Friendliest foe

chiran-jung-thapaBy Chiran Jung Thapa, Kathmandu
6 November 2016

Indian President Pranab Mukharjee’s visit to Nepal has whipped up a storm of controversy. While the Nepalese government accorded the highest honor to the visiting dignitary, its decision to mark the Indian president’s visit with a public holiday was widely criticized. Social media went ablaze with fury and the hash tag #IndianpresidentnotwelcomeinNepal# began to trend. Remembering the unspeakable sufferings, Nepali netizens vehemently opposed the red-carpet welcome accorded to the titular head of state that had recently imposed an inhumane blockade on Nepal. The Nepali President’s decision to receive and also see off the Indian counterpart was also criticized widely and labelled as sycophancy. Members of groups championing the retrieval of all Nepali territory lost to India, attempted to protest against the visit by showing black flags but were quickly muffled by a sea of security personnel. A splinter Maoist group, however, craftily attached black cloths to balloons and managed to release it in the air. Unidentified groups vandalized the decorative gates erected to welcome the Indian President in Pokhara. Kathmandu appeared deserted, and there were no welcome crowds to greet President Mukharjee. Instead, Kathmandu residents were fuming over the massive disruptions caused by the visit and restrictions imposed on pedestrians along the route of the President’s motorcade only added fuel to that fury.

Bidhya Devi Bhandari
Pranab Mukherjee with Bidhya Devi Bhandari I Photo: Facebook, Pradeep Raj Onta

Bread, bride and boots bond 

In the comity of nations, Nepal and India share an umbilical bond unlike any two other countries. This bond is commonly referred to as bread and bride bond (roti beti). Alongside this bond, the two countries also share an unparalleled relationship pertaining to boots on the ground. During his speech to Nepali parliamentarians, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi gratefully acknowledged the contribution of Nepalese men in the Indian Armed forces by admitting that India had never won a war in which the blood of Nepalese had not been spilled. Rifleman Bimal Tamang, a Nepali national serving in India’s Gurkha regiment who recently succumbed to Pakistani cross border fire in Kashmir, became a blaring testament to that reality. Furthermore, Nepal and India are the only two countries with a Hindu majority. Both countries share an open border policy. Both countries confer the title of honorary General to each other’s Army Chiefs. Nepali currency is even pegged to the Indian currency. The Indian President’s itinerary illustrated this relationship. During his visit, he visited two of the holiest Hindu sites in Nepal – Pashupatinath and Janaki temple. He also visited Pokhara and met with the Nepali veterans of the Indian Army.

Caustic contradictions 

The affinities that shape this inextricable bond should have made the Nepal/India relations exemplary. But by contrast, it is riddled with mutual distrust and disdain. Nepal perpetually views India as the primordial threat to its sovereign existence and deems India complicit in all its political and economic misfortunes. Essentially, Nepal sees Indian paw prints on every unsavoury circumstance. On the other hand, Indian gripes have primarily centred on Nepal’s ungratefulness despite receiving an unsurpassed largesse from India. While India feels it has been more than magnanimous to Nepal and feels the antipathy Nepalese so passionately harbor against India as unwarranted, Nepal feels that Indian policy is motivated by an insatiable desire to usurp Nepal and that it actually takes in more from Nepal than it gives. The three blockades imposed by India over the last 60 years serve as a sobering reminder of that prickly relationship.

The foremost factor bedevilling bilateral relations is the ominous myopia that afflicts Indian strategic thought vis-à-vis Nepal. India doesn’t factor in Nepal’s history and other societal attributes in its strategic calculus, therefore Indian policy in Nepal has been consistently unavailing. As emphasized by a prominent Indian politician during the recent blockade, India has yet to acknowledge and embrace the fundamental Nepali attributes and history in its strategic thought, particularly the fact that Nepal is the oldest nation state in South Asia. When almost half of the world landmass including India (which at the time comprised of the population and the landmass that makes up Pakistan and Bangladesh today) succumbed to the imperial East India Company, the much tinier Himalayan Kingdom adroitly managed to safeguard its sovereignty from the onslaught of the imperialist marauders. Also, not imputed in that calculus, are thousands of Nepali men serving in the Indian armed forces that provide an unmatched value of security to India. Indian strategic outlook rather condescendingly reckons these Nepali soldiers as mere labourers whom it is doing a favour by providing employment.

The dispensation of its bureaucrats, spooks and politicians of all stripes to relish on the sycophantic servitude of Nepal’s political class and a few incubated lackeys has further exacerbated the situation. Essentially, India’s strategic community has rarely displayed an appetite for reality bytes. Therefore, the relationship currently remains hijacked by a cabal of disingenuous individuals and a relationship founded on extraction rather than genuine friendship prevailing. To the detriment of the bilateral relations, while Nepali political actors misuse the Indian leverage and reap benefits mostly for self, India too conveniently continues to exploit those same recipients of patronage to fulfill its narrow interests. Such an extractive relationship has eclipsed the unvarnished and dignified viewpoints proffered by genuine friends on both sides and anything unpalatable is immediately labelled as anti-India activity. Moreover, a superficial and distorted relationship thrives as a result of these extractive individual dealings.

Another impediment that besets Nepal-India bilateral relations is the indifferent resignation amongst the political class of both countries to brand a perpetual honky-dory status to the bilateral relations. Even when the relations hit a snag, and despite knowing that there are structural shortcomings, there hasn’t been any concerted effort to dig deep and diagnose the problem at hand and resolve it mutually. Instead, a natural inclination to brush all the fault lines underneath the carpet reigns supreme. Such a nonchalant attitude has led to the accumulation of a heap of mutual distrust and frequently rankles the fragile and fractured relationship.

During the banquet hosted in his honour by his counterpart in New Delhi, Nepal’s Chief of Army Staff– General Rajendra Chettri had said “Nepal-India relations are unique and unparalleled. It transcends the realm of just being adjacent neighbours and there is absolutely no substitute to it.” President Mukharjee reiterated exactly the same lines during his visit. Unfortunately, however, that affirmation made little difference to a relationship that had hit rock bottom after the blockade. Although the Nepali State accorded the highest honour to Mukharjee, the public remained indifferent and/or bitterly against the red carpet welcome. The bright side is that there is a growing mutual recognition of the need to extricate this frayed bond from the abyss of distrust, distaste and despair. The grudges and grievances aside, there is no better alternativethan for both sides to make earnest attempts to revitalize these intimate ties. More so, India as an emerging power can ill-afford to perpetually suffocate its closet neighbour because it would be a profound dishonour to the ultimate sacrifices made by soldiers like Bimal Tamang and other Nepalese nationals in its armed forces that have laid down their lives for India’s security.

Thapa is a Security and Defense analyst

The opinions and ideas expressed in this article are the sole responsibilities of the writers – Editor

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