Today marks another significant milestone in the disaster response relationship between India and Nepal. From today until February 21st, a large-scale military exercise will take place within the Pithoragarh District, in Uttarakhand, India.
The history of this exercise is significant, dating back to 2011 in a formal capacity, with 8 previous full-scale international exercises along themes of pandemic/epidemic control, medical response, jungle warfare and counter-terrorism, humanitarian aid and disaster relief operations.
However, these exercises are the product of a much longer, complex history and cultural ties between these nations. The formal modern relationship dates back as far as 1950, when the Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship laid out a common attitude and collaborative approach to security threats from foreign aggressors. This “special relationship” between India and Nepal opened the Indo-Nepal border and entitled the citizens of both countries preferential treatment, as well as the ability to live and work, in either country.
Like any friendship, this one has not always been positive (the 1970-80 was especially turbulent). The increasingly Maoist tendencies of Nepalese Politics and strengthening economic and political influence of the People’s Republic of China, have strained foreign affairs considerably. In spite of this, military cooperation is of continued importance, especially in light of the catastrophic events of April 2015.
Indeed, one constant in this interesting relationship, has been the need for interoperability in matters of security, humanitarian aid and especially response and rescue operations. Case and point in this regard is the existance of the Nepal-India Bilateral Consultative Group on security issues, which has formed a critical role in Nepal’s acquisition of military stores, as well as joint border management and issues of national security. It was the 7th of these formal meetings, held in 2011, which saw the formalization of and commitment to the Surya Kiran exercise.
The survival of joint military and rescue operations is unsurprising in the face of the challenging geography, economic and social characteristics of the region. Without going into too much detail, it is safe to say that when faced with the amplified effects of these longstanding challenges in the face of a disaster, joint operations cease to be an optional exercise.
For example, If not for the joint operations of these two countries, Operation Maitri would not have been a possibility; the significance of which is undeniable. According to the New Indian Express, rescue and relief operations conducted by Indian military rescue teams within Nepal, evacuated 43K Indians and over 150 foreign tourists, while transit visas were provided to as many as 785 foreigners in the region. Sources report that this response begin within 15 minutes of activation, and the unique relationship enabled the further deployment of teams throughout the response, including the Indian Police National Disaster Response Force (NDRF).
In fact, the events of April 2015 are certainly the most recent, and perhaps the most interesting demonstration of the positive impact of the Indo-Nepal relationship; by this I refer to the difficulties of the current political climate. In the months following the earthquakes, Nepal found itself confronted with a humanitarian crisis of a different kind; a blockade at a crucial crossing on its border with India. This blockade interfered with crucial supplies of oil and supplies. Nepalese officials blamed the blockade on India. To make matters more complicated, the incident came hot on the heels of Nepal’s new constitution, published on September 19th 2015.
The new constitution marks a new era in Indo-Nepalese relations. It replaces the Interim Constitution of 2007, and sparked a great deal of criticism within Nepal, despite being a largely progressive framework. While most of the controversy stems from issues of representation, marginalization and citizenship, the unrest has led to further tensions between India and Nepal. These stem from provisions created to address concerns that the state could be overwhelmed by Indian immigrants, and which India claims discriminates against Madhesis of Indian origins.
In spite of this ongoing political turmoil and ensuing strain on bi-lateral relations, the commitment to continue exercises to enhance response capabilities continues, for now. Nepal’s geography and history point to a continuing role for India in Nepalese affairs, but the ongoing economic blockade at key points of the Indo-Nepal border has been referred to by Environment Minister Vishwendra Paswan as a “chill” in ties. Could this chill cause problems for more than the environment and energy sectors?
Let us watch Surya Kiran IX with interest, and keep our fingers crossed for version X.