Plea for anti-geopolitical narratives

Gaurav Bhattarai

Gaurav Bhattarai

Plea for anti-geopolitical narratives

Not just a buzzword. The ceaseless penchant for geopolitics in the world of foreign policy analysis appears mediocre. An addiction, precisely, when it comes to probing Nepal-India ties. And, when such probes become so instant and swift, one’s hasty haven in the geopolitical scrutiny doesn’t appear thick, convincing, and credible. After all, geopolitics is never the foundation of any bilateral ties. It’s only an interpretation having a long militarist and colonial tradition. When a state’s physical proximity is intertwined with the larger political chronicles, a fashioned narrative is sketchily developed, dismissing the larger component of cultural homogeneity and civilizational affinities, in the pursuit of the interest of lobbyists, interest groups, and power elites.

In reality, people and their mobility in the porous and interdependent borderlands are the foundation of the Nepal-India ties. But, understanding and appreciating their everyday experiences aptly seeks anthropological and sociological approaches. It means an armed-chaired geopolitician needs to get rid of xeroxing media narratives and his own temperament and instead get into the field, which demands more time and energy. At times, money too. Because without field visits and observations, one’s understanding of Nepal-India relations may remain away from reality. Or else, it would be a pool of overstretched secondary details sans any novel perspective.

It’s not only because of the resurrection of geopolitical accounts, globally, in the wake of the Russian-Ukraine crisis that geopolitics has been the dominant discourse in analyzing Nepal-India ties. Instead, it has become a ritual in the context of Nepal-India relations. Not surprisingly, the early geopolitical chronicles encompassing the post-1950 Nepal-India relations were weightily swayed by the spread of American strategic thoughts during the Cold War period. After the Cold War geopolitics was popularized in South Asia by American political scientists including Leo E Rose, the concept of “balancing” lured the Nepali foreign policymakers, and the west-educated Indian leaders were also not upset by the idea of Indian “influence” in the region. As such, the geopolitical narratives evolved in the bilateral ties that have always cherished their civilizational linkages. Despite the longevity of the civilizational ties and durability of connected histories, the sense of beguilement among the foreign policy practitioners/analysts/experts for the geopolitical elucidation has done more damage than benefits to the bilateral ties. Actually, it’s where the ordeals commence.

Why geopolitically burdened?  

Both our foreign policy imaginations and the foreign policy rhetoric are cripplingly laden with geopolitical thoughts. One of the popular geopolitical narratives on Nepal-India relations is the critique of the continuity of the colonial hangover in India’s policy toward Nepal. Such narratives are framed by treading on discourses of the imperialist geopolitics propounded by Ratzel, Mahan, and Mackinder. Nehru’s Himalayan Frontier Policy is sloppily cited—without understanding the actual context—in disparaging India’s foreign policy behavior. While imperialist geopolitics was triggered by the project of state expansionism, Nehru’s frontier policy was influenced by the Cold War geopolitics globally popularized by George Kennan, Kissinger, and other American and Soviet military leaders.

The China factor has further wrought our geopolitical elucidations. Nepal’s diplomatic relations with China and the opening of the Kodari Highway—the first land route connecting Nepal with China—are unequivocally understood from the cold war geopolitics. But, with China’s increasing presence in South Asia through BRI projects, the lens of a new old order geopolitics is being embraced, which is once again an American discourse, primarily publicized by Fukuyama, Gorbachev, Huntington, Bush, and now Biden.

Nepal’s collective imagination vis-à-vis its geographical location between India and China has fueled geopolitical chronicles. King Prithvi Narayan Shah popularized it in the 18th century with the “yam” metaphor, in the tradition of imperialist geopolitics, and the subsequent generations glossed the same militaristic approach to Nepal’s geography. Relentless geopolitical interpretations of the events and episodes that have taken place between Nepal and India divulge the same.

Episodic geopolitical interpretations

After identifying the reasons why geopolitics stands at the top, it’s germane to survey the evolution of the geopolitical analysis of Nepal-India ties, and to do that let’s examine a few episodes starting from the 1950 AD. The geopolitical reading of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India in 1950 signals the militaristic discourse of national security, which keeps on informing Kathmandu that the provisions of the treaty are restrictive. Although an epistemic community named the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was constituted in 2016, comprising members from Nepal and India, to analyze the relevance of the treaty in the present context and float recommendations accordingly, the EPG’s report is yet to be made public.

With the Chinese occupation of Tibet in 1951, buffer became a catchword in the geopolitical chronicles. While the 1962 Sino-Indian War heightened the importance of balancing strategies for Nepal, the series of Indo-Pak conflicts further deepened the principle of the sphere of influence and the search for comfortable alliances in the region and beyond. The emergence of Bangladesh and the annexation of Sikkim in the 70s reinvented the narratives of threat and reproduced the discourses of state sovereignty and survival. The Zone of Peace proposal introduced by King Birendra was itself a coping strategy in the context of the fall of Sikkim. The 1989 crisis over the renegotiation of trade and transit between Nepal and India was the upshot of the conflict between Nepal’s hedging strategy and India’s sphere of influence policy. India’s twin-pillar approach in the 1990s accommodated King and the political parties in Nepal. While the global war on terror shaped Nepal-India ties through the array of new geopolitics with transnational problems, India’s interest in Nepal’s water was also not free from geopolitical problems. While the increasing role of China in Nepal and South Asia is often narrated through the lens of power and discourse, the political change that Nepal underwent in 2006 is often scrutinized by foregrounding India’s policy of the promotion of democracy in the neighborhood. The Indo-Nepal crisis of 2015 over the promulgation of the Constitution in Nepal was the outcome of the “geopolitics from above,” but ended with the “geopolitics from below”. Geopolitics from above refers to the tension between the power elites in Nepal and India over the issue of the promulgation of the constitution in Nepal, whereas geopolitics from below referred to the role of the people, civil societies, and public intellectuals in ending that conflict. While Chinese President Xi strategized Nepal’s geography during his 2019 visit by pledging to make Nepal a land-linked state, the 2020 map fiascos between Nepal and India triggered claims and counterclaims in the narratives set by military-bureaucratic intellectuals and the dissemination of their thoughts in the social, political and foreign policy spheres of both the countries.

New Delhi’s geopolitical reading of China in Nepal offers a way of relating local and regional dynamics to the global system as a whole. Chinese engagement in Nepal is enframed through a variety of dramas, and conflicts, and within a grand strategic perspective of containing the rise of China. But the geopolitical interpretation of the US in Nepal offers the account of strategic convergence between India and the US regarding China. But, until the interests of New Delhi and Washington hadn’t converged over containing the rise of China, India earlier perceived the US’ offer of arms assistance to Nepal in combating terrorism as a threat to India’s security concerns.

Militaristic tradition

The prevalence and primacy of unceasing geopolitical interpretations in the aforementioned situations make us wonder about the likely alternative narratives. There are accounts of mobility, migration, and matrimonial relations. But they are also hauled into the geopolitical perspective and placed in the popular template of the militarist tradition of state formation and state-making. The representation of Nepal as a “yam” between two “boulders” is in itself a misrepresentation made from the prism of militaristic tradition that disavows the connected histories with both the boulders.

In principle, the military’s discourse of “national security” and the “social security” discourses braced by critical thinkers don’t converge.  But, in the Nepali context, endorsing the militaristic tradition of geopolitics has become a daily routine in the realms of statecraft, diplomacy, and foreign policy. When diplomatic briefings are done and foreign policy analyses are manufactured by upholding geopolitical reckonings, a stark divergence in a country’s foreign policy priorities, agendas, approaches, and behavior is inescapable.

Thus, in that sense, mere geopolitical interpretation of events, episodes, and instances has done more damage to Nepal-India ties and more benefits to the military-bureaucratic intellectuals in both countries.  After all, geopolitical knowledge is constructed from positions and locations of political, economic, and cultural power and privilege. It focuses more on the action of the power elites and the discourses articulated by them to fulfill their interests. Spawning a suspicious worldview, the (re)generation of doubts is at its heart, and above all, the interests of the political elites supersede the interests of the people.

In the name of geopolitical inquiry, the ‘China scare’ has further inflated the discipline of security studies and the codes of containment. After all, the geopolitical readings of the experts and think tanks only endorse a regime’s interest. No surprise that the practice of statecraft has long enjoyed producing its own intellectuals in fulfilling its interests and ambitions. When unbending conservatives and chauvinists are endured in the process of foreign policy making, the geopolitical analysis of any episodes is reduced to the militaristic approach. 

Wrapping up

The multidimensionality of Nepal-India ties cannot be fully grasped by recurrently espousing the geopolitical lens, which is not an objective and scientific form of knowledge. After all, it is about the knotty operation of discourse and power. While the dearth of alternative narratives in foreign policy interpretation and analysis is perceptible in the existing public discourses, media narratives, and deliberations in the parliaments of both countries, the diffusion of geopolitical readings into the social realms has generated a sense of doubt and suspicions toward each other. Before our worldview turns entirely suspicious and hostile, an anti-geopolitical reading of Nepal-India ties could be initiated, which not only questions the material (ie, economic and military) power of states and resists the narratives of (mis)representation imposed by the political elites, but may also contribute in keeping the multidimensionality intact by dwelling largely on the work and livelihood strategies of Nepalis in India and Indians in Nepal, pilgrimages made in both the countries, the aesthetic of the matrimonial relations, people crossing borders for health, education, and post-death rituals.

Bhattarai is the author of the book, “Nepal between China and India: Difficulty of being Neutral” published by Palgrave Macmillan

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