The Downside of Imperial Collapse
When Empires or Great Powers Fall, Chaos and War Rise
PRIME Minister Nehru gave notice to Communist China in December 1950, just after the Chinese invasion of Tibet, that the Himalayas are India's northern frontier and that an attack on Nepal would be, in effect, an attack on India.[i] What is the importance of this country which makes India's cautious Prime Minister venture to take such categorical responsibility for it?
Nepal is a border land where the civilizations of India and Central Asia meet and to some extent blend. It is guarded on the north by the towering Himalayas, including five of the world's highest peaks, but these are interspersed with passes, some 15 in number, through which at propitious seasons human-borne trade can make an arduous way from and to Tibet. Only one pass of about 9,000 feet is negotiable by yaks. On the south, Nepal joins India in a region of jungle and malarial swampland, part of the Ganges plain known as the Terai, through which a vehicular road has penetrated only since 1953. Near the center of the country, which extends east and west about 500 miles and north and south about 150, lies the small Valley of Kathmandu, the only arena until this year of Nepalese political life. The 9,000,000 Nepalese are more than 95 percent illiterate, and all but a tiny fraction of them work at gruelling animal tasks for the barest sort of living. They are divided and subdivided by tribe, caste and language. Tantrism, an erotic offshoot of Hinduism with animistic inheritances from dim times past, has been fused here with Buddhism and with the main strains of Hinduism; as a result, the pagodas and shrines which dot the country so profusely as to give the impression of outnumbering the population, offer a be-wildering and horrifying assortment of deities and demons.
Politically speaking, Nepal is not at all the same today as it was when Mr. Nehru took it under India's wing in 1950, presumably with China's acquiescence (as of that moment, anyway) in exchange for his subsequently sharply criticized recognition of China's hegemony in Tibet. For on February 12, 1959, King Mahendra promulgated a new Constitution which turned his country away from its centuries-old autocracy and in the direction--though still at a long distance--of democracy. And six days later, before the contents of the new Constitution had become really known, much less understood, the Nepalese people began their experiment with new-fangled procedures by voting for the first time in history for representatives in a national Parliament. The close juxtaposition of the two events was perhaps a wise precaution, since it prevented the Constitution itself from becoming an issue in the electoral campaign.
The Constitution considerably modified in principle the hitherto absolute rule of the monarch by establishing a democratic structure, strictly limited in scope and subject to arbitrary control from above, but for Nepal, none the less, unprecedented and revolutionary. There now are two houses of Parliament, a House of Representatives of 109 members popularly elected, and a Senate of 36 members, half elected by the lower house, half named by the King. The King appoints and dismisses Prime Ministers, though the Constitution provides that he shall choose a person able in his opinion to command a majority in the House of Representatives "either immediately or at the meeting of Parliament after the next general election." The upper house has in some cases the power to delay legislation passed by the lower house. But this provision seems unimportant compared to the fact that no legislation can become law unless it receives the King's assent. The King thus retains final control of the legislative process, and presumably will continue to do so until habits of responsible government have had time to mature in what is now a nearly complete political void and until some administrative machine can be built and manned to supplant the personal and usually corrupt régimes which succeeded one another following the overthrow of the feudal Rana oligarchy in 1950.
The problem facing the King in the years since 1950 was to find a base for his rule that had real roots in the Nepalese people, who were and are devoted to the institution of kingship personified in him, a reincarnation of the god Vishnu. How was he safely to escape from dependence on a succession of self-proclaimed leaders of untested popularity who swayed this way and that in demagogic appeal and in attachment to foreign countries as self-interest suggested? Obviously there were considerable risks in allowing a free expression of opinion by the heterogeneous, scattered, illiterate and politically inexperienced Nepalese people--tribesmen in remote mountain fastnesses, traders and artisans in the Kathmandu Valley, inhabitants of the Terai, some of them akin to their neighbors in India, some of them jungle denizens. Although most of the Nepalese politicians had been clamoring for elections, when the King announced that they would be held they began to develop doubts. Some of them tried to influence the King to put the elections off; and so did some of the King's advisers and members of the former Rana ruling clan who realized that a popularly-elected Parliament would reduce their land holdings and further restrict their financial influence.
In the summer of 1958, King Mahendra took a trip abroad, visiting the Soviet Union, Scandinavia and Western Europe. In Moscow he was advised not to abandon personal rule and risk the chaos of anything even faintly resembling Western parliamentarianism: the object of such advice being, obviously, to retard social and political development in Nepal and thus provoke discontent in which Communism might flourish. Similar advice was given him, though of course from different motives, in Gaullist quarters in France. He returned to Kathmandu in September disposed to postpone the elections. But advised there by wiser diplomats, and himself sensing the monarchy's need to find a broader and more stable basis for the régime, he decided to make the experiment of leading the Nepalese people a long step forward into the modern world. As he said to me, "It was a risk, but sometimes risks must be taken."
The results confounded those who had prophesied radical excesses and riots and those who said that the people would be apathetic, not understanding the most elementary meaning and uses of the ballot. There was intense interest, excitement even, but no disorder. In a few places in crowded areas over 90 percent of the eligible voters, male and female, went to the polling places; in remote Himalayan valleys, where communication with any sizable settlement may be a matter of weeks, the proportion of voters fell as low as 15 or 20 percent. For Nepal as a whole, participation was about 35 percent. To secure this result, the Election Commission (which had been making preparations since 1952 when the intention to hold elections was first announced) sent out agents to enroll voters and, later, instructors to explain the mechanics of voting. They were provided with diagrams and pictures detailing the whole novel process--how the male and female voters would form in separate queues, mark and fold the ballots, drop them in the box and afterwards make an orderly exit by a different door, as shown on the diagrams with arrows, and wend their way peacefully home. When the boxes were opened many were found to contain not only ballots but also money and flowers.
The parties had campaigned on issues and personalities under various symbols--the Nepali Congress, an offspring of the Congress Party in India, under the sign of a spreading tree such as shelters wayfarers where their dusty trails cross a stream; the reactionary Gorka Parishad, supported by many of the Rana family, under the sign of a village hut; the Independents under the sign of an elephant and the Communists under a corncob and sickle. The returns trickled in during two months and were complete just when I was in Kathmandu in April. The Nepali Congress won an overwhelming victory, with more than two-thirds of the 109 seats in the House of Representatives. Thus it will be in a position not merely to pass legislation without hindrance but even to vote amendments to the Constitution--subject in every case, of course, to a possible royal veto. The next party, the Gorka Parishad, trailed with 19 seats, followed by the National Democratic Party with 5 seats, the Communists with 4, and a few miscellaneous to make up the total. Not merely were the ranks of all the parties except the Nepali Congress decimated; their chief leaders were one and all defeated. Among them were two former Prime Ministers known by name and reputation abroad--K. I. Singh, once feared as a demagogue with aspirations to become dictator, and Tanka Prasad Acharya, leader of Praja Parishad and one-time head of the Communist Front. Of the two, the defeat of K. I. Singh was the more spectacular. He had been with the Nepali Congress, but he opposed Indian influence in it during the revolution, was chased by Indian troops, put in prison in Kathmandu, and escaped and fled to Peking, where he stayed in rather anomalous status for three years. When he was offered political amnesty by the King, the Red Chinese Government for undisclosed reasons permitted him to return to Nepal. There he organized the United Democratic Party and became Prime Minister for a turbulent three months. In those days he was given to expressing great friendship for India but strong hostility to the West, in particular to the United States. During the recent campaign he tried to drum up support by accusing the United States of interfering with Nepalese economic development through its aid program. This did not avail; he suffered a severe defeat at the hands of General Subarna and took to his bed, letting it be known that he attributed his downfall to the influence of American dollars. Also defeated in the election were the leader of Nepalese reactionary forces, R. D. Subba, head of the Gorkha Parishad, and the chief Communist in the country, Kaiserjung Raimjee, the Secretary of the Party. Thus the political floor was swept clear in all directions, leaving the Nepali Congress supreme. A remarkable feature of the election was that the Home Minister, D. R. Regmi, got only 503 votes in a constituency of over 5,000 voters, and that all the 21 candidates belonging to his group lost with him. The defeat of the official in charge of maintaining public order during the election seems evidence that it was fair.
The Nepali Congress had led the 1950 revolt against the Rana oligarchy, and as was to be expected campaigned on a platform of agrarian, social and economic reform and a promise to do away with corruption in the government. Its leaders are B. P. Koirala and General Subarna, and for several weeks there was doubt as to which the King would appoint Prime Minister. Mr. Koirala, the titular leader, is a man of attractive energy, sincerity of purpose and strongly liberal tendencies. General Subarna is a "class C" member of the Rana family, that is to say, one who was not in line for any Rana office; perhaps for that reason, but as most people believe out of principle, he participated in and helped finance the 1950 revolt. He served as Chairman of the Council of Ministers and Finance Minister in the cabinet that held the elections. The King finally chose Mr. Koirala as Prime Minister, with General Subarna as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Finance. The new cabinet faces a dual problem. It will have to begin to satisfy the desperate need and growing demand for economic betterment and political reform, starting by breaking up the feudal estates and creating the rudiments of a proper budgetary and tax system; and it will have to do this at a speed and to a degree which will not antagonize the King by making him feel that Parliament is in the grip of people in a dangerous hurry.
One result of the elections will be that members of the Parliament will flock to the capital from all over, many of them from remote tribal areas that have never dreamed of having any voice in the conduct of affairs at the center. This will create a new sense of interdependence among hitherto isolated parts of the country, reinforcing the only other sources of cohesion--the monarchy and the age-old fact of national independence. It also will present a problem to the Nepali Congress, which will have some 74 members of the Parliament to satisfy and only 12 cabinet seats. But the general expectation in Kathmandu is that the Nepali Congress, which has in the past suffered internal dissensions and defections of rival leaders, now has such a clear mandate that it will hold together for at least most of its elected five-year term. Similarly the King, having gained his point and secured a popularly-elected government to develop his country's political and economic life, is expected to accept the main part of the Nepali Congress program and thus help it maintain its popularity against both right reactionaries and the Communists.
The new era will not bring any great change in foreign policy, in so far as Nepal can be said to have a foreign policy independent of India. The government will continue desperately to need and to accept economic assistance from India, the United States and the Soviet Union. The last-named has come into the field in strength only with the signature on April 24, 1959, of an agreement providing Russian aid to the extent of 300,000,000 rupees (about $7,500,000 at nominal exchange rates) to be used to erect a sugar mill, a hydroelectric power plant, a hospital in Kathmandu and a cigarette factory. Russian engineers and specialists will of course assist in the program, which thus recalls the Soviet Union's entrance into the economic picture in Afghanistan three years ago. As one leader of the Nepali Congress said to me, if the Soviet projects turn out to be better "eye catchers" than some of the more fundamentally important enterprises undertaken by I.C.A., that is Washington's fault, not Nepal's; and he seemed genuinely regretful at the prospect. On this occasion, at least, the Soviet action seems to have stimulated a prompt American response. Within two months the United States concluded a long negotiation looking to the creation of an air network in Nepal. It agreed to make $600,000 available to provide Nepal with several airplanes, as well as navigation and communications equipment for Nepalese airports.
Aid from Communist China is not being actively sought. Indeed, since China's donation of 10,000,000 rupees in cash to Tanka Prasad Acharya's government in 1956, in return for Nepal's abrogation of certain trading and extraterritorial rights in Tibet, Nepal has not moved to secure the other two scheduled installments of the promised Chinese help--another 10,000,000 rupees' worth of machinery and other materials plus 10,000,000 rupees' worth of technical assistance in making use of them. In view of what has been happening in Tibet there seems little likelihood that these remaining installments of Chinese aid will be called for. The free gift of cash was extremely useful in tiding over a desperate financial crisis; and former Prime Minister Acharya points out with logic that in return for it he merely legitimatized a change in the status of Nepalese citizens in Tibet which could not have been avoided in view of India's recogniton of Chinese hegemony there.
Though the leaders of the Nepali Congress are decidedly anti-Communist, as is King Mahendra, Nepalese foreign policy will continue to be neutralist. This is in conformity, of course, with the policy of India, to which country Nepal must look for physical protection. After the uprising in Tibet the chief worry in Kathmandu was lest the Chinese terror throw a flood of refugees onto Nepal's northern frontier. It was agreed that refugees would have to be admitted, both on humanitarian grounds and because, like the Nepalese, they are Buddhists, but that any arriving with arms would have to be disarmed, lest they form pockets of resistance on Nepalese soil and make forays back into their homeland. This would give the Chinese an excuse to pursue them across the frontier and to make unpleasant demands on the Nepalese Government. The check points where the trails from the main mountain passes converge are manned not only by Nepalese troops but also by wireless units of the Indian army. The contingents in the check points were not strengthened; but additional forces were concentrated in support positions. There is still a possibility that the intensification of the Chinese operations in southeast Tibet, a stronghold of the Dalai Lama, will force cornered bands of Khampa tribesmen to seek refuge in eastern Nepal. This would present the Nepalese Government with extremely uncomfortable decisions. If nothing else, China would be able to store up grievances to excuse later demands on Nepal for revisions of the frontier (which is not well defined at some points) or perhaps for a lessening of Indian influence in the Nepalese army.
This is not to say that Nepal's independence is directly threatened at present. As Prime Minister Nehru made clear, India in effect guarantees Nepal because it forms an essential segment of the Indian defense system. But China's disregard of Tibet's rights of autonomy and religious freedom as promised in the agreement with India and underwritten by the whole system of Panchsheel--the five principles of coexistence--has brought home to all the leaders of free Asia, and most painfully of all to Prime Minister Nehru, that good relations with Communist China are dependent not only on their sincerity but on China's sincerity as well. Most literate and politically aware Indians, including important members of Mr. Nehru's own party, now know that when the advantages which the Peking régime sees in breaking its word become really tempting it will throw the Panchsheel code to the winds. The sad words uttered by Mr. Nehru after Suez and Hungary, "we seem to live in a world of unreality where profession has little to do with practice," suddenly find application much nearer home. He must be wondering whether Communist China and the Soviets any longer consider him quite so useful as spokesman of the Bandung program, leader of the Afro-Asian group in the United Nations, supporter of Communist China's admission to that body, and ardent proponent of the theory, widely accepted under his influence throughout South and Southeast Asia, that neutralism offers a safe cavern of refuge from the storms of world conflict. When the moment seemed propitious for the Soviets to subvert the Iraqi Government and turn it against Nasser's brand of Arab nationalism, they did not hesitate to jettison their protégé and brand him as a black reactionary. Has Mr. Nehru now been given warning in Tibet that his friendship, too, is expendable when something more tangible is being weighed against it?
Since India considers Nepal an indispensable salient on its front against Communist China, the security of the Himalayan kingdom comes into question mainly as part of the over-all problem of Indian security. In view of the minor importance of India's armed forces and equipment compared to those of Red China backed by the Soviet Union, the chief factor in a crisis would be the nature and extent of the support which she would receive in the United Nations, especially, of course, from the United States and other Western nations. When and if the Chinese Communists attempt to take over Nepal by overt methods, India will have to decide whether it is a first bite into her own flesh that must be resisted by all means and at any risks. If she takes that decision, then the West's reaction will be determined not simply by the rights, needs and demands of a remote Himalayan kingdom for defense but by the pleas of India for support in providing it. The Western nations should ask themselves whether they would stand aside while an India of something like its present character faced Communist China alone, with the risk that it might forcibly be brought under its control. So long as the United States, for one, answers this question in the negative India does not stand alone. Concurrently, so long as Nepal maintains internal order, pursues her new course of political and social development and is considered by India as a reliable and indispensable element in the Indian scheme of defense, she also is secure in the same degree as India herself.
Nepal is no more secure, however, against infiltration and internal disaffection due to misery and disappointed hopes among her people than any of the other small and weak states of Southeast Asia. The promptness of American aid, its direct applicability to local needs and its immediate productivity in terms of employment will count heavily in the next year or so in helping King Mahendra and the Nepali Congress majority in Parliament push their country forward on its new course.
[i] These were Mr. Nehru's actual words: "Our interest in the internal conditions of Nepal becomes still more acute and personal because of the developments across our borders, to be frank, especially those in China and Tibet. . . . The Himalayas lie mostly on the northern border of Nepal. We cannot allow that barrier to be penetrated because it is also the principal barrier to India. Therefore, much as we appreciate the independence of Nepal, we cannot allow anything to go wrong in Nepal or permit that barrier to be crossed or weakened, because that would be a risk to our own security." (Speech in the Indian Parliament, December 6, 1950.)
Better Diplomacy and Stronger Guardrails Can Prevent War