New Delhi is clearly unhappy with Beijing’s growing sway over Kathmandu, as India has long considered Nepal to be in its ‘sphere of influence’
Neighbouring countries have been, more often than not, at loggerheads with each other throughout history. The relationship becomes more fractious when one of them is bigger and more powerful than the other. Look at China and Vietnam, or the US and Mexico. France and Germany have opposed each other in two world wars. Yet, it was only recently that most of Europe put aside their differences and bitterness of the past to form the European Union (EU) and establish a common market, though with Brexit that union is under threat. The forces of nationalism are reasserting themselves. The election of Donald Trump in the US, Boris Johnson in the UK, Jair Bolsonaro in Mexico, even Narendra Modi in India, testify to this.
However, there are happy exceptions where a large and small neighbour get on well, with perhaps only a pin-prick every now and then. The US and Canada is one such example. Despite the occasional resentment that a smaller neighbour usually has against somebody much bigger, on the whole both countries have had good relations, with close and amicable trade ties and no major disputes. A common language has helped, though a part of Canada is French-speaking.
Which brings one to India and Nepal. For the past 75 years, ever since India got its independence from the British rule, relations between the two nations have been warm and close. Most of Nepal is Hindu by religion, as is 80 per cent of the Indian population. Most Nepalese also speak Hindi, one of the official languages in India. Millions of Nepalese reside and work in India and no passports are required by Indians or Nepalese to cross each other’s borders. Yet, somehow, a major dispute has suddenly erupted between both countries over a small slice of disputed territory, where India is building a road which New Delhi claims is strategically important to its interests. Nepal, on the other hand, claims that the land where the road is being built belongs to it.
Before going forward, a little on Nepal’s history is required. In 1769, it became one country under Prithvi Narayan Shah, from the Shah dynasty. It was also called the Gorkha Kingdom and become powerful enough to try and take over adjoining Tibet. But it occupied much of the present Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. Ruined Gorkha forts on top of several hills are still there. The British in India were wary of the prowess of the Gurkhas, but eventually took them on and during two years of fiercely contested battles, finally triumphed. Reluctant to advance further and take over the whole of Nepal (the Sikhs were to be their next major opponents), they settled peace with the Gorkha Kingdom, by signing the Treaty of Sugauli. Nepal lost a third of its kingdom, yet retained its independence. So impressed were the British with the fighting qualities of the Gurkhas, they swiftly inducted them into their own army. And the Gurkhas fought with great distinction in the two world wars, and in the Falkland war (the British did the same with the Sikhs after defeating them as well).
In the past few decades, Nepal has gone through many vicissitudes, including a civil war, communists coming to power, abolition of the monarchy, and establishment of a democratic Republic. Through all this, relations with India have remained relatively good, with the same large-scale people-to-people contact, though a peeved Rajiv Gandhi at one stage foolishly imposed an economic blockade, causing the Nepalese public considerable hardship and creating resentment, since they are heavily dependent on India for essentials like fuel and consumer goods.
Therefore, why the change in attitude over some disputed territory and a road, yet to be completed? Kathmandu’s anger has even led to the passing of a bill, incorporating a revised political map of the country which includes the territory in question as an integral part of Nepal. There is little doubt that China, which has its own agenda and territorial ambitions, has egged on the Nepalese. Its presence in Nepal has become much more visible lately and economic ties have been widened, with several Sino-Nepalese collaborations initiated, especially in the development of hydro-electric power, of which Nepal has enormous untapped potential.
New Delhi is clearly unhappy with Beijing’s growing sway over Kathmandu, as India has long considered Nepal to be in its ‘sphere of influence’. Presently, a stalemate exists over the disputed territory, as well as the Indian road. How can that stalemate be broken? A great deal of prestige is involved on both sides. But India, being the big brother, can afford to be indulgent. A compromise would be for India to be allowed to complete the road, and to use it (it gives easier access to pilgrims going to Mount Kailash in Tibet, which is considered sacred to Hindus). However, the territory should be recognised as being Nepalese. In return, India should further its economic cooperation with Nepal. Nepal has always been heavily dependent on external assistance, much of it from international organisations, like the World Bank, and also from India. If China is now also offering more aid, Kathmandu has every right to accept it. New Delhi would at the same time be sending a message to its other neighbours: India wants to be your friend, and wherever possible, help you in your economic development. That is the best way for India to maintain its influence over the region and forestall China.
Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times