Nepal Table of Contents
Although landlocked Nepal was surrounded by both India and China, the kingdom's geographic, economic, and cultural orientation was more closely linked to India. Whereas many Nepalese stressed the differences that defined Nepal's national existence, India's policy makers tended to stress the similarities that bound the two countries together. According to New Delhi's perception, South Asia constituted an integral security unit in which India played the lead role. Many Nepalese resented this interpretation and accused India of being insensitive to Nepal's status as an independent nation.
Despite New Delhi's insistence that stable, independent neighbors were vital to India's security, many Nepalese regarded India as a regional bully. Because of these differing attitudes, Nepal's relations with India oscillated considerably over the years, particularly in matters relating to security.
In a speech before Parliament in 1950, the Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, summed up India's security concerns vis-à-vis Nepal. He stated: "From time immemorial, the Himalayas have provided us with magnificent frontiers. . . . We cannot allow that barrier to be penetrated, because it is also the principal barrier to India. Therefore, as much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened, because that would be a risk to our own security." Nehru and his successors subsequently stated that any Chinese attack on Nepal would be regarded as aggression against India.
In 1950 China forcibly annexed Tibet, which New Delhi regarded as a buffer zone shielding the subcontinent from real or potential Chinese incursions. Nepal thus came to play a much larger role in India's security calculations. Fearing that China might eventually subvert or invade Nepal, India signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Rana regime in 1950. Although not a formal military alliance, the treaty required both parties to consult and "devise effective countermeasures" in the event of a security threat to either country. Nepal's inclusion in the Indian defense perimeter was made explicit by an exchange of secret letters--later made public--that accompanied the treaty, stating inter alia that "neither government shall tolerate any threat to the security of the other by a foreign aggressor." To assuage Nepalese fears of Indian domination, the treaty also stipulated that Indian forces could be introduced into the country only at the invitation of the Nepalese government. The two sides simultaneously signed a trade and transit agreement that extended reciprocal rights with regard to bilateral trade and residential arrangements as well as transshipment of Nepalese goods through India.
In 1952 the Indian Military Mission arrived in Kathmandu to reorganize Nepal's armed forces and bring the kingdom's defenses more in line with India's security requirements. In implementing changes, Nepal drastically reduced the size of its postwar army and revamped its training and organization along Indian lines. Indian advisers also played key roles in training the civil service and police force. Many Nepalese--military officers and civil servants, in particular--were outraged by India's actions, which they saw as an insult to national self-respect. Indian influence was further strengthened, however, by the cooperation of both countries' militaries on several occasions in the 1950s, when at Nepal's request Indian troops helped quell disturbances near their common boundary. As Sino-Indian tensions mounted in the late 1950s, Indian soldiers and technicians assisted in staffing some of the checkposts on the frontier with Tibet. Despite close military ties, Nepal, however, has never allowed garrisoning of Indian troops or joint military exercises in the country.
In 1962 Indian and Chinese forces fought a brief but decisive war over desolate stretches of their disputed frontier. India's unprepared forces suffered a humiliating defeat, despite the fact that China unilaterally withdrew its forces after several weeks of heavy fighting. Although Nepal did not become embroiled in the fighting and both belligerents respected the kingdom's territorial integrity, the war reinforced Nepalese perceptions of their country's perilous role as a Sino-Indian security buffer.
Because of India's growing influence and Nepal's corresponding dependence on India, international diplomacy has always been a vital element of Nepal's survival strategy. Nepal was an active participant and a voice of moderation in the United Nations (UN) and the Nonaligned Movement, although the viability of the latter organization was in doubt after the end of the Cold War (see International and Regional Organizations , ch. 4). In addition, Nepal firmly supported the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC--see Glossary) headquartered in Kathmandu. SAARC eschewed any role in regional security because the threats perceived by Nepal and the other small states of the region were often at variance with those perceived by India.
In 1975 King Birendra proposed that the UN declare Nepal a zone of peace, where military competition would be off-limits. In Birendra's view, the proposal symbolized Nepal's desire to maintain cordial relations with both its neighbors by placing internationally sanctioned restrictions on the use of military force (see Foreign Policy , ch. 4).
Nepalese-Indian relations underwent major jolts over a protracted period starting in 1988. In June of that year, Birendra concluded a secret arms purchase with China, whereby Beijing would supply obsolescent air defense artillery at bargain prices. India probably learned of the deal within days or weeks of the agreement and protested vigorously that Birendra's action had violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the 1950 treaty. Although the appearance of a limited number of vintage air defense weapons hardly represented a threat to Indian Air Force contingency plans, India interpreted the sale as a dangerous precedent that could not go unchallenged. As bilateral tensions mounted, India added other complaints regarding Nepal's supposed insensitivity to India's vital interests. Birendra, capitalizing on nationalistic fervor, was intransigent and insisted that Nepal had the sovereign right to determine its own defense requirements. He also pointed out that Nepal's use of air defense assets against India would never arise as long as Indian fighters respected Nepalese air space; New Delhi countered that the only plausible use for the weapons was against India.
In March 1989, the Nepal-India trade and transit agreement came up for renewal. India's prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, refused to extend the agreement unless Nepal agreed to meet India's commercial and defense concerns. After both sides refused to back down, India allowed the agreement to lapse and closed thirteen of the fifteen border checkposts that regulated most of Nepal's trade with the outside world. The blackade was a severe blow to Nepal because there were no other reliable transit routes. The Chinese rail line in Tibet ended 800 kilometers short of the Nepalese border, and the road linking Kathmandu and Tibet was closed much of the year by avalanches and monsoon landslides. Although the Nepalese army was pressed into action to keep Nepal's section of the road open to the extent possible, it could improve the situation only to a limited extent. Pakistan and Bangladesh were hardly in a position to supply major assistance because their only land routes to Nepal traversed India. The Soviet Union, the United States, and other Western powers quietly declined to take sides and urged India and Nepal to return to the bargaining table.
In the final analysis, the dispute underscored a central geopolitical reality: landlocked Nepal did not have the military, diplomatic, or economic clout to withstand an Indian blockade as long as the government in New Delhi was willing to risk international opprobrium and press its case against the kingdom. Many Nepalese saw New Delhi's actions as "punishment" for Birendra's show of independence and as a manifestation of India's supposed policy of isolating and subjugating its smaller neighbors. Some Nepalese observers, however, criticized Birendra's handling of the dispute, arguing that the king harnessed popular fervor against India to rally patriotic support behind the palace.
Some fifteen months of economic dislocations and diplomatic recriminations placed heavy pressure on both sides to halt the slide in relations. Finally, both sides reaffirmed the 1950 treaty, and Kathmandu agreed not to purchase defense items abroad without consulting New Delhi. Birendra requested that China stop delivery of a final shipment of air defense equipment. Relations gradually returned to normal and improved significantly after Nepal's democratically elected government assumed office in May 1991. The dispute convinced many Nepalese, however, that India had the capacity and will to pressure small neighbors in pursuit of its foreign policy objectives--a message that New Delhi clearly intended to convey to Beijing.
Data as of September 1991
Nepal Table of Contents