Dr Yubaraj Sangroula is Executive Director, Kathmandu Law School, Purbanchal University, Nepal, and ex-attorney general of the country. He is a peace activist and has been advocating greater cooperation between the South Asian states for years. He believes in regional integration, economic cooperation and cultural exchanges.
Recently, he visited Pakistan to speak at a seminar in Islamabad on ‘Changing Regional Scenario and Cooperation between South Asian Countries’, organised by Pak Institute for Peace Studies.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Why is South Asian regional cooperation necessary in your view?
Dr Yubaraj Sangroula (YS): This is an age of regional cooperation. Look at Europe that had a myriad of conflicts. The states of that continent fought for decades but they have already forged unity. The countries of ASEAN are also getting closer. But we in South Asia do not seem to be realising the importance of such cooperation. For instance, a number of people die in Nepal because of the shortage of certain medicines that may be available in Pakistan. In some cases, we had to airlift such medicines from Bangladesh. There may be patients in Pakistan whose surgery can be carried out in India, and their lives could be saved. So, put the politics aside. Discuss Kashmir at political table. Let conflicts be dealt at political levels but there could be cooperation in other fields. For instance, who made policies or greatly contributed to the policies of their countries… it is intelligentsia and institutions. So, let the institutions and intellectuals of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and other regional states work together so that they could come up with some solutions. Let there be more engagement.
TNS: Given the rivalries between India and Pakistan, do you think this regional cooperation formula could work?
YS: Ideally the states of the region should work together but if that is not possible in the given circumstances then at least there could be cooperation at bilateral level. For instance, I had to spend almost 15 hours to come to Pakistan. From Kathmandu to Karachi the flight should be for 90 minutes only, and to Islamabad may be two hours. But if we want to come to Pakistan, we have to fly to Doha or to some other country in that region, wait for the connecting flight and then get here. If Pakistani airlines start operation from here to Nepal at least problems like this could be overcome.
Also, Nepal and Pakistan house a number of religious and historical sites. Many Nepalese want to visit Pakistan to see these sites, and many Pakistanis may also want to see fascinating snow-capped mountains in Nepal. So exchange of people could be carried out. Again, Pakistan and Nepal can work together in the field of mountains, glaciers and rivers research. The cooperation could be enhanced at bilateral level if it is not possible at regional level at the moment.
There could be another way to forge unity and cooperation among the South Asian countries. For instance, if there is an agreement between Nepal and India, which has the potential to benefit Islamabad, Kathmandu can ask New Delhi to let Islamabad join it as well. If there is any project between Pakistan and India, Islamabad can ask New Delhi to allow Kathmandu or any other country of the region to join it. So, my theory is engagement. Engage the states of the region at whatever level is possible.
TNS: Can China play any role in encouraging this regional integration?
YS: Yes, China can do. Of course, it does not have to use military power to do so. If there is a serious problem between Pakistan and India then China should come forward. Beijing has given this concept of One Belt One Road, which demands integration and cooperation. So, it should encourage Pakistan and India to sit together. It has to push the two countries to sort out their issues since both of them are armed with nuclear weapons. I think that China has a role in promoting regional integration but Chinese approach of diplomacy is very different. It is aimed at separating politics from economics. That is a good way but sometimes they have to move out of it and come forward to play their due role.
TNS: Is India concerned over Chinese presence or investment in Nepal?
YS: Nepal is the part of One Belt One Road policy of China, and in a few years we will be connected to some ports of China. We have to go to the Calcutta port to transport our goods or other trade purposes, which is very time consuming. We have to cross Indian territories. We are dependent on India for transit and this dependence makes us depend on India on other things as well. The distance is not that much long but because of the poor infrastructure it takes longer. We have also transit agreement with China which is creating tension between New Delhi and Kathmandu. India has also tension over this issue with China. This agreement was struck just three months ago. Naturally, India cannot ask us as to why we had an agreement with China.
Nepal is a sovereign state, and cannot be dictated. But we notice their anger in the criticism of Nepal by the Indian media. They insist [Indian media] all the time that Nepal and China are getting closer. India should remember Nepal could provide an opportunity to India to enhance trade with China. The two most populous nations can benefit from one another if New Delhi sees cooperation between Kathmandu and Beijing in a positive way. India should stop seeing us through the prism of China.
I do not understand this attitude. India and China are the founding members of BRICS. Either they should end it or stop fooling the world. You should either fight or sit down. These paradoxes will not do. We are also the members of Infrastructure Development. So, why cannot India, Pakistan, China, Nepal and other states of the region sit together for the sake of regional cooperation?
TNS: China is pumping billions of dollars in Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Africa. Is it also investing in Nepal, and in what way it can benefit China?
YS: Nepal has a great potential of hydropower. It possesses reserves of limestone that can help China manufacture cement and its development projects. We already have some electricity and road projects, and are holding talks on others. As I told you earlier, we are the part of One Belt One Road policy of China, so in five years, we will be connected to Shanghai and other Chinese ports, availing transit facilities. Shanghai is much far from Nepal than Calcutta but road network and connectivity is much better in China than India. We will be connected to China by train, reaching Chinese ports in 48 hours. At present, it takes six to seven days to transport our goods from Kathmandu to Calcutta. It will benefit us a lot in terms of time saving. It will also help us end our dependence on India but it does not mean that we will have no trade with India. We will trade with New Delhi in some fields and in others with China.
TNS: Is Indian attitude towards Nepal hegemonic?
YS: Indian attitude towards Nepal is not hegemonic but I would say it is imbedded in wrong psychology. For instance, once I was invited to India to speak at a conference, and I was introduced as somebody hailing from a very small country, neighbhour of India. The moderator said Nepal was “our small brother”. I posed a question that if you walk from one end of India to another, how long will it take? I was told two months. I replied in case of Nepal it takes six months, so which country is bigger? And why should Nepal be called a small country? Nepal is the 23rd biggest country in the world by territory. There are many countries smaller than Nepal in the world. So, why do Indians call us a smaller country, and this is what makes Nepalese people cynical.
TNS: How do you see IPI and TAPI projects?
YS: I think they are very good projects although they are not going as good as they should have been. They will benefit India, and they could also benefit Nepal. If the pipeline can go up to India, it can be extended to Nepal and Bangladesh. In projects like these, Pakistan could tell India that Nepal should also be included in it, and India may suggest that Bangladesh should also be a part of it. So, this project could be useful for every one — if Pakistanis, Indians and other civil societies in the region ask their countries to make all states of the region a part of it. This is how regional cooperation could further be forged.
TNS: Will Trump’s policies affect South Asia?
YS: I do not see a very strong impact of Trump policies on South Asia because here China and India will get closer, and Pakistan and China are also getting closer. China has good cooperation with Myanmar and Nepal. So, I do not think that Trump policy will affect South Asia a lot. I think whatever Trump does is more likely to affect Americans than other people of the world.
TNS: How did Nepal snuff out Maoist insurgency, and have the Marxist militants been rehabilitated?
YS: Nepal has a tradition of talks and dialogues. We, Nepalese, may have different political ideologies but it does not affect our social relations. So, the country’s political parties and the Maoists decided to sit together and hold the polls for a constituent assembly where no party could get majority. The West played a negative role during that time trying to divide people in the name of race and gender. Our Supreme Court ordered to hold polls again. We held the elections again and framed the constitution last year. So it is there now. This is how we reached a constitutional settlement. Around 1,500 Maoist militants opted to join the army. The rest were given monitory compensation, and encouraged to start small businesses. Each militant was given 6,000 rupees. This is how the country achieved permanent peace.
Now the prime minister of the country is from this Maoist group. Maoists have been mainstreamed. How did we sort out this insurgency? We did not allow any country to interfere with our internal matter — be that India or China. There was a lot of interest from Washington and the west to play a role in reconciliation between the Maoists and Nepalese government but Kathmandu did not allow this type of mediation. Political parties themselves came up with the idea of talks, approaching Maoists to hold talks over the issue — and they agreed. The key to resolve dispute like this is non-interference by other countries. About the reasons of this conflict, the Maoists claim they wanted land and other reforms but I would say it was a romantic revolution.
TNS: How concerned is Nepal over the possibility of a nuclear war in the region?
YS: We are very much concerned. India and Pakistan do not have any right to kill innocent people for your perceived threat. If the amount of money the two countries are spending to deal with their perceived enemy is invested in social sector, we can eliminate poverty from these countries easily. If you could agree to have the Simla Agreement, why can you not have any pact on the nuclear issue?