During 1989 blockade, the Asiaweek carried a news story. The magazine had a picture of almost dilapidated wooden bridge situated at the Raxual-Birgunj border check point. The magazine admitted that the condition of the bridge symbolized the state of Nepal-India ties.
Now, the bridge has been replaced by a concrete one. Still any one visiting the point will get an impression that something grossly mistaken about its construction – given the large volume of daily traffic flows; the bridge is too narrow. Nearly 70 percent of Nepal’s trade passes through this point.
Perhaps nowhere to be found in the world, Nepal and India have a unique relationship. They share over 1700 km long boarder is porous and unregulated; the border towns are almost indistinguishable because of common language and culture, free convertibility of currencies and non-existence of travel restrictions. The relationship that exist between these two countries is often expressed as “special”, “brotherly” (India often assumed as a big brother), “roti-beti” or economic-family ties and also as a “love-hate” relationship. These contradictions emerge from their size, location, socio-cultural, political and economic historical legacies. The relationship is often marred by perceptual misunderstandings.
The recent “unofficial blockade” of traffic flows at the Nepal-India border points has brought Nepal-India ties at the lowest level resembling 1989 situation when more than a year embargo was lifted after the regime change in Kathmandu. The 1989 blockade is often regarded as the consequence of personality clash between Nepal’s King Birendra and India’s PM Rajiv Ghandi.
With regards to present day blockade, India’s stand is that there is no official or unofficial blockade; the bottleneck in the traffic flows is due to insecurity situation in Nepal. Though the Government of Nepal has carefully refrained from using the word “undeclared blockade”, it has assumed the bottlenecks as an interference in Nepal’s internal matters. Listening to the sound bites in the Kathmandu-centric media, particularly the social media gives an impression of two countries at the verge of war.
Squeezed between two giant countries, Nepal finds itself vulnerable.
Nepal’s perception of India
Squeezed between two giant countries, Nepal finds itself vulnerable. It has assumed itself as a small, weak, poor, mountainous, landlocked country besieged by India from three sides. China may provide an exit point at the north but due to rugged terrain and harsh weather condition and its close monitoring of Tibet, it is hardly a feasible. Nepal is excessively dependent on India for trade, aid and political stability as well as instability. Nepal’s vulnerability and dependency seems to be going on in a spiralling order – more dependency leading to more vulnerability and more vulnerability leading to more dependency.
There is also a historical baggage of misunderstandings between the two countries. Nepal has always found itself cheated or India having an upper-hand when it comes to mega deals. For example, Rana Prime Minister Chandra Shumsher consented to the then British-India to construct Mahakali Bridge in Nepali soil for a mere sweetener of INR 50,000. Similarly, former King Mahendra extended the lease contract of Koshi Barrage from 99 years to 199 years in lieu of India’s recognition of Panchayat system in 1961. Agreements like these were clandestinely entered primarily to benefit the regime rather than the common Nepali people.
The encroachment of land at border points, the highhandedness of Indian security personnel, and the harassment of poor migrant workers crossing border points have fueled anti-India sentiments in Nepal. Nepal’s right to have a free access to sea is often countervailed by lower riparian rights of India. People are confused whether the on-going “unofficial blockade” had to do with India’s (1) support to Terai-Madhes political parties; or (2) eying water resources of Nepal; or (3) displeasure with “secular state” in the new constitution; or (4) a strategic move by the Modi Government for an electoral victory in Bihar.
The state of Nepal-India relationship has dipped down to such a low point that being anti-India is now projected as nationalist and pro-India as anti-nationalist in Nepal.
The state of Nepal-India relationship has dipped down to such a low point that being anti-India is now projected as nationalist and pro-India as anti-nationalist in Nepal. A common Nepali is even more puzzled when political leaders turn out to be hypocrites, in public they are anti-India; in private they are subservient to India.
India’s perception of Nepal
One thing is sure: China can never replace historical ties between Nepal and India.
Many people in India also carry a historical baggage of skepticism with the rulers in Nepal. During their long drawn struggle with British raj, they have found Nepali army colluding with British to subdue their movements. Anyone viewing the famed movie Ghandi could see Gurkha soldiers implementing British order during Jullundur Massacre. By pleasing British masters, Prime Minister Jung Bahadur Rana in 1860 reclaimed some lands lost during Anglo-Nepal war in 1814-1816. As Ranas were the stooges of British, India readily supported Nepali Congress when they launched political agitation against Ranas in early 1950s.
There are few Indian political leaders and their policy analysts who regard current dispute as a gross policy failure. They assume the current dispute going to be too costly for India as Nepal drift towards China. They make this conclusion without understanding Geo-political realities and historical ties between Nepal and India. One thing is sure: China can never replace historical ties between Nepal and India.
Understanding India’s vulnerability to China, now and then, Nepali political leaders like to play the China card.
Some Indian intellectuals assume that Nepal’s Maoists movement was backed by China. However, during a decade long Maoist war (1996-2006), Maoist leaders were sheltering not in China but India. In fact, China disliked the movement as it seeks to discredit the name of their political ideologue. Understanding India’s vulnerability to China, now and then, Nepali political leaders like to play the China card. A good example is the recent move by the Government of Nepal to import fuel from China, totally ignoring long-term feasibility. The government in Nepal has also failed to understand why China has agreed to supply fuel, not from easily accessible Kodari entry point but from Kerung entry point, which is not only far off from Kathmandu but the road conditions are difficult.
Because of unregulated long open border, India perceives Nepal as a safe haven for all kinds of anti-India terrorist activities, smuggling of drugs and arms, human trafficking and supply of counterfeit currency notes. The feeling of insecurity plus assumption of big brother often lead them to exercise high handedness through micromanagement of Nepal’s internal matters.
Despite the fact that India has been the largest donor for Nepal, it has not able to reap as much credit as some western countries. India sees this as a betrayal of trust, lack of faithfulness on the part of Nepal. Nepal sees this as an excessive interference. There needs to be reality check on both parts.
The incident on 2 November at Birgunj-Raxual border check point, when an Indian citizen was shot dead by Nepal police when they use force to open up the border check point, has further spoiled the bilateral relationships.
Looking forward for a new relationship
Much of Nepal-India relations or rather Nepal’s relations with India depend on how things will unfold in Southern plain including the change in the mind sets of Terai-Madhes political party leaders. The incident on 2 November at Birgunj-Raxual border check point, when an Indian citizen was shot dead by Nepal police when they use force to open up the border check point, has further spoiled the bilateral relationships. Will Kathmandu heed to the demands of agitating political parties or bow to New Delhi? If history provides any lesson, then Kathmandu is more likely to heed to the New Delhi than addressing the demands of Madhes. This will, once again, give India an upper hand in the political affairs of Nepal. Nepal needs to come out of this myopic, ad hoc power centric orientation in managing its relations with India. Here are some stylized guide points for determining future Nepal-India relations:
- China is a neighbourly friend while India is a friendly neighbour. China can never replace Nepal-India ties. Instead of switching between the China and India cards, Nepal should play its own card. Nepal should also give up the idea of becoming “a bridge” between India and China. India and China are two giant global players; they share longer common border with each other than with Nepal.
- If Nepal wants to keep India as a good neighbour then it must manage its fences, that is, regulate its open, porous border with India. India may have greater interest than Nepal. Late PM G. P. Koirala had once remarked that Nepal cannot afford to construct fences at the border points but will not object to the idea if India decided to go ahead.
- Nepal must come out of this small, poor, weak and vulnerable point of view when it comes to managing external relations. A country becomes stronger when it translates its weaknesses into strengths. Nepal’s mountain topography could be weaknesses but it can be used as strengths – for tourism, for hydropower, for communication signals. Even Terai plains provide strategic locational advantage to serve northern markets of India. This is what Dabur Nepal and Nepal Liver are doing. Similarly, millions of Nepali living in India can be used as strategic advantage over India. It is strange that Nepali diaspora in South Asia or in India in particular are not counted as Non-Resident Nepalese. This is based on Bahunism (dominance of the so called higher caste) that currently resides in Kathmandu. When you discriminate your own people how can you expect to gain respect from others?
- Shed double speaks or hypocrisy; if there is a need to review the peace treaty with India then build the national consensus accordingly. It has now become a norm for every politician in Nepal to be critical of peace treaty when they are in opposition and keep quiet when they are in power. We have to do away with these hypocritical behaviours. Be transparent when dealing with India.
- Reduce excessive dependency with India, particularly on energy supply. This cannot be achieved overnight; focus on interdependency – focus on what Nepal can give to India in return. Keep India happy and satisfied without losing national interest. This should be the key mantra of Nepal’s relationship with India.