered by coercion. There could be no return to feudal governance as prevailed under the Rana oligarchy or even under a controlled Panchayat system. Notwithstanding the intertwined geographical, cultural, religious and ethnic links with the south, India too did not realize that modern diplomacy demands a sense of equality between unequal neighbours. Nepal has hurtled toward self-destruction, but India also did not grasp that it was its duty to arrest this propensity in its own self-interest. Even Nehru was wishful in thinking that Nepal would see its own future in not getting out of step with India on foreign and defence policies. Facing the post-Partition security demands, specially after the infiltration and conflict in Kashmir, independent India requested the loan of ten battalions of the Royal Nepalese Army for internal security duties as had been agreed during World War II. The Rana regime agreed to the request and this was a factor in Nehru authorizing the signing of the 1950 treaty for an indefinite duration, overlooking the demands for political reforms from comrades and fellow freedom fighters like the Koirala brothers. When India sponsored Nepal for the UN and to attend the Afro-Asian conference at Bandung, Nehru did not foresee the India-China crisis and that King Mahendra and even the Nepali politicians would pursue their own variant of nonalignment between the two big neighbours of the country. There was a real failure of anticipation of the rise of Nepalese nationalism and the creeping revulsion at the suspected overbearing attitude of India. After he succeeded in 1955 King Mahendra purposefully established independent international contacts with China, the Soviet Union and the USA and its officers and scholars researched the rights of other land-locked countries. Bhasin’s introductory essay dwells on other problems of Nepal-India relationship such as the insistence on separating Trade and Transit which contributed to the disastrous postponement of the development of Nepal’s natural assets. The tumbling southward flowing rivers have the second largest hydel potential in the world, but it could only be viable if bracketed with the sale of surplus to power-thirsty India. The complimentarity was obvious, but India’s insistence on a privileged position in the construction did not appreciate Nepal’s aversion to reinforce dependence on the big neighbour. Neither could do without the other, but there was reinforcing irrationality on both sides. As he recalls, it all started when the Indian engineers had showed insensitivity in the first projects for flood control and irrigation on the Kosi and Gandak during the fifties. The dams were located to give maximum benefit to Bihar but lowering the costs caused extensive submergence in Nepal. This lack of foresight seriously undermined the faith in the altruism of India. There has been built-in parochialism in Nepal-India relations. I remember as Foreign Secretary, I found that the Nepal Division marshalled all the international precedents to favour lower riparians while the Bangladesh Division was supporting our claim on Farakka on the Ganges as an upper riparian. This compartmentalization and narrow perspective was evident as late as 2002 when some intellectuals including foreign service officers in reacting to the terrorist attack on our Parliament wanted the Indus Treaty abrogated—quite overlooking that India was lower riparian to Nepal and China. The fact of the matter is that there is nothing in diplomacy of the 20th / 21st century as difficult as relations between unequal neighbours. Little Nepal by its own desertification has caused disproportionate harm to downstream Bihar, UP and further downstream to West Bengal and Bangladesh. The American political failure around the world, most recently in Iraq, has a close parallel to India in its relations to the South Asian neighbours, most particularly in Nepal. Some envoys tactfully overcame the seated reservations of Nepal but others unconsciously confirmed the suspicion of arrogance and not necessarily benign superiority, and outraged sensitive nationalism of the Nepalese people. However tactfully done, even Nehru should not have publicly deplored King Mahendra’s dismissal of the Nepal Congress government in 1960. The setback to the climate of relations was only repaired after 5 years by Lal Bahadur Shastri who was able to stoop to assuage Nepalese feelings. Bhasin in his introduction contrasts Nepal with Bhutan. In Bhutan, Nehru was a consummate diplomat after his difficult Himalayan trek in 1958. He urged Bhutan to safeguard its independence, offered India’s cooperation in education, road accessibility and training infrastructure, but only on acceptable terms to the recipient country. The direct road enabled the development of a 400 MV hydel project on Chuka and, as a result, Bhutan is already an island of prosperity. The earnings from the sale of power to India cover 45% of Bhutan’s domestic budget. The potential of Nepal was about two hundred times greater. In my view, Bhasin does not fully recognize that India should have better grasped the pro-pensity of sovereign myopia in Nepal. China was more sophisticated in assuaging the suspected threat to the monarchy and kept strictly under wraps its ideological sympathies with the local Communists and ‘Maoists’. Predictably China exploited the Nepalese aversion to permanent dependence on India. The Kodari road to Tibet became gratuitously important, at least psychologically, when we re-linked trade and transit in 1989.

The bottomline is that a failed Nepal will be ultimately India’s diplomatic failure. Bhasin’s conclusion, however, is unchallengeable. India needs to modernize its relations with Nepal. However difficult, India should actively offer to bring the 1950 treaty upto date, but it might squeeze the present one-sided benefits for Nepal; imbalance in trade, Gurkha recruitment, employment opportunities for Nepalese nationals and other handicaps of free access to India. Finally, as between USA and Canada, the simmering anger at dependence may have to be swallowed for tangible economic benefits but the mix should be made less repugnant to political and public opinion in Nepal.



In the post-Cold War world, SAARC may provide the real answer. It could bring a bonus of benefits to all members in South Asian regional fraternity. All of us in a South Asia are dependent on the Himalayas and the common monsoon clouds. We must recognize that the welfare of the millions of poor in South Asia requires that the common rivers are developed for optimum benefits to upper, middle and lower riparians. The Cold War benefit of blackmail, including the Nepalese variant implied in King Birendra’s idea of the Zone of Peace was a thing of the past. We too should never have publicly talked of a “special” relationship, but, as now only counsel offered discreetly. Nepal’s development and democracy have to be promoted without unconsciously fuelling anti-Indianism, but India should also not over-react if Nepal seizes an opportunity to show off its own independence. As long as the Himalayas are not flattened, the destiny of both lies in dynamic cooperation and inter-dependence.


Jagat S. Mehta is a former Foreign Secretary of India.

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