When Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla arrived in Kathmandu in late November, he did something that would have seemed impossible just a few months earlier. After landing at Tribhuvan International Airport, instead of continuing to inflame rhetoric over the bitter territorial dispute that had engulfed the two neighbors, he spoke in Nepali about cooperation and connectivity between the two nations. His visit, and the manner of his address, was in sharp contrast to the acidic barbs that had been thrown between the two nations just a few months ago.
Following Shringla’s trip came the news that Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, would make an official visit to New Delhi in December. While this trip was delayed, Gyawali later headed to New Delhi on a three-day state visit in mid-January. Gyawali’s trip, alongside rumors of a potential future trip by Nepali Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli, was to be another significant step in the resetting of ties that had been all but severed over the Lipulekh territorial dispute.
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Yet hopes for a resumption of strong bilateral relations were severely disrupted when on 21st December when Oli abruptly dissolved parliament, citing a need to seek a fresh mandate amidst rumored upcoming vote of no confidence. In the days that have followed Oli’s highly controversial decision, political attention has been focused solely on who will be taking over the office after Nepal’s new elections to be held in April and May this year. This new political crisis has thrown plans to resolve India and Nepal’s border disputes into disarray.
Earlier this year, Lipulekh, a territory situated between the western border of Nepal and the Indian state of Uttarakhand that both India and Nepal claim as their own, became the center of a furious territorial row. After information came to light that a new road through the disputed territory had been inaugurated by India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh, Nepal rushed to publish a new state map with Lipulekh and other contested territories firmly inside its borders. A diplomatic standoff ensued. As the media provided daily blow-by-blow updates of the dispute, Indo-Nepal relations lay in tatters. This was only the most recent incident of a series of rows between the two neighboring countries.
Back in late 2015, a few months after it was rocked by a devastating earthquake and after years of negotiations following the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), Nepal promulgated a new constitution. Yet instead of offering congratulations, India promptly blockaded the border for 135 days. In the eyes of many Nepalis, India highjacked an internal crisis and leveraged it for its own ends. Many Madhesi political parties that supported the blockade and now saw it spiral from a debate over citizenship concerns into an acrimonious debate about Indian influence in Nepal had to face the wrath of a public angry at their role in the blockade and the violation of the country’s sovereignty.
The border blockade, deployed to pressure Nepal — already engulfed in violent anti-constitution protests — into making changes to the legislation that India deemed beneficial, halted Nepal’s access to vital goods, medicine and fuel. Even if New Delhi squarely denies its involvement, in the eyes of Nepali people, it is culpable. The blockade had a catastrophic effect on a country that was still struggling with the aftermath of the earthquake. As transport ground to a halt and hospitals were left unable to treat patients, anger on the streets of Kathmandu was palpable. Relations between the two sides seemed to have broken down irreparably.
Yet just a few months after the blockade was eventually lifted, tensions calmed and, before long, relations returned to normal. This is the self-destructive cycle of Indo-Nepal relations: Just at the point when their relations seem in tatters, normalcy is quietly restored. These spats are as infuriating as they are detrimental. They are often damaging and often result from an incredibly poor foreign policy on both sides. Unfortunately, these political disputes come with a heavy price. For example, the 2015 border blockade exacted a hefty humanitarian cost by leaving millions of Nepalis without access to medicine, food or shelter. These disputes are more than diplomatic squabbles. Instead, they have highly damaging, and occasionally deadly, consequences, with little to no gain.
Lipulekh is no exception. Now, following the two visits of Harsh Vardhan Shirngla and Pradeep Gyawali, relations were said to be almost back to normal. This appears to be yet another spat that disrupted India-Nepal relations for a few months, only to later burn out. In this case, a return to normalcy means a return to periodic disputes and reconciliation. But why do these spats take place in the first place?
Foundations for a Positive Relationship
At first glance, there appears to be little indication as to why relations between the two sides so frequently deteriorate. After all, they have much in common. It would not be untoward to say that neither Nepal nor India could be theoretically closer to any other country than each other. They share an unbroken open border both through the Terai lowlands in the south and in the hills to Nepal’s east and west. The two countries are linked by railheads, highways and a multitude of official and unofficial border crossings and trading posts, not to mention a new cross-border oil pipeline. So important is this connectivity that almost all of Nepal’s foreign imports and exports travel over the Indian border. In comparison, its northern Chinese border lies underutilized and poorly connected.
It’s not just about physical connections. A wealth of bilateral development projects exists, as do deep military ties. Nepal’s rivers are the source of India’s largest basin systems, and Nepal and India have joint ownership over key dams, such as the huge Kosi barrage. The 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship ensures not just unhindered border access to both sides but also extraordinary close civil and political relations. Millions of Nepalis travel to India for education or work, while around 1 million Indians work in Nepal.
They share an immense number of socio-cultural linkages too. A large number of Nepalis understand Hindi, whereas the Nepali language is spoken by approximately 3 million Indians in states such as West Bengal, Sikkim and Assam. Strong religious links exist, with Indian Pandits serving as chief priests in Nepal’s Pashupatinath temple, and each day pilgrims from India throng to Nepal’s Hindu temples and to Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha.
India played a vital role in Nepal’s own political history, with a myriad of exile political groups, including the Nepali Congress, being founded in Varanasi, Calcutta and Darjeeling between the 1920s and 1940s in order to oppose autocratic Rana rule, while many Quit India activists wanted by the Indian Imperial Police often sought sanctity inside Nepal’s borders. Given these factors, despite years of understanding and mutual cooperation, why do both sides fail to build a strong collaborative partnership?
A Fractious Relationship
While looking at a list of similarities, the two sides may be natural allies, yet such bonhomie is compromised by geopolitics. A quick glance at a map shows that Nepal is utterly surrounded by India, falling right in New Delhi’s line of vision, firmly inside its sphere of influence. Moreover, given Nepal’s sensitive Himalayan border with China, India sees it as natural, self-evident even, that it would have a say in the country’s foreign and domestic policy. Given the open border between the two sides, many in New Delhi perceive Nepal’s northern border to be India’s frontier. In other words, whatever happens in Nepal echoes in India.
The familiarity between the two sides leads many in India’s political parties, from the Indian National Congress to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to believe they have the right to influence Nepal’s affairs, almost as if it were any other Indian state. Looking over Nepal’s recent history, India has always been the key external actor. India sees the events surrounding the fall of the Ranas and Nepal’s brief return to democracy in 1950 as something it can take credit for, as it can for the people’s movement in 1990 and the signing of the CPA in 2006. It isn’t just political movements where India feels its influence has been positive. It looks at the numerous hospitals, roads and hydropower plants it built in Nepal and feels a paternalistic sense of achievement. But this exercise of influence causes many issues. At times, this line of thinking borders on India believing that it understands Nepal’s best interests better than Nepal itself, which New Delhi sees as its smaller brother. This is considered highly condescending and patronizing in Nepal.
The methods through which India exerts its influence are also controversial, often clumsy and far from covert. In recent years, New Delhi has hidden its self-interest in an altruistic narrative about its concern for Madhesi groups, since 2007 portraying itself as their protector. While successive Nepali governments have indeed repeatedly failed to live up to responsibilities to Madhesi concerns over citizenship and the lack of equitable representation, given India’s own poor record of looking after its own minorities, it seems dubious that any action to protect Nepal’s Madhesi is taken purely out of a rights-based concern.
This becomes particularly clear given India didn’t raise concerns about the treatment of the Madhesi prior to 2007, as a powerful Madhesi political block that India sought to influence was yet to emerge. India’s defense of Madhesis is politically expedient and explains why New Delhi hasn’t equally taken action to protect the more marginalized parts of Nepalese society. This absence of political benefit explains why India has yet to expend any political capital on Tharu land rights or the welfare of Lepchas or Chepangs.
India’s involvement in Nepal is also reflective of the sentiment that India has a right to interfere in Nepal’s affairs. This viewpoint is shared by a large sector of civil society and is widespread in the Indian media. As a result of decades-old comments by Sardar Patel, India’s first deputy prime minister, about the desire to incorporate Nepal and to annex Sikkim, many in India still tend to see the lines that delineate Nepal’s sovereignty as blurred. This belief is rooted so deeply that it has a particular hold on the media and among politicians.
Occasionally, such sentiments are also fueled by Nepal itself. While numerous Madhesi politicians have openly courted New Delhi, mainstream politicians too have looked to India to influence domestic events in their own favor. The current prime minister, K. P. Oli, who in the last few years has been seen as an ardent nationalist strongly opposed to Indian interference, had very close relations with New Delhi during the negotiations of the 1996 Mahakali treaty. The Maoists and the monarchy have also been known to look to India for support, either tacit or explicit, during the 1996-2006 insurgency.
However, being reminded of these uncomfortable truths doesn’t always sit well. Many in Nepal look on in anger at the talking heads proclaiming the right to meddle in its affairs, concerned that their own independence is not being respected. Any nuance or subtlety is lost, and debates that are better suited to calmer settings are being played out in the heated environs of the Indian media. This inflames sentiment in Nepal, and soon, politicians are provoked into rash statements — and the two sides are at loggerheads again.
Moreover, it appears that many in India are walking around unaware of the offense and anger they are creating. There is seemingly a lack of understanding in these circles that such actions toward Nepal, far from being seen as paternalistic benevolence, are highly unwelcome meddling. It is hard to believe that, had New Delhi anticipated the anger the border blockade would unleash, it would have undertaken such actions. Not only did Nepal not back down and make the changes to the constitution demanded by New Delhi — albeit some smaller less consequential changes were conceded — India’s public image in Nepal was shattered. A huge amount of political will had been spent, and New Delhi had little to show for it.
Another example of this lack of self-awareness relates to the Lipulekh case, where Nepal’s decision to repeat its claim of ownership was written off by prominent Indian officials not as legitimate actions taken by a state, but rather as Nepal acting at the behest of China. Nepal is acutely aware of the massive power instability between itself and India, and as such, these comments were taken incredibly badly and only inflamed public sentiment. These recent spats have been further complicated by the arrival of the new narrative that Nepal is “pivoting to China,” clearly a sensitive point for India. This sensitivity is particularly acute when the Himalayas are involved; few in New Delhi have forgotten the humiliation India suffered here at the hands of China in 1962.
Admittedly Nepal itself has not helped matters. While accepting Chinese development aid, many politicians have signaled to New Delhi that its influence in Nepal is no more. Moreover, many Nepali politicians have become adept at placing blame on India at a time they themselves are facing accountability for malpractice or poor governance. The nationalist card is not only popular in Kathmandu, but it is also expedient at a time of political crisis. Anger against India is the political well that never runs dry. It is perhaps no surprise that relations between the two sides have broken down a number of times.
Competing domestic factions within India that make a unified foreign policy harder to develop and implement further complicate relations. While the Communist Party of India and some in the Congress may be more favorable to Nepal, influential members of the BJP take a more combative approach.
Both sides need to be careful when it comes to border disputes. India has well over seven decades worth of militarized border disputes with Pakistan and China that have derailed chances of reconciliation. Recent clashes between the Indian and the Chinese army in Ladakh and the disputes in Arunachal Pradesh show how tense these stand-offs can become and how the inability to solve lingering issues will remain a bottleneck for the development of robust bilateral relations. Nepal and India need to calmly negotiate a fair and acceptable settlement for Lipulekh and the adjacent areas if there is to be any chance of long-term stability.
This damaging cycle of Indo-Nepal relations is hugely detrimental to both sides. Instead of stable long-term bilateral partnerships, the two countries are locked into a pattern of disputes. While relations never fail entirely — there is too much at stake and the two sides are too interconnected to risk any serious rupture — this is simply not good enough for two neighboring countries, let alone those that share an open border.
The millions of people who live along and depend on the India-Nepal border do not have the luxury of breaking relations even temporarily over differences in political opinion. They are reliant on leaders in both countries to keep a working relationship on track and ensure they do not unjustly suffer as a result of political failures. The fact that relations will never break irreparably is of is small comfort to those paying the price for this fractious relationship. Without proper management, the livelihoods of those who coexist along the border are at stake. Just take the example of the hundreds of Nepalis stranded on the border due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, with no provision of food, water or shelter, and little information on what quarantine procedures await them if they were able to cross; thousands of Indian workers have also been unable to return home.
This diabolical situation was entirely avoidable had the two countries engaged in a systematic collaborative dialogue. This isn’t the only example of poor co-operation leaving citizens in the lurch. During the border blockade, the failure to secure a political solution to the constitutional protests saw local traders and residents take matters into their own hands. After suffering for months from a lack of trade, people were forced to dismantle the barriers themselves so that business and daily life could return to normal.
For this damaging cycle to end, New Delhi needs to understand that all its actions will be under the microscope in Kathmandu. Hesitant citizens will be wary of any visit by Indian officials and be keenly aware of the potential to get a raw deal or be strong-armed into agreeing to something undesirable. Indian diplomats in Nepal need to tread carefully and be aware that they are viewed with skepticism, and that there will be little tolerance for blunders or poorly worded remarks that highlight the power imbalance between the two sides.
Sensitivity and nuance, never a strong point for New Delhi, will go a long way. In Nepal, politicians seeking victory in the spring elections must also resist playing the highly damaging nationalist card and ramping up anti-India sentiment on their path to power. India is too easy a target for politicians not to swipe at for political gain, and such comments may well derail reconcilement. After all, as those in Singha Durbar know only too well, nationalism is never more politically expedient than in an election campaign.
Hopes for a resumption of good relations were somewhat dashed after the fallout from Gyawali’s trip. While the trip was by no means a failure, it wasn’t a success either. No breakthrough was reached on border disputes or on the procurement of COVID-19 vaccines. Worst of all, despite Nepal spending three days trying to secure an audience with Narendra Modi, Gyawali flew back to Kathmandu amidst allegations of being “snubbed” by the Indian prime minister.
The trip was supposed to be a step in the right direction. Had Gyawali been able to repeat Shringla’s success, there was a chance that perhaps India and Nepal could finally break the cycle of dispute that has plagued relations for decades. It appears that a resetting of ties will have to wait yet again.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.