NEPAL-INDIA Bonds Across Border

Nepal-India relations are unique and complex. There have been many ups and downs at the official level, from time to time, but the relations at the people-to-people level have remained intact. Despite the politicization of the sensitive border issue by individuals at the state level, social, cultural and religious linkages continue to stand strong

May 30, 2020, 9:07 p.m.

Nepal India dispute started following the inauguration of a road from Dharchula to Lipulekh (China border) by India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh (an event over videoconferencing on May 8) has now been followed by Nepal’s charge claiming that the stretch passes though Nepalese territory, state to state relations between both the countries are in the lowest level.

Following the inauguration of road, communist lead Nepal government has taken several steps and announced to claim the land. Nepal has officially published a new map incorporating the land and a constitution amendment bill is now in parliament.

This time in modern history is rare for Nepal when a political leader, whose words and stands sound sentimentally touching, has gambled Nepal’s core relations and stand in an individual political power game.

It is yet to unfold how much Prime Minister K.P Sharma Oli’s statement in the parliament will help or harm Nepal’s interest in a long time. He declared from the podium of Nepal’s parliament, citing the emblem of India Satyamewa Jayate and or truth will win. He asserted that Nepal will win with India on Kalapani, Limpiadhura and Lipulek.

With the announcement of Prime Minister Oli, his government published a new map of Nepal incorporating the land which is currently also claimed by India. The Oli-government even tabled the constitution amendment bill in parliament to place Nepal’s new map in the insignia of parliament.

As PM Oli takes the issue as national pride and prestige, the main opposition party Nepali Congress, which normally remain sober, also took aggressive posture much higher than K.P. Sharma Oli. NC leaders ordered its cadre to go to the street along with communist cadre. This is rare in Nepal’s politics.

With opposition NC showed aggressive stand, PM Oli went further pointing to India. He said that the Indian virus is more dangerous than coronavirus. In his off-the-cuff remarks from parliament, he did not mind using words whether or not they were diplomatically sound or objectionable. However, his statements further fueled radicalized supporters of fading communist ideologists.

Nepali Congress leader Sher Bahadur Deuba helplessly watched all these events. His own party men Gagan Thapa even applauded PM Oli as a great leader of the country and urged party leaders to support Oli.

Backed by his radicals including his General Secretary Bishnu Poudel, Minister Padma Aryal and MP Sher Bahadur Tamang and some NC leaders, PM Oli has created a big radical group within the party and outside.

In the current political history of Nepal, PM Oli, who rode to power championing anti-Indian slogan in the last election, has turned out to be the unanimous hero in Nepal’s parliament.

“It is hard to tell from the public shouting match whether New Delhi is more upset that Kathmandu should demonstrate the audacity to unilaterally issue a new map reclaiming its historical borders or whether our PM took some cheap shots at symbols of the Indian state in his address to the Nepali Parliament. My own humble view is that some of the PM's remarks were uncalled for as they only distracted from the larger, more informed debate that could have ensued. At least we could have preempted the dominant narrative in the Indian media that our PM chose this route only to save his own skin amid the rife in the ruling party,” writes Rajib Upadhyaya, former journalist and son of a great scholar on Nepal-India Relations and diplomat late Devendra Raj Upadhyaya.

“The reference to the Indian strain of COVID was particularly distasteful. I am surprised that no one on the Indian side has so far pointed out that our national Coat of Arms includes the newly maligned handshake! Granted, Nepalis were deeply offended by the Indian Army Chief needlessly (some would say illegally) weighing in on the matter. But our PM need not have stooped as low to furnish a repartee he did not deserve. The PM could have easily left this to his juniors.”

“Either way, if the intention on both sides is to arrive at a diplomatic solution, it will probably be better served by sound professional minds and geotechnical mapping tools as opposed to loses political cannon-ship,” writes Rajib Upadhyaya in his Face book wall.

Although there are moderate people on both sides, extremists are taking the lead in the current situation. Recently, however, moderate Indians are also coming forward to bring the relations back on track.

Moderated by Atul K Thakur, Nodal Coordinator, India-Nepal Centre, PHDCCI and Visiting Fellow of NIICE, former Indian ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Ray said Nepal and India should have a long term vision on what kind of relations both the countries want.

Although Nepal and India stick to their stand on the border in Kalapani, both the countries have opened the door for diplomatic settlement through negotiations as well. Foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali said last week that Nepal is ready to sit across the table for negotiations on the border dispute.

The External Affairs Ministry of India also has expressed that it is willing to hold talks with Nepal in regard to the existing boundary issue between the two countries.

Official Spokesperson of Ministry of External Affairs of India (MEA) Anurag Srivastava said India is monitoring the situation in Nepal and the careful consideration it is receiving.

“India is open to engaging with all its neighbors on the basis of mutual sensitivity and mutual respect, in an environment of trust and confidence,” said the spokesperson in his media briefing.

India’s Failure

Although Nepalese communist ideology entered Nepal from India, communists, who do not find ideological allies in traditional Nepalese society, got established in Nepal chanting anti-Indian slogans. Undermining the root of traditional institutions of Nepal, even Indian intellectuals and diplomats chose communists against the monarchy, moderate democrat and traditional force hoping to balance communist China.

Nepal expert of India SD Muni and his fellow of Jawaharlal Nehru University pressed Indian establishment to back Maoist against the monarchy and liberal democrat and insisted to break the status quo in Nepal to overthrow the monarchy. These groups accused monarchy as pro-Chinese working against Indian interests. Now Muni is turning the same words against PM Oli, who rode to power with his support.

Indian scholar Muni and his whole group of Jawaharlal Nehru University fellows, with former foreign secretary Shyam Sharan, finally facilitated a 12-point agreement to establish Nepal as a federal, secular and republican state. Professor Muni and Sharan backed the current ruler arguing that monarchy always was toeing to China and western powers including the United States.

Naturally, communists are naturally closer alley of communist China. However, the same people are now accusing current communist leaders of tilting to China. As Nepalese leaders are demanding Indian withdraw from Nepalese territory, Indian intellectuals and government officials are accusing Nepal of raising the issue with the backing of China.

Thanks to Muni and Sharan, India has lost all its soft power in Nepal like monarchy, moderate democratic party, religion and including moderate democratic political leaders of the Nepali Congress. Now, they are replaced by radicals.

Situated between two big neighbors, Nepal lies in a very sensitive security zone. Thus, India is worried about China’s involvement in Nepal. That is the most sensitive issue for Indians. Since the British carved the security of India, China has come to mean the main security threat of India.

Nepal’s Policy

Although it was propounded by the founder of Nepal King Prithvi Narayan Shah two centuries ago, his foreign policy guideline is still relevant to current Nepal. He said, in maintaining, “Friendly relations with the Emperor of China. Great friendship should also be maintained with India. Do not engage in the offensive acts with India.”

One does not need to explain where Nepal’s policy is tilting and what consequences Nepal will have to face in case of growing tension. However, the current rulers have nothing to lose except their own political power.

Nepalese history has taught us some good lesion to handle the relations. Jung Bahadur Rana, who aptly followed the founder of the nation, siding with East-India Company, unconditionally rewarded Nepal with a return of large chunk of land in the Far-western region which Nepal has lost in the Indo-Nepal War in 1814.

Chandra Sumsher Rana, the longest-serving Rana Prime Minister, had so many grudges against Governor-General Lord Curzon for his unnecessary interventions in Nepal’s affairs. Having been frustrated by frequent interventions on internal affairs and Nepal’s relations with the Chinese Empire, Chandra Sumsher Rana even considered quitting the job.

He once sought advice with his close advisor Rammani Acharya Dixit whether to continue in power under high hand of India. Rammani Acharya Dixit in his autobiography (Purano Samjhana) writes that he convinced all-powerful men that it was necessary for his continuation in power to strengthen sovereign and independent Nepal.

Although only a few people remembered the contributions of Prime Minister Chandra Sumsher, his diplomatic skills and persuasions forced British rulers to sign agreements in 1923 with Nepal, recognizing it as independent and sovereign country different from hundreds of Princely States in India.

The founder of modern Nepal Shah’s guidelines remains relevant today. Nepal, in terms of population and size compared to its neighbors, has a little choice other than to use diplomacy to address the sensitivity of India and its security interest.

India-Nepal Ties Going Downhill

Despite harmonious relations at the people-to-people level, Nepal and India relations is now under a strain. From Lord Curzon to present India, their concern and main irritating factor remain the same: the Chinese activities and presence in Nepal.

Indian scholars and media are leveling the same accusation against present Nepal Communist Party government led by K.P. Sharma Oli that it is tilting to China. Even Chief of Indian Army accused Nepal acting at the behest of others.

“There is no ‘contradiction at all’ in the new road constructed via Lipulekh pass up to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) to shorten travel time for Indian pilgrims going to Kailash-Mansarovar, and Nepal may have raised the issue ‘at the behest of someone else,’” said Army Chief Gen. Manoj Naravane.

“It’s plain to see what’s happening in India-Nepal ties. Kathmandu is clearly making a calibrated attempt to rework its foreign, economic and defense policies away from its earlier moorings in India to one that privileges China in an open, unhesitant, attempt to balance New Delhi.”

However, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad has a sober solution to bring Nepal India relations back in the track. Prasad, son of a renowned Indian scholar and Nepal expert Bimal Prasad, aptly came out urging to find out diplomatic way.

In his latest article in The Hindu, he writes the border trouble between India and Nepal is a matter best handled bilaterally, through quiet diplomacy.

“For India’s Chief of Army Staff, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, to charge at an interaction at the Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, that Nepal, at someone else’s behest, has objected to India laying a road connecting the Lipulekh pass, was ill-advised. It widens the door for someone else to foment more trouble. This is a matter best handled bilaterally, through quiet diplomacy,” writes former ambassador to Nepal Jayanta Prasad, a seasoned diplomat, in his article in The Hindu.

On the way to resolution

Nepal’s relations with India are very complex and sensitive at the official and political levels. However, it is more simple and real at the people-to-people level. Having so many commonalities in religion, culture and values and great affection and attachment between the peoples, the relations withstand the whims of individual politicians to disrupt them.

This is what one can see tens of thousands of people from both the countries are crossing the border not giving any importance to the dispute at the state to state levels.

Although India’s strong pillars in Nepal like moderate democratic forces, monarchy and the Hindu Kingdom, representing the continuity of its political, cultural, religious and civilization ties have gone a long time back, radical political forces are now under the command who have been poisoning the mind of common people for the selfish political gain.

Despite accused as pro-Indian by radicals, monarchy and moderate democrat never allowed the activities inimical to security sensitivity of India. Taking the risk, the monarch even canceled valid tenders given to northern neighbors respecting the security sensitivity of India.

Despite frictions and disputes from time to time since the creation of Nepal as an independent nation in a very sensitive landmass between India and China, Nepal and India have always found a way out and overcome the differences and strengthened relations till there were their strong alleys in Nepal. As a new system and new rulers at the helm, Nepal is in very chaotic and uncertain.

Given the present circumstances, it is almost certain that Nepali Congress will back the proposal of the ruling party to amend the constitution to change the insignia of parliament. This will further complicate the problem.

To borrow the words of former foreign minister late Shailendra Kumar Upadhyaya, “The relations between two peoples, Indian and Nepalese, are as old as civilization and history. Mythology, fables, epics, religious books, and known history have indicated to one and only one direction in Nepal-India relationship, that is, that it has ever been close and intimate. No artificially created modern-day politicians, civil servants or diplomats can sustain it for long..”

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