Bishwa Bandhu Thapa, 93, is one of the senior-most and oldest living politicians of Nepal. The nonagenarian leader has seen great upheavals in the domestic and international politics during his lifetime. As a young man, he served as General Secretary of Nepali Congress under the leadership of its President B. P. Koirala. After King Mahendra took power in 1960, he supported the King and served under the party-less Panchayat regime in different capacities, including stints as the Home Minister, Vice Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Chairman of the Rastriya Panchayat (Parliament).
As part of its “Diplomatic Memory” series, NEPAL FIRST’s Gaurab Shumsher Thapa and Santosh Ghimire had a chat with Thapa on the historical and geopolitical aspects of Nepal’s foreign policy. Below are the excerpts:
How do you view Nepal’s position in South Asia?
Geographically, Nepal occupies a very important position between the Tibetan Plateau and Indo-Gangetic plain. Therefore, it is understandable that Nepal is very important for both our immediate neighbors, India and China. If King Prithvi Narayan Shah had not unified the small principalities to form a single country, all the territories would have been captured by the British. Mukhtiyar Gen. Bhimsen Thapa thought that the British East India Company was a business entity and would not remain in the subcontinent for a long period of time. Staunchly anti-British, Thapa calculated that they could be chased away from South Asia if an alliance could be forged between Nepal and strong princely states of India. However, such a plan did not materialize and Nepal had to cede one-third of its territory to the British in the aftermath of the Anglo-Nepalese War.
It is to be noted nonetheless that a smaller, weaker and fragmented Nepal would have easily been annexed by the British. Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana was able to retrieve four districts in the far-west from the British. The present day Nepal was created with great difficulties and therefore it is our duty to preserve its existence.
Nepal will be in a difficult position if the interests of both our big and powerful neighbors clash. Both India and China have territorial disputes, including the ones concerning Arunachal Pradesh, Kashmir and Aksai Chin. In today’s context, there is little possibility of a nuclear confrontation between India and China, but disputes and situations like the one seen in Doklam cannot be ruled out in the future. The ‘Chicken’s Neck’ corridor is extremely vital for the national security of India. Similarly, stability of Tibet is crucial for the national security of China. Nepal should remain sensitive towards the security concerns of its immediate neighbors.
What are your thoughts on Nepal’s relations with India and China?
Nepal’s relations with both India and China are very important. Although Nepal’s relations with major powers are also important, it is the relations with its immediate neighbors that should be the primary concern of Nepal’s foreign policy. Both our neighbors possess different forms of governance and ideology. Nepal requires support from both its neighbors. Nepal and India share an open border as well as deep historical and cultural linkages. India is also a big source of remittance for Nepal. As water flows from the north to south, Nepal and India could both benefit by harnessing the hydro potential. Although we might have differences as neighbors, Nepal should not adopt a policy of antagonizing India.
The Himalayas are no longer impregnable. China’s entry and influence in Nepal is a fact that cannot be denied. There have been talks of building railway connectivity between Nepal and China. However, Nepal should be cautious enough to understand the sensitivities of its southern neighbor. Why is there a need to say that the railway link from China will be extended up to the Indian border?
The Kalapani issue has attracted great attention among the Nepali public of late? Do you anticipate its solution in the near future?
Kalapani area is strategically very important to India. After India’s defeat in the 1962 Sino-Indian War, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru felt that China could carry out similar attacks through this route in the future. Therefore, the Indian Army did not retreat from Kalapani area. Although it is not documented, the Indian side requested Nepali Ambassador to India Prof. Sardar Yadu Nath Khanal to allow the Indian Army to remain at Kalapani, and King Mahendra too tacitly did not object to such a request in a bid to improve his strained relationship with Nehru. Considering its huge strategic value to India, it is hard to believe that India will cede the territory to Nepal in the future.
Can you shed some light on your interactions with King Mahendra concerning Nepal’s foreign policy?
King Mahendra viewed India with great suspicion as he felt Nepal’s independence and sovereignty were threatened by India. So in that sense, he had anti-India feelings. I advised him that he should use his ministers to criticize India in case it was required rather than indulging in the act himself. I suggested him that as Nepal and India shared historical, cultural and religious linkages, it is always better to have good relations with our southern neighbor. Even his mother was an Indian. I told him that due to India’s long history of being suppressed by foreign invaders, it had a different mentality in dealing with its smaller neighbors like Nepal.
King Mahendra strengthened Nepal’s relations with China to balance India. China finally supported Nepal’s claim over Sagarmatha after a long dispute. India was against the construction of the Araniko Highway by China. King Mahendra famously told Nehru that “Communism will not travel in a taxi”. On Nepal’s relations with India and China, I pointed out to the King that India was like a cow – which gives milk, does not eat meat and only attacks with its horns or legs when angry. However, China was like a tiger or a dragon – a carnivorous, which does not give milk and could attack and even eat up its own master when angry.
What do you think should be the course of Nepal’s foreign policy?
Nepal’s relations with one neighbor should not affect its relations with the other. Domestic politics has got implications on a country’s foreign policy. Nepal is a diverse country. It should remain careful to manage its domestic politics and international relations. We have seen how a powerful state like Yugoslavia disintegrated along the ethic lines years after the death of its strong leader Marshal Tito. As Nepal is situated in a sensitive geopolitical location, it should make its own strategy for survival and never allow itself to be a playground of major powers.