Is China the new blockade in Indo-Nepal relations?

The past few months have been abuzz with the significant changes in the Indo-Nepal relations, which are nothing short of a cause for alarm.

The relations between the two which can be traced to more than a century ago, have not witnessed the best of days ever since the former Hindu kingdom adopted its new constitution in September 2015.

The issue of the Madhesi community has been a bone of contention between the two nations. The Madhesis accuse the Nepalese government of their improper representation in the constitution. Their demand for a separate province has caused a stir on both sides of the border. Not to forget, the strong traditional and cultural ties the community has with the Indian state of Bihar in particular.

The economic blockade that followed has brought the day-to-day life in Nepal to a standstill. Nepal is highly dependent on India for fuel, oil and medicines with India providing more than 60% of its supplies. In its absence, the country is facing a crisis of sorts. And moreover, the limited supplies that are being brought into the country are being sold in black at exorbitant prices. According to a news channel, gas cylinders are being sold for as much as ₹6000 each.

India remarked that, Nepal should adopt a constitution that is more inclusive of its population and that the ‘political problem requires a political solution’. On the other hand, Nepal is wary about India’s intentions with regards to the economic blockade and its support for the Madhesis.

The blame game could not be left far behind. Nepal’s accusation of India intervening in its internal affairs has given legitimacy to the voices of others in the subcontinent like Bangladesh, Pakistan and especially China. They too have long accused New Delhi for snooping around their internal matters.

Let’s not forget India’s large economic clout. It has been the major supplier to Nepal for its essential goods and services. The devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in April last year also saw increased assistance from India. One can say between China and India, the latter enjoyed much better privileges in Nepal than the former.

Following the stand-off, Nepal has been forced to look beyond our nation. Asking for Chinese assistance was the only choice it was left with. And China did provide support to the country in the time of a grave crisis. It provided about 1000 metric tonnes of petroleum after India’s pompous behaviour following the adoption of the Nepalese constitution which didn’t get down too well with India.

But it would be imprudent to assume that China extended a heartfelt gesture only on humanitarian grounds. In global politics, every action has a reason, a strategic reason to be precise. The reason for China trying to be a friendly neighbour in wake of dwindling Indo-Nepalese ties is not difficult to comprehend, leaving India to be perceived as the ‘bad boy’ one more time.

Why is India so concerned with what is happening across the border?

As mentioned above, India’s support for the Madhesis is because of the latter’s age-old ties with the former. A huge number of Madhesis in Nepal had migrated from India. Members of the same community also reside in Bihar.

Moreover, amidst all the protest, India does not want to project itself as a mute spectator. It’s not surprising that a country’s political influence in a region is largely influenced by its mediating power and even more so when the people in question have a strong affiliation with India. But the fact of the matter is that this is no way for India to show its strength. Trying to act as the boss will only devoid it of its friends, the signs of which are becoming quite visible. In a real friendship there are no leaders and followers.

India’s behaviour will create problems for it. We have already seen one such instance in its loss in the recent assembly elections of Bihar.

If New Delhi doesn’t have anything to do with the blockade and it truly is a result of what’s happening inside Nepal, then nonetheless it can still play an important role in ensuring peace and stability in the region without using the upper hand.

The recent end of the impasse following Nepal’s decision to amend the constitution has been hailed by India as a ‘positive step’. But the Madhesis are not satisfied with the solution package and see it as a vague and insufficient one.

What follows will be a crucial step that will reflect whether the two nations go back to being the old pals that they have been or there will be another cloud on the horizon.

Nandini Sinha

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Nepal reconstruction conference

Kathmandu– 25 June 2015 marked the date of the international conference for Nepal’s reconstruction and it reportedly ushered in 4.4 bn U.S Dollars to aid in the reconstruction and rehabilitation project.

7-9-magnitude-earthquake-strikes-kathmandu-nepalThe earthquake that devastated Nepal on 25 April and its aftershock on 12 May claimed the lives of 9000 people and left many more injured and homeless. The unprecedented scale of destruction has left the country in shambles and the mammoth task of reconstruction looms ominously over Nepal.

Thus to aid in their endeavor 239 representatives from 53 countries attended the conference to pledge their support to the cause. The forerunners at the event included India and China who pledged 1 billion dollars and 483 million dollars respectively to the countries reconstruction efforts. Both superpowers have been vying for influence within the Himalayan Kingdom and have left no stone unturned in its time of need, capitalizing on this opportunity.

Initially India had also contributed to the disaster relief efforts, responding instantaneously to the distress signal from Nepal. Operation Maitri was one of the largest disaster assistance endeavors by India. The rescue team arrived in a record 6 hrs. and the army was deployed to assist too. This was accompanied by the delivery of food and essential medical supplies for the victims of the earthquake.

The World Bank has also decided to loan Nepal half a million dollars to help them get back on their feet. Incidentally Nepal has gone on to say that the internal revenue generated would also fund the reconstruction efforts and is therefore not entirely dependent on foreign aid.

It has also been made clear that while grants and monetary aid is welcome, Nepal also requires help in terms of technical assistance as well as recommendations and suggestions from the international community.

Now the country has to work towards using the funds and expertise gained from other countries in an efficient and transparent manner. Zero corruption will be tolerated, as all funds should ideally reach the victims and those in need.

Summarized eloquently by Sushma Swaraj, “Without doubt, from the debris of destruction, a stronger, united and more confident Nepal will rise”- (External Affairs Minister India).

PROJECT: MAUSAM

Since the day China had declared to revive the ancient Maritime Silk Route (MSR) to the world, world leaders have been closely monitoring every movement of China in the geo-politics of the world. The Maritime Silk Route for India means China further gaining grounds in the Indian Oceans, which is not welcomed news to Indian ambitions in South Asia. Though India is also amongst the nations under the MRS, the sudden interest shown by its neighbors like Sri Lanka and Maldives into the project has got India defensive. India now under the leadership of Narendra Modi plans to bring about its ancient economic ties in the Indian Ocean region to propose an alternative, which could counter balance, the Maritime Silk Route of China. Many experts see project “Mausam” as India’s reply to the Maritime Silk Route of China. The project emphasizes on the natural wind phenomenon, particularly monsoon winds used by Indian sailors in ancient times for maritime trade, that has formed relations amongst nations and groups linked by the Indian Ocean. Secretary, Ministry of Culture Ravindra Singh, on 20th June 2014, presented “Mausam”, a Ministry of Culture project to an international audience at the 38th session of the World Heritage Committee at Doha, Qatar. The unique idea of this project showcased a Transnational Mixed Route (including Natural and Cultural Heritage) on the World Heritage List during the meet in Doha. The Director General UNESCO appreciated India’s initiative in launching this unique project and ambassadors of several countries including China, UAE, Qatar, Iran, Myanmar, and Vietnam expressed great interest in this multifaceted cultural project.

The endeavor of Project “Mausam”-Mausam: Maritime Route and Cultural Landscapes are to position itself at two levels:

 Macro level, it aims to re-connect and re-establish communications between countries of the Indian Ocean World, which would lead to an enhanced understanding of cultural values and concerns.

 Micro level, the focus is on understanding national cultures in their maritime milieu.

Before we get into the details of the Project let us turn back time and look into the historical importance of the project and the very definition of the word “Mausam”. The word “Mausam” or as they say in Arabic “Mawsim” refers to the season when ships could sail safely. The etymology of this word signifies the importance of this season to a variety of seafarers. This intertwining of natural phenomena such as monsoon winds and the ways in which these were harnessed historically to create cultural networks form the building blocks of Project ‘Mausam’. From time immemorial the Indian Ocean has been flourishing with trade. India used to trade with the Greeks, Chinese and to far off places. Fishermen, sailors, merchants traveled the waters of the Indian Ocean as early as the third millennium BCE, linking the world’s earliest civilizations from Africa to East Asia in a complex web of relationships. The commodities exchanged through these networks included a wide array of objects such as aromatics, medicines, gems, stones and ornaments, metals, and plant and animal products and these were transported through voyages and sold at markets or bazaars along the Indian Ocean littoral. The spread of religions like Hinduism, Buddhism and other religions helped in breaking boundaries and in the expansion of the Indian Ocean “World”. All this can be seen in archaeological findings and textual references from a range of time periods.

Trade exchanges in the Indian Ocean can be seen right from the Harappan times. Seals have also been found on sites across the Arabian Peninsula to accounts of European sailors sailing across during those time. Looking at all these historical findings we can conclude the importance of the Indian Ocean during those times therefore we can only imagine the influence and the importance of the Indian Ocean “World” in the 21st century.

India and China have dominated the economic and the geo-political scenario of Asia for most part of the past decade. Therefore we can understand why India feels threatened by the presence of China in South Asia. With the Maldives recently showing tilt toward China by terminating contracts with India and handing it over to the Chinese puts India in a back seat in the geo-politics around the Indian Ocean.

Project “Mausam” is more of a cultural project where the whole idea is to hold researches and discover the ancient ties between the countries that used to trade here in the India Ocean. The project aims to explore the multicultural world of the Indian Ocean “World”. Right from using archaeological and historical findings we tend to document the cultural, commercial and religious interactions in the area, that extends from East Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, the Indian subcontinent and Sri Lanka to the Southeast Asian archipelago. The project wants to show the general public common heritage and multiple identities that we share with other nations with the help of studies and research on the trade in the Indian Ocean. The project tends to promote the study of Maritime Routes by holding international seminars and doing research on such topics. It also plans on holding meetings to help in such study and also adopting a multi-disciplinary approach for the working of the project.

Coming to the objective and the goals of Project “Mausam” the main objective of the project is transnational nomination of Maritime Cultural Routes, creation of a comprehensive database and UNESCO web platform on Maritime Cultural Landscapes and Routes. The project has two major units:

 Project Research Unit

 World Heritage Nomination Unit

As far as the goals of Project “Mausam” is concerned it is as follows, the first of its goals relates to reviving the lost linkages with nations. By this the Government of India wants to revive the past cultural ties and the values that were shared between nations during the ancient days by documenting and through research. The government wants to celebrate the ties that India shared with these nations and show them the relevance of such ties in today’s world. This will not only strengthen current ties between countries across the Ocean, but also set a precedent for new bridges of co-operation and continued relations and interactions. The second goal talks about creating links to existing World Heritage sites where India plans to provide a platform to connect discrete Cultural and Natural World Heritage sites across the Indian Ocean ‘world’ by providing a cross-cultural, transnational narrative. The third regards redefining cultural landscapes and lastly the project aims on achieving transnational nomination under World Heritage status thus increasing scope for visibility, research, sustainable tourism, heritage development and promoting other Cultural Conventions across the Indian Ocean region.

India under the leadership of Narendra Modi has no intentions to give China space and allow them to dominate in the Indian Ocean “world”; Project “Mausam” is a perfect example of that. India wants to hold grounds in the contentious waters of the Indian Ocean and wants to dominate the area and prevent China from setting its roots in the Indian Ocean. Project ‘Mausam’ is an exciting, multi-disciplinary project that rekindles long-lost ties across nations of the Indian Ocean ‘world’ and forges new avenues of cooperation and exchange. The project, launched by India in partnership with member states, will enable a significant step in recording and celebrating this important phase of world history from the African, Arab and Asian-world perspectives. To sum it up Project “Mausam” is a project that intends to bring the member nations together around a common cultural, commercial and historical spirit through research, meetings and others means and remind them about the significance of their ties which existed during their times of trade in the olden days in the Indian Ocean. In order to provide more clarity of what the project is all about here are some of the themes that are to be explored as per the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts (IGNCA), it is to be noted that a research unit for the project is being currently set up in IGNCA.

India-Myanmar: BCIM Corridor

Right from the early days of British rule in India the idea of a corridor joining Bangladesh, China, India and Myanmar has often been talked about. Lord Curzon during his time in India thought about a route linking Bengal, China and Myanmar, which was aimed to increase the trade between the countries and help India flourish in trade along its eastern borders.

The Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently proposed the idea of the BCIM corridor during his visit to India in 2013. The first official meeting of the joint study group was held in December 2013. The idea of BCIM is to connect Bangladesh, Northeast India, Myanmar and Yunnan province through a network of roads, railways, waterways and airways. The BCIM economic corridor is a modern day Silk route or the South Western Silk route. Professor Sobhan was the pioneer who advocated that multi-modal transport connectivity. This initiative and the resulting infrastructure development could significantly stimulate trade and investment and consequently accelerate growth and poverty alleviation in this region.

In this silk route, Kolkata will be connected to Kunming via Dhaka and Naw Pyi Taw. The BCIM corridor will allow all the four countries to exploit the existing complementarities in trade in terms of agricultural products as well as manufactured goods. This can also result in increased energy cooperation in the region and once again this can lead to the overall development of the highly mountainous terrain of Northeast India.

However, Myanmar along with Nepal, Bangladesh has been a safe haven for insurgents, terrorists and other individuals from India. This makes the BCIM corridor complicated. With easy cross border access provided by the corridor it will make it even harder for India to check the flow of insurgents in and out of the country. But India despite its baggage of security concerns is incrementally moving to give the idea a fair shot. North East India is an ethnic mosaic and rich in natural resources. Despite endowed with abundant natural resources, the Union government never seemed serious about properly utilizing those to bring about economic growth and prosperity in the region since the time of independence. North East has gained prominence in the foreign policy making only after the articulation of “Look East Policy” in the early 1990s. But at the same time, it is considered as the most backward region of the country. Questions on the impact on people, culture and bio-diversity once North East’s borders are opened for trade and transit are what worry many experts.

India’s increase in its outreach towards Myanmar is because India feels threatened by the intensification of Chinese presence in South Asia. India and Myanmar share a 1600 km long land border and a maritime boundary in the northeast. This makes India’s tie with Myanmar all the more important, as Myanmar is the gate way for India to the South East of Asia and India the gate to South Asia for Myanmar.

The BCIM corridor is beneficial for both countries as it helps in the increase of trade and development of both the region. The geographical closeness also provides India with an opportunity to develop northeastern states by ramping up trade with Myanmar as well as by taking up joint infrastructure development. A healthy bilateral relationship between India and Myanmar could open up the Northeast for tourism potential from much better integrated Southeast Asian countries. Better ties with Myanmar would also help New Delhi in tackling insurgencies in several northeastern states. Collaboration with the Myanmar’s armed forces would ensure that insurgents don’t find safe haven in the neighboring country.

The only worry for India at the end of the day is the presence of China in Myanmar. India should be cautious in its decisions regarding international trade and relations with Myanmar. Myanmar being located in the pivot of India’s route to South East Asia allows Myanmar to be in the driving seat with the “China card” in hand. The bilateral trade between the two countries is expected to touch $3bil by 2015. India is expected to invest about $2.5bil in Myanmar in the coming years. China will remain a key partner of Myanmar despite the winds of change. Myanmar’s return to the international fold is both an opportunity as well as a challenge to India. The BCIM corridor is only one of many important economic pacts between the two countries.

Myanmar holds the key for the security in the North East of India and hence it is of utmost importance that the current government handles the delicate relation in a cautious manner.