Manipal, India — Nepal would never have come to be led by Maoists were it not for the help that the rebels got from India. For decades, Maoist guerrillas took refuge in India’s eastern states of West Bengal and Bihar, given sanctuary by an indulgent Indian administration.
Later, the Maoists’ numerous contacts within the Indian security establishment ensured New Delhi’s help in emasculating Nepal’s monarchy – according to courtiers within Kathmandu’s Narayanhiti Palace, because the Nepali king and Sonia Gandhi disliked each other – and subsequently nudged the Nepali Congress into joining a government led by the guerrilla fighters.
Since then things have shifted. China has characteristically reversed its earlier policy of backing the monarchy, and has become the most significant international backer of Nepal's version of the Peoples Liberation Army. This is causing increasing disquiet in India, which – foolishly – has an open border with Nepal.
Now the Maoists seem set to increase their grip on the country by replacing the head of Nepal's military with a stooge of their own. Army Chief Rukmangud Katawal has thus far resisted both threats and inducements to infuse a flood of guerrilla fighters into what is still a professional fighting force. Should he be replaced, the odds are that the Nepali army – the only effective barrier between the Maoists and dictatorial control – will succumb to their pressures.
Interestingly, it is the pro-China – and therefore pro-Pakistan, given the alliance between these two neighbors of India – groups within Nepal's political establishment that are backing the dismissal of Katawal. Because their own coalition partners oppose the move, the Maoists are looking to jettison them and form an alliance with the opposition Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist-Leninist).
Within this party, pro-Pakistan leaders such as Bam Dev Gautam, and even party Chairman Jhalanath Kamal, have already tacitly switched sides to the Maoists and are ready to be absorbed into the ruling party. However, other key leaders, such as Madhav Nepal, have resisted the Maoist takeover of the CPN-UML, and refused the request of the pro-Pakistan, pro-China groups to surrender to Prime Minister Prachanda.
Even though 21 out of the 24 political parties within the Nepal Constituent Assembly are opposed to Prachanda's attempt to "Maoize" the Nepal military, this has not stopped the ruling party from seeking to dismiss the army chief. Should it do so, the ineffective and timid government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is unlikely to do more than bleat out a protest – especially with India in the final throes of an election where this columnist expects the ruling Congress Party’s share of seats to fall by one-third.
Exactly as in the 1980s, when it force-fed Sri Lanka’s Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam into a powerful guerrilla force, the amateurish security establishment in India is discovering that it has nurtured a monster in the Maoists that has bounded out of control.
However, a Maoist takeover of the Nepali army – which would be followed by greater assistance within Nepal to Pakistan's China-supported Inter-Services Intelligence and its terror activities in India – could lead a future government in India to re-impose a quarantine of Nepal. Such a move in the 1980s forced King Mahendra to cede wide powers to elected Nepali representatives, a development unwisely reversed by the last of the Shah dynasty, King Gyanendra.
Should Prachanda continue to ignore the reality of Nepal's dependence on India, and connive at assisting insurgency in India in the company of Pakistan and with a China-backed army, he may find his takeover of the military to be a Pyrrhic victory. Not all Indian prime ministers will be as forgiving as Manmohan Singh has been to India's internal and external enemies.
-(Professor M.D. Nalapat is vice-chair of the Manipal Advanced Research Group, UNESCO Peace Chair, and professor of geopolitics at Manipal University. ©Copyright M.D. Nalapat.)