India and Nepal are siblings and snapping the ‘umbilical cord’ that binds the two nations will hurt both.
Mutual understanding, respect and consideration of each other’s concerns should guide ties between India and Nepal.
Nepal’s House of Representatives (the lower house in the country’s bicameral Parliament) has endorsed a bill amending the country’s Constitution to incorporate a crucial change in the country’s map as shown in its national emblem. The bill will become an act after it is expectedly passed by the National Assembly (the Upper House) this week.
The cartographic change involves showing 335 square kilometres of territory that falls in India’s Uttarakhand state as part of Nepal. This, obviously, amounts to a grave provocation for India. After the cartographic change, Nepal will join the league of China and Pakistan — two of India’s prime adversaries — which show Indian territories like Arunachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir (respectively) in their maps.
But New Delhi would be ill-advised to bracket Nepal with China and Pakistan, and adopt an adversarial or hard stance against it. India’s political leadership has to disregard advice from hardliners, who are currently advocating a ‘tit for tat’ policy towards the Himalayan country. India has to rise above rancour and bear the provocation with equanimity, keeping the long-term interests of both the countries in mind.
Why India Should Not Strike Back
It will be easy for India to adopt a hard stance, as is being demanded by hardliners within the country, and initiate punitive measures against Nepal. Many in the political and diplomatic establishment are chafing at what they view as Nepal’s perfidy and feel that Nepal’s political leadership (read: Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli) needs to be taught a lesson.
Sure, it was Oli who indulged in the current spell of jingoism. And the cartographic change has been steered entirely by him. It was a clever political move (though the gains will prove to be very short-lived) by Oli to divert public attention from his abject failure to handle the coronavirus pandemic and his numerous administrative bungles.
Oli was also facing a serious threat to his chair from powerful detractors within his party and last month, it appeared he would be forced to resign. It was only the intervention of the Chinese ambassador (to Nepal) who met senior leaders of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and prevailed on them to desist from dissidence which saved the day for Oli.
A beleaguered Oli, facing public anger and serious dissidence within his party, chose jingoism to stave off the challenges. In Nepal, jingoism translates to anti-Indianism. Oli has, with his aggressive posturing against India, managed to save his chair for now. But, as is widely suspected in India, he has also acted on Beijing’s behest by whipping public sentiments against India.
China would be the happiest if India now responds against Nepal with punitive measures like restricting movement of goods and people along the open India-Nepal border. Or, as the hardliners are suggesting, stop free movement of people between the two countries, revise the currency exchange rate and adopt other measures that will hurt Nepal.
Other than the fact that all such measures will also hurt Nepal, it needs to be remembered that if India goes by what the hardliners are suggesting, it will fall into the trap laid for it by China. A hardening of stance against Kathmandu by New Delhi and imposition of ‘tit for tat’ measures will further fuel anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal and alienate the Nepalis more.
And nothing would suit China more. Beijing wants Kathmandu to come within its own exclusive sphere of influence. China’s gameplan is to encircle India with hostile neighbours since that would pin India down to its neighbourhood and contain India’s ambitions to play a larger role in global affairs. If India reacts to Nepal’s cartographic provocation now, it runs the grave risk of strengthening China’s hands in Nepal.
Despite shared religious and cultural heritage, ties between India and Nepal have been characterised by many periodic ups and downs. Even during the reign of the kings, tensions between the two countries used to crop up occasionally over various issues. The kings of Nepal used to — like Oli, but to a much lesser extent — whip up nationalistic (read: anti-India) sentiments to shore up support among the masses in times of crisis.
Nepal’s royalty, despite its close and even familial and blood ties with India, had occasionally displayed resentment towards India for what it perceived to be India’s hegemonistic and even bullying attitude. The monarchy and the country’s political, bureaucratic and military elite had often expressed displeasure with what they perceived as India’s overt interference in Nepal’s internal affairs.
A turning point in India-Nepal ties, and the beginning of China’s influence in that country, was the 1989 economic blockade of Nepal by India. Though the official reason for the 13-month blockade that crippled Nepal was lapsed trade and transit treaties between the two countries that Nepal had not renewed, the real reason was Nepal’s import of anti-aircraft guns and other armaments from China.
Many say the actual reason was the slight to Sonia Gandhi during Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Nepal in 1989. Sonia Gandhi was denied entry to the Pashupatinath mandir since she was not a Hindu, and Rajiv Gandhi took up the matter with King Birendra. But the King declined to intervene on the grounds that the mandir’s traditions prohibited entry of non-Hindus. A miffed Rajiv Gandhi later imposed sanctions on the land-locked country.
That blockade paved the way for China’s entry in a big way into Nepal. Nepal, in order to get past the blockade, turned towards China and Beijing took full advantage of the fortuitous opening it got in India’s backyard. Since then, China’s influence over Nepal has only increased.
India also started extending support to Nepal’s pro-democracy movement led by the Maoists during the fag end of Rajiv Gandhi’s disastrous rule. Some Indian diplomats say this happened because of Rajiv Gandhi’s dislike of the Nepal monarchy and his asinine ambition of going down in history as a statesman who helped usher in democracy in Nepal.
Rajiv Gandhi’s dislike for the monarchy intensified after the Pashupatinath episode; it is said that Sonia Gandhi (who never forgets slights) egged him to extend Indian state machinery’s support to Maoists. Rajiv Gandhi was also influenced in this by India’s well-entrenched Left ecosystem and communist leaders like Sitaram Yechury.
This (support to Maoists) is often cited as a prime example of India’s interference in Nepal’s domestic politics. It is ironic that the Maoists who were aided and sheltered by New Delhi from the early 1990s till the middle of the next decade have been fuelling anti-Indian sentiments and been at the forefront of anti-India movements in Nepal.
China has also been investing a lot of resources in Nepal. It has engaged very intensively and extensively with various sections of Nepal’s civil society—its academia, intellectuals, political class, bureaucracy, military, media and NGOs. As a result, China is looked upon by large sections of people in Nepal as a friendly neighbour while India is perceived to be a bully.
India’s efforts to force Nepal in 2015 to incorporate demands of the Madhesis, who have close filial ties with people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (across the border from Terai in Nepal), and the subsequent blockade that intensified the hardships of the quake-hit people of Nepal, was another unfortunate low in ties between the two countries.
Nepalis have not forgotten the 1989 and 2015 blockades, and these punitive actions by India have paved the way for China to increase its footprints in that country. Large sections of Nepal’s media often adopt an anti-India stance and many among Nepal’s academia and civil society are very favourably disposed towards China. A huge number of Nepali youth study in China and go there on exchange programmes and the cultural exchanges between Nepal and China surpass those between India and Nepal.
The Path Ahead For India In Nepal
India should, first of all, desist from reacting to Nepal’s provocation and refrain from issuing even angry statements. At the same time, New Delhi should step up back-channel discussions at the political and diplomatic levels with Kathmandu.
“The task ahead for India is a painstaking one and requires lots of patience and equanimity. India has to regain lost capital in Nepal. It has to engage with Nepal’s civil society, media, bureaucracy, military and others very patiently. It has to cultivate them and create assets in Nepal. This will take a long time, but the results will be fruitful in the long run,” said a former Indian ambassador to Nepal who was posted in Kathmandu during a troubled phase of ties between the two countries a few years ago.
India, he said, should not fall for the provocation of imposing covert sanctions on Nepal like restrictions on movement of people and goods across the India-Nepal border. Many are advocating a halt to the prevalent practice of recruiting young men from Nepal into the Indian Army’s Gorkha Regiments. That is a hare-brained suggestion, says a retired Indian Army Brigadier, who was commissioned into the 11 Gorkha Rifles.
“Each and every ex-soldier of a Gorkha regiment who returns to Nepal after serving in the Indian Army is an ambassador for India in Nepal. The Indian Army ex-servicemen community in Nepal has tremendous goodwill towards India,” he said. India needs to build on that instead of giving up on such a precious asset.
India should cultivate the Nepali media by facilitating exchanges between journalists and media houses of both the countries. India should generously fund higher educational institutions in Nepal and create India study centres all over that country. India has to leverage the close religious, cultural and civilisational ties it has with Nepal and build on those ties.
India needs to initiate a quiet dialogue with Nepal’s civil society, its political leadership, its bureaucracy and with its media and impress upon opinion-makers in Nepal that amicable and strong India-Nepal ties are mutually beneficial. India has to impress upon the Nepalis that China is no friend of theirs and highlight examples of China’s exploitative and extortionist ties with African and other countries.
Those advocating a hard border with Nepal must remember that while a huge number of Nepalis come to India for mainly low-paying jobs, Indians run large business houses and industries in Nepal. Adopting a hard stance against Nepal would put such Indian businesses in Nepal at risk.
New Delhi should also desist from interfering in Nepal’s domestic politics and trying to engineer Oli’s removal from the PM’s chair. Oli, despite the huge public support he now enjoys due to his strident anti-Indian stance, will not last long and will fall on his own. Once this issue subsides, his failings will come to the fore again. He will ultimately have to go and India should resist the temptation of hastening the process because that will generate public sympathy for Oli and allow him to get back to power again.
Many of the rulers of the erstwhile princely states in India still have close ties with Nepal’s royalty. New Delhi could use their services to strengthen its ties with Kathmandu. Bharatiya Janata Party Member of Parliament from Tehri Garhwal, Mala Rajya Laxmi Shah, was born in Thapathali Durbar of Kathmandu. The services of Shah and many others like her in India can be deployed to strengthen people-to-people ties with Nepal.
Others like Darjeeling M P Raju Bista, and even Nepalis with close links to India like renowned Nepali social activist Anuradha Koirala (who was conferred the Padma Shri in 2017) can be prevailed upon to take up India’s cause with Nepal’s civil society.
India needs to remain calm now and work very quietly to regain lost capital in Nepal. It also needs to be generous towards Nepal. The ties between the two countries are too deep and precious to be sacrificed at the altar of geopolitics and political expediency.
India and Nepal are siblings and snapping the ‘umbilical cord’ that binds the two nations will hurt both. Mutual understanding, respect and consideration of each others’ concerns should guide ties between India and Nepal.
What appears to be a huge setback in ties between India and Nepal can, with a lot of magnanimity on India’s part and oodles of patience and imagination, be turned into an opportunity to reset the relationship between the two countries.
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