In June, two events took place in two different parts of the Himalayas within a span of 11 days. These two events will have considerable impact on Nepal in the days to come. The first event was the beginning of protests in Darjeeling in reaction to a speech on June 5 by a minister of the Indian state of West Bengal; he announced that Bengali would be a compulsory language in the Nepali-speaking hill districts. The second event was the standoff between the Chinese and Indian forces on June 16 at Doklam, which lies in the tri-junction of Bhutan, China and India.
The first event has led to an indefinite strike in the hill districts with the revival of the demand for a separate state of Gorkhaland. The second has generated a protracted war of words between China and India. Our government, having been so inward looking for the past 15 years, occupied with fending off insurgencies and managing political syndicates, has not even had time to think about what the two events mean for Nepal.
The emergence of the global market mindset and integration, the proliferation and declining costs of communication technologies, and the world of the internet and cheap air connectivity have all contributed to making the world a smaller place. But with American President Trump planning to build a wall along the US border with Mexico, Brexit becoming a process rather than a concept, the blockade of Qatar, and the resurgence of rightist forces in different countries, there is reason to start questioning the fundamentals of free movement of goods, services and people.
India and China
As commentator Hari Sharma says, the concept of political boundaries that we thought was a 20th century phenomenon and was sidelined in the 21st century has been brought back to the fore. In the past, Kathmandu chose to deal only with capitals and never gave much thought to borders and boundaries. Now it needs to accord the nation’s frontiers more consideration, as India has reportedly been deploying intelligence forces along its borders with Bhutan and Nepal, making borders once again a zone of challenge instead of a zone to unleash economic forces. China, with a successful launch of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), has upped is ante with the clear intent of forming a bloc with Russia to counter the India-Japan-US nexus. In the possession of a considerable war chest and contemporary technology, China would like to make greater inroads into its neighbourhood. Backed by media that is now of international standards, it is also ensuring that the voices of the corridors of power in Beijing are heard across the world through print, internet and television. China is also aware that it has to mend its ways to change how other countries perceive it—largely with a lack of trust and as a force that pursues development with scant regard for the environment and ecology. Beijing is reaching out to more people than ever before with the aim of informing them about China’s plans for the future.
India has been riding the Modi wave, removing the uncertainty of hung parliaments that dogged the nation for three decades. Economic empowerment for an argumentative and aggressive populace provides a great opportunity to further international ambitions. The other big issue for India is that the competing private media channels, especially TV channels, have to continue to generate wars for their audiences, as that is what a sizeable section of Indians seems to want. People who watched Indian television channels in the run up to the final of the ICC Champions Trophy in June between India and Pakistan could see the match portrayed as a battle in which all dreams of victory were shattered as Pakistan routed India in the finals. Incidents such as these represent a nation’s mindset. Many people in India would surely not mind if another war game with China aids the assertion of India’s emergence on the global front.
In Nepal, with foreign junkets continuing to be the priority of key decision makers, little time is spent trying to understand these geopolitical issues and their implications for Nepal.
It is time that Bhutan recalibrated its foreign policy. As foreign policy commentator Nishchalnath Panday shared, perhaps Bhutan should look at starting embassies in the US, the UK and countries to upgrade its diplomatic relationships. Its relations with China will still need to be dealt with delicately, as it is alleged that governments in Bhutan have been changed due to controversies surrounding this issue. In the private drawing rooms of Thimpu, people may even be thinking that the Doklam issue has perhaps come as a godsend to assert Bhutan’s need for a more direct relationship with China.
Every geopolitical event necessitates recalibrating relationships. Following devastating wars, European nations banded together to write a new chapter in economic history. Bhutan and Nepal have had an icy relationship for more than a quarter of a century. When I visit Bhutan, I feel as though I am a child visiting the house of an aunt where the children talk but the aunt and mother don’t. And there is the big brother who talks to both the sisters, but doesn’t mind the sisters not taking to each other, as it has benefited him. The two sisters must mend their ways and come together. We need to find a way to instigate discussions between the two Himalayan nations so they can sort out past issues and move forward. Regional integration is the cornerstone of economic growth, and it requires mutual understanding and recalibration of bilateral ties. Every geopolitical shift can be used as an opportunity for positive change. This could be one.