Did India provide a safe haven to Nepali Maoists or was it always intent on crushing them with brute force? The Maoists have maintained that during the insurgency they were hiding in India and the Indian establishment didn’t support them in any way. Their critics pooh-pooh the notion that top Maoist leaders from Nepal could have lived and moved about freely there without the knowledge of the vast Indian government apparatus. This query is of more than academic interest. As CPN (Maoist) Chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal has pointed out, on it hinges the question of success (or failure) of Nepal’s ‘homegrown’ Maoist movement.
Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae infers in his new book ‘Kathmandu Dilemma’ that the Indian government provided no support to the Nepali Maoists living in India. India, apparently, didn’t even know of the Maoist existence in its midst. If anything, India saw the Maoists as a threat, not the least because of its own growing Naxalite problem. Particularly in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, it viewed them more and more as terrorists, just like the US and the UK did. Only after King Gyanendra assumed executive powers in a coup did the Indians rethink their Maoist policy.
As Rae writes in his book, following the coup, the opinion in India was divided between those who were still intent on decimating the Maoists by strengthening Nepal Army (IB, Indian Army) and those who believed a peaceful way out was the only durable solution (MEA, RAW). One thing is for sure: Had the Indians decided to crush the Maoist rebellion, they could have done so. Even if the Indian establishment didn’t actively support the Maoist leaders waging a war in Nepal from India, they tolerated their existence. Or at least a part of the establishment did.
The Indian security establishment and sections of the bureaucracy wanted to use the presence of the Nepali Maoists in India as a bargaining chip against the royal regime, the ultimate goal being to maintain a semblance of ‘controlled instability’ in Nepal so that India could continue to play within it.
Perhaps with more high-level political engagement between the two countries, the Maoists wouldn’t have been so successful in orchestrating the insurgency from foreign soil. Unlike the erstwhile Nepali Congress leaders living in exile in India in the 1940s or 1950s, the Maoist leadership in the early 2000s didn’t have extensive engagement with the Indian leaders. Without such political connections, to keep themselves safe, they had to rely on the Indian bureaucrats and spies who came in their contact.
Moreover, as prime minister, neither Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor Manmohan Singh seemed interested in cementing political ties with Kathmandu. Neither came to Nepal on a bilateral visit during their long tenures (although Vajpayee did come in 2002 for the SAARC summit). As political engagement broke down, interference from Indian security agencies and bureaucrats, who found themselves in charge of India’s Nepal policy by default, increased. In return for providing a safe haven to Maoist leaders, they wanted a greater say in Nepal’s affairs.
In fact, a big challenge in resetting Nepal-India bilateral relations continues to be the multiplicity of Indian foreign policy actors—often working in cross-purposes. As the attention of the political leadership of a rising India continues to shift to big actors, perhaps this will continue to be the fate of smaller countries in the region.