Nepal’s Strange Restraint in the Face of Indian Revelations

KATHMANDU – Nearly four months after the royal coup in Nepal, the Indian press this week unveiled secret links between India’s intelligence services and Nepal’s Maoist rebels. But curiously, the revelations have failed to kick up a raging controversy in Nepal.

On Wednesday, The Times of India newspaper reported from Delhi that top Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai had recently visited the Indian capital, and was “chaperoned by intelligence agencies.” The report also said that Bhattarai held meetings with the general secretary of the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) Prakash Karat and some exiled Nepali politicians in a bid to form a broad democratic front against King Gyanendra’s royal rule in Nepal.

The private Nepali press quickly latched on to the report and splashed it across their front pages. The report’s potential to cause trouble is huge because, like Nepal, India too has declared the Maoists a terrorist outfit. Any overt links with a terrorist organization will inevitably be seen in Nepal as a hypocritical policy by India.

But despite the Nepali press picking up the story, the government press curiously refrained from doing so.

This has struck many analysts as strange because they note that the state media has been on a drive to whip up nationalistic fervor in favor of King Gyanendra’s Feb. 1 royal coup. And India’s continued strong anti-coup stand makes it an obvious target for these elements. Yet no such thing happened.

“Here was an opportunity to really put the Indians in the dock, but the state-controlled press curiously passed it up,” said an analyst who preferred to remain anonymous.

A day after the report appeared, the Indian government went into damage-control mode.

On Thursday, the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu circulated a statement from Karat denying that he had met Bhattarai in Delhi. Bhattarai himself also issued a statement, alleging attempts by various elements to malign his character.

He did not deny that he was in Delhi recently, but he took exception to the report that he had been chaperoned by Indian intelligence agencies.

As the situation now stands, both governments appear to be downplaying the report and hoping that bilateral ties remain unaffected. This is remarkable in the annals of Nepal-India ties.

Usually, Nepalis are quick to see insult and injury in anything coming from across the border. For instance in early 2001, riots ensued throughout Nepal when a rumored derogatory remark by Indian film star Hrithik Roshan appeared in the press. Never mind that Roshan frantically denied ever making the remark.

Such volatile emotions however have not been seen this time. There have been no anti-India marches sponsored by royalists, no protests, and no vandalism. Though anti-Indian vitriol is evident in Internet chat rooms, actual physical protests are remarkably absent.

Could it be that the royal regime is deliberately putting a lid on anti-India sentiments?

“Nepal-India relations function like a traffic light,” said Nishchal Nath Pandey, the executive director of the Institute of Foreign Affairs, a semi-government think tank in Kathmandu.

“We always have to keep working for and keep hoping for the green light to come on,” he told IPS cryptically.

Perhaps it is this realization that is keeping Nepal’s royal regime from hitting back at India. They know that despite all the brevity shown in the past few months, eventually they will need India’s support and assistance to help resolve Nepal’s intractable three-sided conflict between the king, the Maoists, and the political parties.

This nation of 25 million has been in the grips of a violent Maoist insurgency since 1996, taking the lives of more than 11,000 people.

The Maoists are demanding a republican state. The insurgency, and the failure of Nepal’s democratic governments to deal with it, provided King Gyanendra the pretext to do away with democracy altogether. On Feb. 1, he dismissed a party-based government and began ruling directly, imposing emergency rule and severely constricting political, civil, and press freedoms.

The international community, led by India, decried the coup and imposed tough sanctions. The king partially relented and on April 29 rescinded emergency rule, though political and press freedoms continue to be restricted.

But that was enough for India to announce resumption of aid, particularly non-lethal military assistance to the king’s army. It was just at this crucial moment that The Times of India report hit the headlines.

“The report may be a signal to Nepal that, if the king does not rescind his dictatorial steps, India will have to forge links with the Maoists to nudge it closer to a settlement,” said the analyst, requesting anonymity. “If the royal government sees India and the Maoists talking, it could be more inclined to seek a negotiated settlement and backtrack from autocracy.”

This could be a likely motive because only on May 20, the army held a press conference in Kathmandu in which it played audio and videotapes of Maoist leader Prachanda lamenting that he was under pressure from India to come forth for talks.

The unspoken army accusation: India is in cahoots with the Maoists. The Times of India report came five days later.

“The mood in India is becoming nasty because the royal government has been offending India [through the army press conference and the continued arrest of politicians,” said Prof. S.D. Muni of the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, a recognized expert on Nepal.

“The army press conference was an attempt by the royal government to co-opt the Maoists and show that they are Indian stooges, to discredit them if you will. But that is not working,” he pointed out.

But no matter how nasty the mood is, officially, India is looking to maintain relations with the royal government. On Thursday, it sent a ranking diplomat to Kathmandu for a six-day visit, the first such high-profile Indian visit after the king’s coup.