A Role in Revolution
by M P Koirala
Jagadamba Prakashan, 2008
The late Jyotindra Nath (‘J N’) Dixit belonged to the old guard of South Block bureaucrats who could chide their political masters without appearing to be discourteous. He is reported to have once asked Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, “How come, sir, Nehru was foreign minister for 17 years and still there was no Nehru Doctrine? You were prime minister for 13 months and there was a Gujral Doctrine.” Gujral could not have missed the malice in the question; Dixit’s sympathies for the Nehru-Gandhi family were, after all, quite well known. He probably wanted to ridicule Indira Gandhi’s meek ambassador in Moscow, who emphasised non-reciprocity in India’s relationship with neighbouring countries once he became prime minister. Dixit had served in Islamabad and Colombo, and was considered a foreign-policy hawk of the ‘establishment’ in New Delhi. There could be no other reason behind his seeming ignorance of the Nehru Creed of Indian foreign policy – an intentional slight to Gujral is the only explanation.
The more than five decades that father Jawaharlal Nehru and then daughter Indira governed India were pivotal in defining India’s relationship with its smaller neighbours, in some cases even reshaping the political boundaries of the Subcontinent. M P Koirala’s memoir, A Role in Revolution, and A C Sinha’s analysis, Sikkim: Feudal and democratic, though unrelated in and of themselves, link the divergence and continuity between India’s neighbourhood policy in these two eras. That drawing this connection is not the goal of either book only serves to highlight how greatly the policies of these two leaders impacted the region at that time, and continue to do so today.
For his part, Nehru remained foreign minister throughout his tenure, probably believing that nobody else in the Congress party matched his grasp of international politics or possessed the ability to handle geo-strategic challenges that the newly independent and freshly truncated Indian republic faced. He believed in handpicking envoys, and gave them detailed guidelines. These instructions later became foundations of the seldom enumerated but widely understood cannons of the Nehru Creed, which was based on three assumptions.
First, the Indian Union was considered to be the successor state of British India, which had to shoulder the role and responsibilities of the Empire in a region that stretched between Iran to Indonesia and the Hindukush-Himalaya to the Indian Ocean. The second supposition contradicted the first, and postulated that India would be the leader of anti-colonial struggles and would help to create a buffer of ‘Third World’ states free of fierce competition for spheres of influence between so-called First and Second World Powers. The third and last assumption was more concrete: Nehru wanted to collaborate with China and keep Asia free of superpower rivalry. All of Nehru’s foreign-policy assumptions turned out to be fundamentally flawed in the end. Though the denouement of his dreams came with Indo-China skirmishes in the Himalaya, he had already created enough consternation in the neighbourhood well before that.
Among the most prominent of Nepali leaders of the time, Matrika Prasad Koirala, elder brother of Bisheshwor Prasad (‘B P’) and Girija Prasad Koirala, experienced first hand the repercussions of the Nehru Creed, something that comes through in his memoir. A major goal of this work, by the man who became the first prime minister of Nepal after the fall of the Ranas in 1951, is an attempt to redeem his reputation in Nepali politics, where his contributions to the cause of democracy were overshadowed by his cooption by the authoritarian royal regime in the post-1960 decades. The book begins with Koirala’s early childhood, records his baptism by the fire of the Indian independence movement, and recounts his engagements and achievements in struggles against what he calls the Ranarchy – the period of absolute rule by hereditary prime ministers of the Rana family, who ruled in the name of the reigning Shah kings. The most lasting contribution of the revolution of 1951, which ended the Ranarchy, was the restoration of Shah supremacy in the country. (It would take another armed rebellion after over half-a-century of numerous peaceful movements and the clinching People’s Uprising in the spring of 2006 to transform the kingdom into a budding republic.) Koirala’s account of the events of this heyday is full of self-aggrandisement, and fits the pattern of post-facto apologia penned by failed politicians who end up blaming unfavourable circumstances for all their shortcomings.
The meat of Koirala’s book, however, lies in the documents of Indian foreign policy in Southasia, which he submits for scrutiny. It appears that Nehru took British India’s policy of treating the Himalaya as the border between two incompatible civilisations rather too seriously, deeming kingdoms of the region petty fiefdoms incapable of self-administration. Koirala depicts Nehru as master manipulator: micro-managing the revolution in Nepal; dictating terms of reconciliation between Rana emissaries and King Tribhuvan; and treating democratic leaders, with whom he rubbed shoulders during India’s independence struggle (including M P Koirala), with condescending censure bordering on contempt.
With such a take on Nehru, the second half of the book is devoted to appendices that show the master-apprentice relationship Nehru believed existed between him and Nepali leaders – including King Tribhuvan, whom he addresses as “My Dear Friend” even in official letters. This approach was bound to end in failure, and B P Koirala extracted the revenge for humiliations suffered at the hands of New Delhi during 1951 by aligning Nepal with Western powers. Nehru’s goal of keeping Southasia free of ‘Super Power’ rivalry ended when Israel opened its first embassy in the region in Kathmandu, and post-1960s Nepal emerged as the US’s listening post in the Himalaya. In this context, A Role in Revolution helps students of Nepali history understand the intricacies of the complex transition from Rana rule to the popular governance in the early 1950s, amidst such definitive developments in the two large neighbours. Matrika Prasad must be thanked posthumously (he died in 1997) for laying bare to the public his correspondence with Jawaharlal, as it serves as an important archive and primary documents of the India-Nepal relationship.
By the 1960s, it was clear that each postulate of the Nehru Creed had, one by one, fallen apart. His association with the British Crown and its former colonies failed to endear him to the leaders of the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa; unlike him, most would rather forget the ‘dark chapters’ of their history, consisting of enslavement by Europeans. The creation of Pakistan weakened India’s claim that it was the successor, in terms of power, of the British Empire in Southasia. But the disdain that communist China displayed for Nehru’s ‘Hindi-Chini bhai-bhai’ proposition ultimately crushed him. Indeed, it frustrated Nehru that the so-called democratic West took Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai much more seriously than him.
The Nehru Creed considered the inviolability of the dividing McMahon Line the fundamental feature of its foreign policy towards China. This belief perhaps explains why the Indian establishment did little else than pay lip service to the cause of Tibetan independence, even while offering asylum to the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile. South Block considered its interests safe in the kingdoms of the Himalaya – Bhutan, Nepal and Sikkim – once special treaties were signed with each, thus establishing India’s pre-eminence in their foreign policies. An agreement with Bhutan in 1949 turned it into an affiliate, while the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship was designed to make the kingdom quasi-independent, and the protectorate status of Sikkim was institutionalised with the Indo-Sikkim Treaty of December 1950. Nehru perhaps believed that the Chinese would do to Tibet what he had done with Nepal or Bhutan. Here, again, he was proven wrong.
By the time Indira Gandhi came to the helm, the world had changed so completely that even though she swore by the Panchsheel principles with China in public, India practically became an ally of the Soviet Union during her stewardship. Under Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, China-US rapprochement flourished, and New Delhi had no option but to cement its ties with Moscow. By the early 1970s, Mrs Gandhi had become paranoid, seeing the foreign hand wherever she looked. She found belligerence in the attitude of the Sikkim Court, when its US-born queen began to create a faux-Tibetan identity for itself. Thus New Delhi accelerated its policy of patronising what had become by then the Nepali-speaking majority in the kingdom. From there to the ultimate ‘integration’ of the Sikkim protectorate into the Union of India is the story of a ham-handed manner of dispensing with an institution that could have been useful in projecting a positive image of India to rest of the world. Sikkim’s integration into the union – legitimised through the ballot box – was projected as a ‘gobbling up’ by its critics. ‘Sikkimisation’ entered the lexicon of nationalist and leftwing politicos of Nepal to depict India as an expansionist power. Historian A C Sinha now recounts the story of the transformation of a kingdom into a province in the sauntering manner of a social-science researcher.
Sinha’s Sikkim is subtitled “Feudal and Democratic”, but his explorations are based on elite theories of power rather than on class analysis. His approach echoes Italian sociologist Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923), who suggested that class struggle consists of conflict between two elites: revolutionary elites, who always present their cause as the cause of the people as a whole, but once in power become themselves oppressors; and the contra-Marx, the circulation of elites who will not stop with proletarian revolution. Sinha’s is an academic book, one that needs a lot of patience to explore bewildering details and obscure strands of interconnectedness between facts and observations.
The central problem with the book is that it lacks a thread to connect facts to the author’s findings, arguments and opinions. It is an “I am going to write about…” kind of work, which loses its way in the detail. Perhaps Sinha wants to prove that Sikkim’s integration in the Indian Union was inevitable given its strategic location, history of Tibetan connection and the continued management of its internal affairs by a ‘Political Officer’ appointed by New Delhi. He also seems to suggest that the Nepali-speaking majority wished secretly to be one with their brethren in Darjeeling, rather than remain second-class citizens in a theocratic state. But the disappearance of quasi-independent Sikkim perhaps had as much to do with the games South Block played as with the then-protectorate’s internal compulsions.
Even though India’s policy towards neighbouring countries was based on bilateralism and reciprocity, the contours had begun to change soon after the creation of Bangladesh By the 1980s, in the wake of ethnic conflicts and political crises in Sri Lanka, the transformation was complete. The press dubbed it the Indira Doctrine, but it was, in essence, merely a modified version of the Nehru Creed, claiming India’s pre-eminent right to intervene in the internal affairs of neighbouring countries if disorder threatened to extend beyond national boundaries. Indira Gandhi sought to perfect this creed under the laboratory conditions of Sikkim, but the unintended consequences of political experimentation led to the disappearance of the country with the fall of the crown.
Sinha absolves Sikkim’s Nepamul (people of Nepali origin, a term he seeks to propagate in place of ‘Nepali’ and ‘Gorkhali’ for the sake of clarity) population of the crime of collaborating with Indian agencies in plotting against the nominal monarchy. Yet his descriptions of the local social elite show that they did in fact have a vested interest in ending the dominance of the Bhutiya aristocracy. But the authenticity of those of ‘foreign origin’, no matter how well assimilated, always remains open to question. Today, the Sikkim Nationalist People’s Party claims that Chief Minister Pawan Chamling holds dual citizenship – of India and Nepal – and has begun campaigning for the restoration of associate-state status to Sikkim. Across the Mechi River in the west, Madhesi minister Ram Chandra Jha has been taken to court on similar charges – of holding Indian as well as Nepali citizenship. Politically marginalised entities are extra-sensitive with regards to their ‘national’ identities; something that made Subhas Ghising choose ‘Gorkha’ to describe the ethnicity of Nepamul Indians of West Bengal.
Just as the Nehru Creed failed to hold in the face of Chinese incursions across the McMahon Line, the Indira Doctrine collapsed with the failure of the Indian Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka. New Delhi ultimately had to acquiesce to Norwegian mediation in the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict and UNMIN monitoring of Maoist arms in Nepal under a runaway peace deal that had actually been engineered by Indian interlocutors. It also needs to be mentioned that the babus of South Block never gave the Gujral Doctrine a chance, with foreign-policy hawks dismissing it as weak and meek. Under pressure from the patrons of the US-India nuclear deal, an even more submissive foreign policy has begun to crystallise as the Nehru Creed and Indira Doctrine pass into history. Together, M P Koirala and A C Sinha put their experiences and observations of those policies in action for review by posterity.
~ C K Lal is a columnist for this magazine and for the Nepali Times.
Romila Thapar addresses invitees at the
Southasian relaunch of Himal Southasian,
IIC, New Delhi, January 2013.
China, Southasia and India
On May 19 2013, newly appointed Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrived in New Delhi for a series of meetings with Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The visit is Keqiang's first outside of China since assuming power in March.
From our archive:
Purna Basnet discusses Chinese engagement in Nepal vis-a-vis security issues in Tibet and broader geo-strategic plans in Southasia (April 2011).
Fatima Chowdury relates the story of Calcutta's Indian Chinese community through the lens of political and economic upheavals in Southasia and China (May 2009).
Simon Long notes the importance of the Sino-Indian relationship for the rest of Southasia (September 2006).
J.N Dixit ruminates on the strategic concerns of the 'Middle Kingdom' in the wake of India's 1998 nuclear tests (June 1998).