Before addressing the main topic of this article, it is important to be aware of a unique paradox. Only after that will one be able to understand, with clarity, the dynamics of Indo-Nepalese relations. In the realm of international relations, the term ‘bilateral-cooperation’ is intimately connected to feelings of stability and peace. Whenever two countries sign a landmark bilateral agreement, there is a mood of jubilation among the ruling dispensation and media of both the countries. This gives the impression that the greatest achievement of a diplomat is establishing new avenues of co-operation with other countries of the world. But this is only partly true.
What’s even tougher than establishing close relations is maintaining those relations by addressing all possible conflicts of interest in a proactive manner. Simply put, when avenues of co-operation expand, the possibility of potential disagreements also rises. In a bilateral setting, if a disagreement in even one aspect of the relations is not addressed quickly, it can jeopardize all other areas of co-operation. And since there is always an element of inter-dependency between such nations, such a situation affects the interests of both countries. This is the paradox of bilateral relations.
Enhanced closeness brings with it the closeted risk of potentially destabilizing conflicts. Hence, every bilateral agreement is an additional responsibility on the shoulders of the diplomats which must be fulfilled efficiently. The relation between India and Nepal is a perfect example of this paradox and will be the subject of this article.
The former JNU professor, Sukh Deo Muni, has called India and Nepal ‘the closest neighbours of the world’. His claim is indeed true and can be substantiated by many facts. Over many centuries, geographical proximity has allowed India and Nepal to develop close economic, social, cultural and political links. This article will explore these links in great detail. However, the paradox explained above is also a distinct element of Indo-Nepalese relations. Increased closeness has given birth to many disagreements and conflicts. One such disagreement, the border dispute of Kalapani-Lipulekh region, has been in the news recently. This article will first outline areas of co-operation between India and Nepal and then move on to their conflicts.
Closeness Of India And Nepal
Indo-Nepalese ties have a wide variety of dimensions such as economic, military, political and social. But, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Indo-Nepal relations will be quick to point out that the most invaluable chord connecting these two great nations is their shared culture. Hindus in India are fascinated by the city of Janakpur in Nepal as it is believed to be the place where Raja Janak’s, Sita’s father, kingdom was located.
In addition to this, many Indian Buddhists undertake frequent journeys to Nepal as well. This is because the birthplace of Buddha, Lumbini, is also located in Nepal. As far as Nepali citizens are concerned, their predominantly Hindu population looks towards India as a major pilgrimage centre because of the number of important Hindu sites situated here. Moreover, the famous Pashupatinath temple in Nepal is supervised by Bhat Brahmins who migrated from India around 350 years ago.
The second major factor which inseparably binds these countries together is their intense economic co-operation. To understand this point properly, it is important to discuss the 1950 Indo-Nepal treaty of friendship. It was quite a revolutionary treaty as both countries agreed to a lot of provisions which other states would have deemed unacceptable. For example, one provision allowed both Nepali and Indian citizens to live, work and purchase property in the other country without any permit.
There is still a lot of debate with regards to whether this treaty was the bedrock of the open border agreement or not but it doesn’t matter. The point is, regardless of when this agreement was made, the 1,800 kilometres-long Indo-Nepal border is completely open which means that citizens of both countries require no visas to travel back and forth.
The economic ramifications of these provisions have been multi-fold. Recent estimates indicate that there are around 6 to 8 million Nepalis working in different kinds of professions throughout India with thousands more pouring in every month. Moreover, an open border has encouraged the emergence of strong familial ties between the Indian and Nepalese people. As a direct outcome of this, many Indian and Nepali citizens have claims to a significant amount of property in each other’s countries. In addition to this, many of the tributaries of rivers draining the Indo-Gangetic plain pass through Nepal. India also provides a lot of developmental aid to Nepal by investing in infrastructural and hydroelectric projects.
Another aspect which falls under the broad heading of economic-cooperation is trade. Nepal is India’s largest trading partner among all its neighbouring border states. It has a multi-billion dollars trade surplus with Nepal which just goes to signify India’s dominant position in South Asia. But Nepal is far more dependent on India than India is on Nepal. For starters, India is Nepal’s biggest trading partner, not just in Asia, but in the world. In addition to this, Nepal is heavily dependent on India for the transit of its goods to third countries. This gives India, much to the anger of Nepalese citizens, a lot of negative leverage over Nepal as it has the power to starve Nepali citizens by blockading Nepal’s trade.
One last positive aspect of Indo-Nepalese relations that is important to point out is the curious case of the Gurkha regiment. Before independence, the Britishers had a treaty with the kingdom of Nepal which allowed it to recruit Nepalis into the Royal Indian British army. Post 1947 it was decided that, as a mark of respect for the close Indo-Nepalese ties, this tradition would be carried on. Hence, even today, the Indian army has about 30,000 Nepalese soldiers in various Gurkha regiments stationed across the country. This is quite an amazing fact considering that India and Nepal have an ongoing border dispute! But the lack of employment opportunities in Nepal means that it has no choice but to stick with this tradition.
Areas of Conflict
Coming back to the paradox outlined at the very beginning of the article, India and Nepal have been at loggerheads on many issues. First of all, even though the open border has yielded many economic benefits for both nations, it also poses a major security risk. Over the past two decades, militant groups, especially Indian Mujahideen (IM), targeting India have developed a tendency to operate out of Nepal. An open border allows them to slip a variety of contraband and weapons into the northern Indian states.
The second area of concern is the perception in Nepali citizens’ minds that India tries to interfere in Nepal’s internal matters. This claim has not been substantiated by any concrete facts but the anti-India rhetoric of nationalist Nepali leaders have convinced their citizens that this perception is true. This anti-India rhetoric in Nepal is more costly than it initially appears to be. Many of India’s neighbours such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka accuse it of being ‘the bully’ of South Asia. This prevents the citizens of these countries to support pro-India policies which, in the long run, is quite harmful to South Asian unity. The rising anti-India sentiment in Nepal provides fodder to the claims of these countries as well.
Finally, Indo-Nepalese relations have to be viewed in the context of the rising hostilities between India and China. The recent Sino-Indian military standoff in Ladakh is enough of an evidence to suggest that a regional cold war between India and China is underway. One doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to appreciate the importance of developing alliances with smaller Asian states in such a situation. One of these states is Nepal, and to put it in the bluntest way possible, India is losing it to China.
The Nepal Communist Party, which is pro-China and has strong links with the Chinese Communist Party, controls both the houses of parliament as well as 6 out of 7 Nepali provinces. Gone are the days when Nepal used to be afraid of Chinese incursions and aggression. In fact, Nepali leaders are happily allowing China to penetrate into Nepal’s economy. The amount of Chinese foreign investments in Nepal has increased progressively over the years and it is also financing many developmental projects in Nepal. In addition to this, the rising anti-India mood in Nepal has allowed PM Oli to smoothly push through pro-China policies in the parliament. If China is successful in replacing India’s influence in Nepal, it will be confident of pulling a similar move in other South Asian states as well.
Hence, it would be natural for India to offer more benefits to Nepal in order to woo it away from China. But India is doing exactly the opposite. A case in point is the ongoing border dispute in the Kalapani-Lipulekh region. Nepal has claimed this area since 1998 by referencing three eighteenth-century treaties. However, this area has been under Indian administrative control ever since the 1962 Sino-Indian war.
Tensions came to a head last year when India built a road to Kailash Mansarovar passing through the disputed region. Nepal immediately sent a diplomatic note to South Block asking for a dialogue on this issue. India ignored it. Now, Nepal has published new political maps which include Indian-administered territory as a part of Nepal.
The aforementioned incident is just one of many where India has treated Nepal in a condescending manner. If India wishes to solidify its position in South Asia, it must get its act together and pay due attention to Nepal. If this does not happen, then PM Oli’s controversial ‘Ayodhya’ statement may be the first of many to come. Politics
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The one word that defines him is curiosity. Always looking for new things to explore and learn. Apart from this, he is an avid debator which largely stems from his habit of reading voraciously. Currently pursuing Political Science (Hons.) at Ramjas College, Manraj is a movie buff and a huge football fan.