All Roads Lead North: Nepal’s Turn to China
Amish Raj Mulmi
A journalist's scholarly research takes the long view on a small country's foreign relations, even as it often finds itself caught between two neighbourhood giants...
The democratic transition of Nepal was viewed as a dramatic development in Delhi. As politicians including G.P. Koirala and Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda crisscrossed south Delhi neighbourhoods in white official Ambassador cars and held secret meetings, the Indian capital in the early 2000s was taken up with Nepal's new democratic engagement.
There was an unspoken expectation, therefore, that when a democratic government would ultimately be formed to replace the monarchy in Nepal, it would be aligned with India. In 2008, however, the first post-monarchy Prime Minister of Nepal, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, flew to Beijing and participated in the Olympic Games' closing ceremony. The shock in New Delhi at the turn of events would have been lesser if foreign policy experts had taken into account the deep history of China's engagement with Nepal which is not limited to ideological or diplomatic affinities. Amish Raj Mulmi's scholarly and deeply engaging treatise, All Roads Lead North, fills a vacuum on scholarship on Nepal-China relations which is a must-read to understand India-Nepal ties.
The author delves deep into classic texts and travelogues to build the case that Nepal indeed had a relationship with China that goes back to the first millennia right up to the Maoist insurgency which was built around the theory of a people's war developed by Mao Zedong.
While the book takes up the issue of the China factor in Nepal-India relations, it eschews this narrow focus and weaves it along greater historical developments. In a fascinating twist, Mulmi shows the deep roots of the Tibetan community in Nepal as part of the demographics developed over centuries of a trading relationship which culminated in the armed resistance of the Tibetans known as the Chushi Gangdruk. Trained by the CIA and intelligence officials of India in the 1950s and the 1960s, Chushi Gangdruk was the armed wing of the Tibetan resistance. The pioneers among them underwent training in the United States and were brought to India and flown into Tibet where they were paradropped to carry out subversive activities. These veterans built a strong relationship with Nepal. Many chose to live there and the author shows that some of the weapons of the Chushi Gangdruk in fact went on to be used by the first Maoist guerrillas in the mid-1990s.
These developments over the previous decades reached a turning point in Nepal-China relations after an "unofficial Indian" blockade was imposed on Nepal in 2015. Though India denied involvement with the blockade, the fact remains that South Block supported the rights of the Madhesis who stopped the trucks from India to enter Birgunj and other checkpoints days after the Constitution was adopted on September 20, 2015. The Constitution, the Madhesis and Janjatis claimed, betrayed the promise made during the democratic transition and that it was not representative of some of the oldest communities of Nepal. They claimed the "old elite" of Nepal which dominated the social-political landscape of the country during the monarchy had resurfaced even during the democracy led by Maoist formations. Mulmi shows how the pragmatic response of Nepal to seek the northern supply route was not an impulsive decision but was rooted in ties built with China that spanned both the Maoist leaders of the new democracy as well as the last king Gyanendra who had closed down the office of the Dalai Lama's local representative in Kathmandu.
The result of the developments since 2015 was the image of China as a new superpower that can help Nepal without interfering unnecessarily into the domestic affairs of the country. In this China's behaviour was different from that of India's which continues to be viewed as an interventionist "southern neighbour". China's growing closeness with Nepal also coincided with the BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) and other landmark Chinese projects which promised Nepal an alternative order in global affairs.
Most importantly, the turn towards China will not be uncontested as Nepal has a vibrant democracy where every decision about the country's future is discussed in detail in Parliament and in its expansive media. In recent years, both the 'southern neighbour' as well as the 'northern neighbour' have attempted to establish dominance in the crucial Himalayan nation but the outcome of such a manoeuvre has not been entirely positive. While India has been criticised for its apparent desire to influence internal discussions like the Constitution-drafting and for its unilateral tendencies regarding territorial issues, China too has come under criticism after its ambassador was seen holding parleys with politicians. Nepal's roads may lead to the north but ultimately Nepal will choose the path through a reasoned discussion among its volatile domestic stakeholders.
What remains unclear is how Nepal will navigate the future as it is caught between the past and the future when China is likely to be assertive and at times an adventurous interventionist. Mulmi has written a book with a long shelf life.
Courtesy: THE HINDU