In article titled ‘Kathmandu’s conspiracy theorists’ by Shyam Saran, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal, in The Indian Express dated July 20, 2012 raises some fundamental questions on the prevalence of anti-India sentiments in Nepal and more broadly on the nature of India-Nepal relations. Critiquing the ultra-nationalist sentiments and largesse of anti-India conspiracy theories rampant in Kathmandu Saran writes, “projecting India as a threat is often the most convenient way of diverting attention from the more difficult and complex economic and social challenges the country confronts”. He goes on to argue that India ought to be seen as an opportunity and not as a threat, and writes that Nepal is not land-locked or India-locked as popularly imagined but India-open.
This is a very optimistic and prospective way of looking at Nepal-India relations. However, the analysis of Nepal-India relations has always tended to irreconcilable, with the Indian side claiming India to be an opportunity while Nepalis claimed it to be a threat, a classic case of viewing a glass half empty or half full. Unlike a host of Nepali bikas-walas, politicians and pundits in Kathmandu, Saran sees rich possibilities for economic development in Nepal by capitalizing on Nepal’s mountainous geography, climate, water resources and hospitable culture. The issue he raises are important not only because he is a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal and ‘knows’ Nepal well but also because Nepal-India relations has been dominated by populism and conspiracy theories. In this article, I propose to engage with questions raised by Saran and try to locate it in the broader historical as well as political-economic context of Nepal-India relations.
As a diplomat Saran should have acknowledged that sovereignty-based nationalist sentiments, premised on the perceived or real external threat to national integrity, is neither a new phenomenon nor is it unique to Nepal. The “search for a threat” attitude is entrenched from halls of power in New Delhi to land and maritime borders in India too. It would be wrong to think that anti-India sentiment is limited to Nepal; it is a ubiquitous feature in the region. Given India’s own history, anti-colonial sentiments run deep in Indian society and politics. The reason why anti-India conspiracy and ultra-nationalist discourses sustain in Nepal is because it has been a fabric of Nepali nationalism; it is a key aspect of how domestic politics in Nepal has been run.
The protection of Nepali territory and its sovereignty against an uncertain but ever present threat of India was one with the modern forms of nationalism after 1960 and continues to this date. King Mahendra is considered to have played a ‘China card’ in his somewhat successful attempt to neutralize the political and economic influence of India. Over the years, Nepali nationalism based on threat to sovereignty, primarily from India, has grown not only in the hearts of those who were affiliated with the communist parties and those faithful to the monarchy but also among middle-class professionals and the general population. This form of Nepali nationalism, especially among the progressive left and monarchists, has been constructed largely in relation to anti-India sentiment, or at times in terms of anti-west sentiment attributed to political interference and/or in matters related to national integrity. Sovereignty-based sentiments in Nepal is not just against India but increasingly against the western donors as seen in the recent controversy in Kathmandu on DFID’s (withdrawal of) funding to NEFIN and USAID’s support to introduce Monsanto in Nepal.
Likewise, overthrowing the monarchy in 2006, the declaration of Nepal as a secular state and a federal democratic republic in 2008 is seen by a few critics as the work of Christian evangelists supported by European donors. Citing the activities of evangelical lobbyists and western embassies based in Kathmandu at the time of declaration of Nepal as secular state, anthropologist Saubhagya Shah wrote in 2008, “although, the formal rationale has been to separate the state from Hindu religion, the unstated consideration has been to weaken the king by removing the symbolic ties between the Hindu crown and the state.”
Similarly, the signing of 12-point agreement in New Delhi on November 22, 2005 with India’s facilitation, between the seven main political parties and the Maoists that eventually overthrew the monarchy, is also seen by the pro-monarchy nationalists as an evidence of undermining of Nepal’s sovereignty.
The 32 Maoist combatants I interviewed in 2009 spoke very enthusiastically of what they called ‘Indian expansionism’ and ‘border encroachment’ (see: ‘On State Reconstruction in Nepal’, Economic and Political Weekly, January 23, 2010, Vol—XLV No. 04). Not only had they been trained on anti-India rhetoric, they were also made to experience it through various practices such as border march, boycotting Indian films and digging bunkers in the Nepal-India border among others. The implications of such activities are far-reaching. Likewise, the media in Kathmandu is very vocal when it comes to the issue of ‘border encroachment’ and ‘secret visits of Indian dignitaries’ but is largely silent on the larger structural issues such as the exploitative conditions of Nepali migrants in India, or the nature and history of unequal economic relationship between the two countries.
So much so that Nepali public displays hostile and violent anti-India sentiments on issues such as alleged remarks by an Indian national on Nepal, be that an Indian Prime Minister or a Bollywood actor. With the expansion of internet, campaigns such as ‘Buddha was born in Nepal and not in India’ have gained prominence in the emails/blogs and social networking sites such as Facebook and have crossed the national boundary and engage diaspora Nepali as well.
Such sentiments are very much a continuation of the sentiment of Prithvi Narayan Shah who saw ‘real’ threats from British India and wanted to keep Nepal as asal hindusthan.
Such anti-India market in Nepal is socially and historically constructed and is embedded in the very nature of state formation as well as the tumultuous relationship between the two states in the post 1950 era. Given its geo-politics, Nepal’s sovereignty has always been compromised although Nepalis continue to have this mythical sense of gaurav or pride that they are brave citizens and that they have never been colonized. Although such discourses appear to appeal for mass political mobilization for the political parties, they are fundamentally instrumental tactics by the same political parties to gain power, as political parties generally appear to turn 180 degrees once they come in power.
Therefore, it might be worth thinking about anti-India sentiments and conspiracy theory that supports it as symptoms rather than the cause of concern in the wider context of Nepal-India relations.
Paradoxically, the anti-India sentiment is a making of India’s own conduct in Nepal, and more importantly Kathmandu elite’s perception of it. India’s offensive diplomacy is partly to be blamed but it is to be acknowledged that India’s engagement is partly a reaction to increasingly aggressive engagements of China as well as other western countries in Nepal in the recent years, whether they function in the name of humanitarian, peace-building, economic or political transition projects. India’s role as a major donor in Nepal has been a failure if it is to be judged by its ability to translate aid into soft-power and political influence. The aid that India delivers in Nepal, and some of it goes to the people and communities directly through the Indian Embassy, has very little visibility in the public debate partly because the Kathmandu elite do not benefit from it unlike in the case of western donors.
Nepal-India ties should be seen in historical context that acknowledges political economy of two unequal countries instead of debating conspiracy theories.
Saran is right in pointing out that anti-India sentiment and conspiracy theory that promotes it are limited to a small circle of elite in Kathmandu who mobilize such a discourse for a range of different political purposes. The poorer sections of Nepal, many of whom work in India, do not surely identify with it. Except in Kathmandu, Indian currency is widely used in the middle hills and Tarai of Nepal. Indian goods are everyday consumables. Nepali people use roads built by Indians, vehicles imported from India and fondly love Indian television channels and Bollywood films. Indian tourists are probably the most lucrative tourists. Indian market and Indian state is a part and parcel of most Nepalis’ life. Considering Nepal as India-open appears to be the only viable model for its economic development. Nepal must find better ways to open market for Indian middle class in the areas suggested by Saran including opening up on schools, hospitals, tourist destinations as well as finding ways to develop hydropower projects in an equitable way for both the countries.
Saran’s article appears inspiring because he only sees the positive side of the relationship just as ultra-nationalists see the negative side. It is this binary opposition in looking at Nepal-India relationship that has made it difficult to take it forward to a more productive path. Instead, Nepal-India relationship ought to be viewed in a historically grounded perspective that acknowledges the political economy of two unequal countries instead of leaving the debate to conspiracy theorists and populist pundits. The unifying field for a productive dialogue on Nepal-India relations is no-doubt economic development keeping in mind the potential resources in Nepal as well as ever expanding consumer market in India. While there are some genuine concerns and grievances on both sides, they ought to be dealt through transparent diplomatic negotiations and not by spreading conspiracy theory or by going on the offensive.
The author teaches South Asia and International Development at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh