Drastic and Dangerous

MURARI SHARMA

BORDER REFERENDUM PROPOSAL

Leaders could do unimaginable things to acquire or retain power. For example, Ugandan President Dada Idi Amin used to kill his enemies and allegedly cook and eat their livers in order to frighten his opponents. Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammad Ali Jinnah partitioned India because both wanted to lead their country. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto prompted the military to partition Pakistan to deny Sheikh Mujibur Rahman the undivided country’s premiership. The Kims of North Korea spend billions on nuclear bombs while their people continue to starve. Lhendup Dorje merged Sikkim with India. 

The Maoist leaders of Nepal have followed suit in some way. They participated in the first two general elections after 1990 and lost. Then they took to the bullet, killed more than 15,000 innocent people (though the security forces killed some of them, the Maoists are guiltier for starting the violence), and destroyed vital infrastructure. Failed to capture the country with guerilla war, they joined the peace process. When they became the largest party in the Constituent Assembly vote in 2008 and headed the government, they tried every trick in the book to perpetuate their grip on power. 

One of those tricks has been to appease India. Failing to recapture Baluwatar, Pushpkamal Dahal, the Maoist chairman, is competing with his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, the most pro-Indian prime minister since 1955, for India’s favor. For instance, Bhattarai’s silence on the revision of the Nepal-India treaty of 1950 has been deafeningly loud. He signed the controversial extradition treaty and mutual investment protection agreement—BIPPA—as well as tried to handover the management of sensitive airports and other vital installations through the backdoor, despite objections from his foreign minister. 


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That brings me to the issue of border referendum. Dahal proposed in his political paper presented to his party’s national convention held in Hetauda a few weeks back that border disputes with India should be put to a referendum. He has the proposal “shelved for now,” as reported by the Indian Express on February 5, 2013, in the face of fierce criticism from the breakaway Maoist party. Dahal deflated the issue by saying that he meant the provincial borders of federal Nepal that was misprinted, and the media took it at face value and let it go lightly. 

However, it is hard to believe that the proposal was an inadvertent slip, for it was so specific and the difference between the Nepal-India border and provincial borders is so great. 

There are several theories—property, justice, national and choice—to settle border issues. Referendums, which grant citizens the right to decide the border, are a tool of the choice theory. Even staunch supporters of the choice theory like Harry Beran, an Australian professor, concede that referendums are not the best means to resolve border issues. So they are infrequent. According to Gary Sussman, a British professor, only 11 of them have taken place so far between states. That number goes to 171 if you include referendums to join regional bodies as well.

You ideally go for a border referendum either when a part of your country demands to secede from you, or when another country or part of it wants to join you. For instance, Quebec has held at least three referendums asking the French speaking Quebecois if they want to separate from the Anglo-phone Canada. Scotland is holding a referendum in 2014 asking people whether they wanted to secede from the United Kingdom. On the other hand, Nazi Germany held referendums to justify the annexation of Austria and occupation of Rhineland. Egypt and Syria came under a union after the referendum of 1958, though it was short-lived. Several European countries have held such referendums to join the European Union. 

There is no such demand for a referendum in Nepal. No part of the country has fought for secession. Neither has any neighboring country or its part expressed its desire to join Nepal. Of course, Nepal and India do not agree on some places of the border, such as Susta and Kalapani, but neither the people of those places nor the Nepali people in general have demanded a referendum. Besides, these disputes could be settled through negotiations. 

Then there is the issue of mutuality. You cannot settle a border dispute without having referendums in all countries concerned. I have not heard of any demand on the Indian side for a plebiscite on the issue. Even if both countries held a vote on the border, the outcome could be conflicting: The people on both sides may decide to keep the territories in question as part of their country. That solves nothing.

Despite all this, Dahal proposed a referendum on the border that could dismember the country—without advancing a full explanation. It begs the question: Why did he do so? 

There could be three possible reasons. First, Dahal might have made the proposal without understanding the border dispute and the complications and implications associated with a referendum. Second, he should have been under quiet but heavy pressure from closet separatists to make that proposal. Third, he should have proposed it as part of the commitment which he and his deputy, Baburam Bhattarai, had made with the intelligence agencies of the neighboring country to secure their support during the armed insurgency in Nepal. 

It would be an insult to Dahal’s fabled shrewdness to suggest that he proposed the border referendum without understanding its complications and implications. Even if he did so in a fudgy state of mind due to sleeplessness the previous night, someone else in his party would have alerted him about it. And Dahal would have dropped the proposal well before the political report was presented to the party convention. 

If Dahal made the proposal under pressure from closet separatists, he did not tell the convention whether such pressure existed or who compelled him to do so. Neither has he told the Nepali people who and where they are. Dahal, who once aspired to lead a world revolution against imperialists, could not be a coward to cave in to such separatists quietly. 

That leaves the third possible reason on the table. As SD Muni, an Indian professor, has divulged, Dahal and Bhattarai had, during the insurgency, secretly met with Indian intelligence officials several times and made commitments to safeguard the Indian interest in Nepal in lieu of their freedom to live and move in India and plan attacks against Nepal. Dahal might have proposed the referendum in compliance with that commitment. The Maoists have not revealed what commitments they have made to the intelligence agencies of the neighboring country. 

Secrecy breeds suspicion. So, it is but natural for the Nepali people, who are haunted by the ghost of Sikkim’s merger with India following a referendum, to suspect that the Maoists could have made the Faustian bargain. Surely Sikkim and Nepal enjoyed different status when the British ruled much of South Asia. The British recognized Nepal’s independence in the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, whereas Sikkim remained under British suzerainty. Yet India’s ongoing security concerns and interest in water resources north of its borders are well known. If any major Nepali political player commits to serve its interest, India should be more than happy to help it. To paraphrase former American President Bill Clinton’s slogan, it is the national interest, stupid!

Evidence suggests that leaders could do anything to gain and keep power and Maoist leaders have been no exceptions. Since Dahal and Bhattarai have not told the Nepali people about the deal they have made with the Indian intelligence agencies, there is ground to suspect that the proposal on border referendum could be part of their commitment to those agencies. If the Indian Express report is correct, the drastic and dangerous proposal that can break Nepal might come back again

 

 
   
Published on 2013-03-10 01:15:36
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