Just as Kargil was India’s first television war, the taking of Indian Airlines flight IC 814 was the first hijack drama of the satellite age, and the channels exploited it to the hilt. And even as the plane circled over Amritsar in the very first leg of the extended episode, hardline South Block apparatchiks got Indian Airlines to call off its flights to Kathmandu-from New Delhi, Varanasi and Calcutta.
This punitive banning of flights to a neighbouring country was a novel tool of regional diplomacy. India’s response to a very real security lapse at the Tribhuvan International Airport was a singular sanction that was both unprecedented and extravagant.
Three months later, Indian Airlines flights are yet to resume. Despite the carrier, which introduced civil aviation to Nepal in the 1950s and helped in the country’s opening-up, incurring a loss of Rs 25 lakh a day due to the suspensions. Nepal’s spring tourism season has also been a disaster. But more significant is the damage done to the Nepali psyche, from the feeling of having been unfairly singled out.
The fallout of the IC 814 episode also represents a deeper malaise that has lately afflicted relations between Nepal and India. Indeed, not since Nepal achieved democracy in 1990 have bilateral ties dipped this low, with the hijack drama merely exacerbating a pre-existing chill. The entire array of issues for discussion between the two countries are currently on hold- from sharing of water resources to trade matters, and a major territorial dispute.
The days of the Gujral Doctrine, by which India magnanimously sought to give more than it received from its neighbours, seem no more than a hazy memory in Kathmandu. The Kalapani dispute hangs fire, with an Indian garrison stationed in what Nepal claims is its territory up by the Kumaon hills. The much-ballyhooed treaty on using the border river Mahakali for power and irrigation is blocked on matters of interpretation. India also refuses to discuss the over-a-lakh Lhotshampa refugees from Bhutan, in Nepal for a decade now, whose repatriation is conceivable only through India’s good offices.
A bilateral trade agreement of 1996, pushed through by India’s then finance minister P. Chidambaram, has greatly liberalised the existing local content requirements so that Nepal could finally hope to develop an India-oriented export industry in its southern Terai belt. This would, ultimately, also introduce economic vitality to depressed regions of India like eastern Uttar Pradesh and northern Bihar. Unfortunately, the backwardness of Nepal’s own entrepreneurial classes as well as non-tariff barriers on the Indian side are still obstacles.
The Kathmandu jet-set, as well as New Delhi’s policy-wallahs, forget that real economic progress will only happen when Nepal and the north-Ganga plains work together. The migrant flow, like water, seeks its own level, so any isolated economic advance will bring an unwelcome human flood. The open border between the two countries is a historical legacy which cannot be easily altered, even though the Kathmandu intelligentsia has for long called for its regulation-a demand now ironically picked up by some New Delhi hardliners who see infiltration behind every bush.
A large part of South Block’s obvious displeasure seems to do with Nepal’s presumed position as an easy conduit for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence into India. While the ISI may well be thus engaged (and certainly raw would not be absent from Nepal to counter such adventurism), it will help to keep a perspective on the matter. While there is an increasing spate of handout journalism alleging ISI activities out of Nepal, the media in both Nepal and India need to carry out independent investigations to examine its authenticity.
ONE must remember that Nepal and Pakistan are not contiguous countries. The only link between the two nations is the four-times weekly Pakistan International Airlines flight to Kathmandu. Besides, over the years, the Nepali authorities appear to have shown themselves quite alert to Indian concerns on this count.
There is obviously a lot that is wrong in today’s Nepal, much of it having to do with political instability. However, the victims of instability are the Nepali people rather than the Indian State. Take the malgovernance over the last 10 years of democracy, which has allowed the genie of Maoist insurgency to emerge and spread over the hilly hinterland. Or take the matter of the decades-old smuggling trade, in which third-country goods clandestinely entered the heretofore protected Indian market. While these are irritants for India, the real impact is on Nepal’s economy.
Ironically, this sudden downturn in bilateral relations came at a time when the traditionally anti-India parties of the left and the right are as docile as lapdogs, and the supposedly pro-India Nepali Congress is in power. The hijacking happened when the just-resigned paan-chewing Krishna Prasad Bhattarai was prime minister, a man who loves to practise his Benarasi Hindi on anyone within hailing distance. The left and right parties are quiet because they have all tasted power as part of government coalitions and seen the downside of India-baiting. In other words, anti-Indianism in Nepal was at an all-time low when the Indian Airlines ban came along to stoke a dormant ember.
For those conservative Nepalis who had delusions about extended Indian indulgence due to Nepal’s supposed status as a Hindu kingdom, what a rude awakening this must have been. It is the Hindutva-backed Bharatiya Janata Party, after all, which has done its bit to pull the plug on Nepal pre- and post-hijacking. Supposed national interest, for once, has proved to be thicker than religious impression.
In the meantime, Indian Airlines loses money and India loses some goodwill.
(The author is editor of the South Asian magazine, Himal)