Among the chattering diplomatic community of New Delhi, Nepalese Ambassador Deep Kumar Upadhyay is certainly one of the exceptions. A suave, but no nonsense personality, he is also known for his economy of words.
So when he asks India “not to press Nepal to the wall” as it seeks help from other countries, including China, the strategic threat to New Delhi looks close at hand. India has all along maintained that non-supply of essential commodities to Nepal is entirely due to agitation by the Madhesis and the janajatis (people of tribal origin) on the Nepalese side of the border. Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) personnel however confirm that at least till the third week of September, they had orders from above to intercept fuel shipments to Nepal.
Khadga Prasad Oli, the new Nepalese prime minister, represents the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist – Leninist), which is known for its virulent anti- India approach and, given this changed political scenario, Upadhyay’s threat does not look like an empty boast. Since the time of king Mahendra in the 1960s, Nepal has been using its position as a buffer between India and China but from New Delhi’s perspective, the situation has never been so worrisome as it is now.
This is because China has greatly increased its presence and influence in Nepal in the last decade, mainly through pecuniary help, financing of infrastructural projects and cultural programmes. It is even planning to dig a tunnel beneath Mount Everest for extending the Qinghai-Lhasa railway line to Kathmandu. This project is strategically important for China as it is now aiming to penetrate the economies of various South Asian countries.
For quite some time now, China has been breathing heavily down on India’s neck by its presence in Nepal and Bhutan and its influence on Kathmandu can be gauged from the fact that before the convening of the last Constituent Assembly, leaders of almost all political parties had gone to Beijing for confabulations.
For the present, we may leave aside the Everest tunnel question because its technical feasibility has been questioned even in China. It is undeniable that India is still far ahead of China in matters of investments and building up of projects in Nepal. But it is also true that China is catching up very fast. Beijing will invest $1.6 billion towards constructing a 750 MW hydropower project in West Seti. Another Chinese company is constructing a similar project in the Upper Tamakoshi region. Moreover, China is involved in the modernization of the Araniko highway which connects Kathmandu with the Chinese border near Kodari. Most importantly, Beijing will invest $20 million for upgrading the 17-km-long dirt track between Syaphrubesi and Kyirong (in Tibet). On the Chinese side of the border, Beijing has constructed Highway No.318 which leads to Lhasa and ultimately to Shanghai. This highway is not far off from either Kodari or Kyirong.
The focus of China’s internal and external policy has now shifted from its eastern seaboard to the interior part of the country encompassing Tibet, Quinghai, Gansu, Sichuan, Kunming and Xinjiang. Of them, Tibet occupies the central position due to its huge mineral and water resources. As Nepal has a long border with Tibet and more than 20,000 Tibetan refugees, China will never allow its growing hold on Nepal to slacken.
For this China is invading Nepal culturally too. Reversing an earlier trend, Nepalese students, particularly from the elite families are now going to China, instead of India, for higher studies. To facilitate the process, numerous China Study Centres have come up in Nepal, particularly in Kathmandu and in the Terai region bordering India.
But the agitating Madhesis and the janajatis also have reasons of their own. Their anger stems from the fact that 14 districts inhabited by them have been integrated with regions dominated by the hill people. It is a fact that the Madhesis constitute more than one-third of the country’s population. More than 70 percent of Nepal’s agricultural produce comes from their areas, which contribute 65 percent of Nepal’s gross domestic product and 76 percent of the country’s revenue – but they constitute only 9.9 percent of the gazetted-level government employees.
Prolonged unrest in the Terai region, with its long borders with India’s Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states, may help China to a great extent. Already armed fissiparous groups like the Madhesi Janadhikar Forum (MFJ), the Terai Cobra, the Nepal Defence Army and the like are operating in this area. China is known to be backing one faction of the MFJ. All of these groups have close ethnic identities with the people of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. If the situation goes out of control in the Terai belt, then China might also try to foment trouble on the Indian side of the border.
The going for India certainly seems to be rough.
(20.10.2015 – Amitava Mukherjee is a senior journalist and commentator. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)