Recurrent anti-Indianism in Nepal: Need to restructure bilateral ties

As India prepares for anti-Indianism 2.0  it will eventually have to also address the deeper Nepalese yearning for a sense of equality and mutual respect, writes Amb K V Rajan (retd) for South Asia Monitor

Amb K V Rajan (retd) Jul 19, 2020

Since 1947, successive Indian governments have generally followed well-intentioned and generous policies towards Nepal. Why then the outbursts of anti-Indian sentiment that are a regular feature of the India-Nepal landscape? Why does the roti-beti (symbiotic)  relationship which Indian leaders love to extol (as Defence Minister Rajnath Singh did only recently at the height of the controversy over Kalapani) seem to count for so little when there is any kind of a political problem? More importantly, is anti-Indianism taking new dimensions which should necessitate a review of the India-Nepal relationship itself?

Nepal's psyche of a small, landlocked nation - excessively dependent on India, and whose identity is so much in the shadow of India's cultural influence that it has the feeling that it is "India-locked" and therefore has to constantly assert itself vis a vis India -- has always offered fertile soil for provoking anti-Indian sentiments.

Part of the explanation for this sentiment also lies in the kind of unequal relationship that was sought to be fashioned during the East India and British Indian government years with the small ruling elite of the day in Kathmandu, basically ensuring that the core interests of the former were respected against protection from any domestic forces for democracy and development. This arrangement worked as long as Nepal was isolated from the world and ruled in autocratic fashion by a handful of influential elite families. It cannot possibly sit comfortably with the multiparty republican setup of today's Nepal,

The British also,  incidentally, dinned it into influential Nepalese ears in every way available to them that Indians were never to be trusted. According to Nepalese political veterans some of whom have passed on, several decades of brainwashing created a sense of insecurity about India which continues to influence political attitudes to this day.

Growing anti-Indianism

Until recently,   anti-Indianism in Nepal was limited in space and depth. It was to be found mainly in the Kathmandu Valley, where a pampered over-politicised elite has for long specialized in anti-Indian activity whenever an opportunity arose. More often than not, such activity was born of frustration on the part of one or other political group in Nepal, because it expected India's support in order to come to power (or stay in government) in the usually unstable political environment in Kathmandu -- and New Delhi's inability or unwillingness to extend such support.

 In recent years, however, anti-Indianism has become more strident, more frequent, with a longer shelf life, and more effective in acting as a  serious speed-breaker in efforts to enable the relationship to achieve its true potential.

A few factors have converged to make this happen. One was the fall of the monarchy which, despite its anti-India credentials, could act as an institutional moderating influence once New Delhi drew the red lines for any adventure contemplated. When India invited King Birendra to be Chief Guest on Republic Day in 1999, despite the many tensions in the past over issues like Nepal's Zone of Peace proposal, it was a recognition of this fact.

The rise of the radical left and mainstreaming of the Maoists in the power structure was another.

The third is the China factor, the assertion of interest by China in Nepal going far beyond a  legitimate interest in promoting bilateral relations.

The fourth is India's frequent misreading of Nepal's determination to do its own thing, its penchant for publicly 'advising' Nepal in its internal affairs and thinly disguised expectation that the advice was to be heeded, or else...

The communication style has also changed over the years at the political-diplomatic level. In essence, earlier India was more accommodating when Nepal political leaders pleaded domestic compulsions when asserting nationalistic positions which were not in tune with Delhi's views as long as core interests were respected.  In recent times this has been replaced with a realpolitik,  a no-nonsense approach which basically says "do as you please" but places a price tag for such aberrations. This policy evolution was probably overdue but Nepal has not been able to digest it--the tendency in Kathmandu is to take reckless risks for short-term political gain in an apres moi, le deluge mode.

Perception problems 

The problem of perceptions on both sides is serious.  For too many people in India, Nepal is unappreciative, anti-India and pro-China, ever a foreign policy migraine.

For too many in Nepal,  India comes across as insincere, inconsistent, insensitive and usually dismissive of Nepal's point of view; over seven decades every government in India has been responsible for creating serious misunderstandings and suspicions about its true intentions.

Conclusion? Over the past seven decades, thanks largely due to Nepalese failings but in part also due to  India's mismanagement of ties with Nepal,  what the British initiated two centuries ago through their unequal treaty relationship and sly propaganda against India has over the years matured into ever-deepening and widening mistrust between the two nations.

Nepal Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli's success in challenging India's territorial boundary through the  new "official" Nepal map and rushing through a constitutional amendment to give parliamentary approval to this immensely complicates the atmosphere at the political level. But there are other irritants too, waiting to come alive when the time comes.

Now Oli has asserted that Ayodhya is actually a village near Birgunj in the Nepalese Terai and not in India, and that Lord  Rama was a Nepali who could travel the short distance to Janakpur to marry Sita, an impossible feat in those days to accomplish from faraway  Ayodhya in India.  Some days back, a move was initiated to amend rules for grant of Nepalese citizenship to an Indian woman marrying a Nepalese national--under the new rules she would have to wait for seven years instead of one. 

Madheshis in Nepal have always felt discriminated against by the hill folk elite -- and the Constitution as it stands is certainly not fair to them -- but of late, since India-Nepal relations began to sour, there have been reports of Madheshis being ill-treated along with Indian nationals. The intensity of anti-India propaganda in the border areas of Nepal is a matter of concern as it is vitiating cross-border attitudes which have traditionally been friendly. The banning of private TV networks because they were seen as overly critical of PM Oli is an early warning sign of the fragile overall environment. Finally, it has to be acknowledged that Indians are poorly informed of Nepalese sensitivities-- too many recurring instances for too long of Indian political leaders, celebrities, tourists, Bollywood stars--making careless statements like "after all, Nepal was once part of India, that' s why we love it", thereby creating a reservoir of resentment among Nepalese in different walks of life.

People-to-people ties under strain 

Even if there is a change of government in Kathmandu in the near future (thanks to growing opposition to Oli from within the unified ruling Nepal Communist Party) and a new prime minister less inclined to invoking self-destructive ultra-nationalism for political gain takes over,  anti-Indianism today has the potential to derail the bilateral relationship in a much more serious way than before. And there is a possibility of the cultural underpinning, the people-to-people factor which has been a silent pillar of strength whenever there were serious hiccups in the past, increasingly losing its effectiveness in curbing it.

A leading light in the BJP, Ram Madhav,  suggests (by implication in an article) that Modi's "Neighbourhood First" policy and India's soft power -- culture, religion, family linkages - carry diminishing appeal for neighbours who would rather strengthen their uniqueness than commonalities shared with India. "We can grow together" is a  better plank to sell to neighbours, he suggests. This is a relevant thought if we are serious about repairing and restoring India-Nepal ties.

As India prepares for anti-Indianism 2.0  it will eventually have to also address the deeper Nepalese yearning for a sense of equality and mutual respect. Showing a willingness to restructure the bilateral relationship so that British Indian legacies are buried forever would be the surest way to restore and sustain a positive direction in bilateral ties. The hope has to be that a critical mass of Nepal's political establishment will realize that ultranationalism cannot be a substitute for better governance - before it is too late.

(The writer is former ambassador to Nepal. The views expressed are personal)

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