September 28, 2023
KATHMANDU – The Indian Army and the United States Army are co-hosting the 13th Indo-Pacific Armies Chiefs Conference (IPACC) in New Delhi. Two other significant conclaves—the 47th Indo-Pacific Armies Management Seminar (IPAMS) and the 9th Senior Enlisted Leaders Forum (SELF)—are also being held along with the flagship defence programme of the US in the region. The participation of the Chief of Army Staff of the Nepal Army, General Prabhu Ram Sharma, in these events is somewhat intriguing.
The role of the Nepal Army in such exercises is peripheral for at least three reasons. The Indo-Pacific name relates to the Indian Ocean and the adjacent parts of the Pacific Ocean. It is a security strategy of the United States Army that hosts IPACC events to share its concerns with like-minded participants. There isn’t much that landlocked Nepal can either contribute or learn from experiences and apprehensions of maritime security exercises.
Even though explicitly unstated, the implicit objective of the IPACC initiative is to counter the Chinese encroachment into what the US and its allies have considered their oceanic area of influence ever since the dissolution of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the wake of World War II. Nepal has little to gain and much to lose by aligning itself with any grouping perceived to be anti-China.
The timing of General Sharma’s participation in IPACC is even more inopportune. It is taking place when Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal is in China and busy explaining to his hosts that Nepal can’t participate in the Global Security Initiative (GSI), which is an important component of President Xi Jinping’s ambitious geopolitical enterprises such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the Global Civilisational Initiative (GCI) and the Global Development Initiative (GDI). President Xi’s signature initiatives are interdependent and it’s extremely difficult for a participant to chose one and discard another.
The mixed message emanating from the political leadership of Nepal assuaging the fears of the northern neighbour while its top military brass is playing the game from a different team is perplexing to say the least. This isn’t the policy of maintaining equidistance between Beijing and New Delhi, practicing neutrality between competing powers of the New Cold War or even balancing external relations in order to keep all major geopolitical players in good humour. It’s an illustrative example of how not to win friends and influence neighbours.
Fortunately, all eyes for a while are likely to be upon the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing network of Anglophone countries as they confront a challenge to their teamwork of nearly eight decades from a prospective but unpredictable partner. Among the several groupings that the security strategists of the US have stitched up in the Indo-Pacific, India has been admitted into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) or Quad but kept out of the AUKUS pact and the Five Eyes network.
After the recent diplomatic row between Ottawa and New Delhi over the assassination of a Canadian Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, India is likely to be suspected by its newfound collaborators in the Anglophone world. In what has been termed as “The West’s Modi problem”, tensions between India and the US are likely to escalate despite the convergence of their security interests.
After a senior US diplomat confirmed that there was shared intelligence about the potential link between the Indian government and the assassination of the Sikh activist Nijjar, the assertions of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau that the murder of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil needs a full-scale investigation and accountability from New Delhi can no longer be derisively dismissed as mere accusations. But investigations to uphold the principles of the so-called “rules-based international order” seldom succeed in holding a powerful country to account.
The US failed to bring those who masterminded the murder of its resident and Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to justice despite what it once called incriminating evidence. Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of Islamic Revolutionary Guard but designated as a terrorist by the US was killed in a drone strike. Principles of rules-based international order don’t apply to the countries that set its standards.
The Israeli spy agency Mossad is so notorious for going after anyone it determines to be an enemy of the Jewish state that targeted killing on foreign soil is sometimes called a “Mossad style” execution. If Canadian contentions prove to be true, Indian agencies may have begun their adventures in the Western world with the targeted killing of an alleged terrorist on the soil of a minor power. The message of the murder is unlikely to be lost upon Western countries with diasporic Sikhs that New Delhi routinely denounce as Khalistan sympathisers and activists.
There is nothing new in the involvement of India’s overseas spy agency R&AW in the extraterritorial machinations in South Asia. Indian agencies or their outside collaborators have been implicated in the assassination of at least two high-profile Nepali Muslims on Nepali soil on unsubstantiated charges of being either accomplices or associates of notorious fugitive Dawood Ibrahim.
Mirza Dilshad Beg, a parliamentarian from Kapilvastu in the western Tarai of Nepal and a former minister, was shot dead in 1998 in Kathmandu. Chhota Rajan, an estranged aide of Dawood and perhaps an instrument of the Indian intelligence agency working on their behalf in the shadowy underworld, later owned up to the crime. In 2010, media entrepreneur Jamim Shah—the owner of a daily newspaper, television station and cable television network—was gunned down on a busy road in the Lazimpat area of Kathmandu. An estranged assistant of Chhota Rajan claimed responsibility for the murder.
The phrase “Fox News on steroids” to describe what goes on in Indian television is a post-2014 phenomenon. The “Godi Media” is a descriptor of increasing servility of the Indian press that began to “comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted” in a reversal of roles after the beginning of the Modi Era in Indian politics. But the tendency of even senior journalists working as stenographers of power on foreign policy issues has a long history in New Delhi. Imminent Indian media persons have no qualms about manufacturing dossiers to justify the activities of their government on foreign soil just as many of them have done over the assassination of Nijjar in Canada.
In castigating long-distance nationalism from a host country as the “menacing portent for the future”, political theorist Benedict Anderson has argued that someone who “rarely pays taxes in the country in which he does his politics; he is not answerable to its judicial system; he probably does not cast even an absentee ballot in its elections because he is a citizen in a different place; he need not fear prison, torture or death, nor need his immediate family,” can cause incalculable harm to his source country. If surreptitious elimination of such persons were to become the norm, powerful nations would be able to get away with murder in the literal sense of the term.
General Sharma’s observations in New Delhi of the pointlessness of security alliances may hold lessons for Nepal. Despite its pitfalls, bilateralism with each of the multiple nations is perhaps a firmer basis of external relations than regional or global groupings.