Friday, 12 April, 2024

Nepal-India Relations Avoiding Claustrophobic Embrace

Dhruba Hari Adhikary


The ties between these two South Asian neighbours are often dubbed as unique and multi-dimensional, which they are. While it is true that both share the culture that got nurtured over thousands of years, it is equally true that Nepal and India have their own distinct political identities. In fact, Nepal has a longer history. And this is something that the people of this country genuinely take pride in. “No foreign flag has ever flown over Nepal,” was how the authorities in Kathmandu, in July 1949, said in a letter to the United Nations committee on the admission of new members.
Nepal eventually acquired UN membership, in 1955.
That Nepal has a history longer than those of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh does not need elaboration. Nepal’s is a clear case which has been recognised by a number of historians and writers worldwide. Henry Kissinger is one of them. His book of 2014, the ‘World Order’ specifically alludes to Nepal in a context of how smaller nations managed to retain their existence through vicissitudes of prolonged wars and struggles. “For centuries, Nepal skilfully balanced its diplomatic posture between the ruling dynasties in China and those in India…” says Kissinger. Thailand is another country in South-east Asia which avoided colonisation imposed by expanding Western empires.

Peace & Friendship
Let’s get back to the regional context. The very first article of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship requires both India and Nepal to “agree mutually to acknowledge and respect the complete sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of each other.” This is a documented pledge that both parties have to abide by. And this is a point raised by the Indian leaders umpteen number of times. While Delhi is expected to examine some of the unequal and questionable provisions of the treaty, it can’t shy away from adhering to the fundamental requirement contained in this treaty, signed in July 1950.
The uniqueness of Nepal-India relation has its genesis in the pervasive culture which in turn is based mainly on the two great Hindu epics - Ramayana and Mahabharata - and all that they entail. There are battles and disorder, competition and rivalries. And there are negotiations and agreements.
Those familiar with the battle for Hastinapur narrated in the Mahabharat are sure to remember the concluding episode in which victorious Pandavas (five brothers) are seen waiting at the palace doorstep to pay respect and receive blessings by king Dhritarashtra. Although he was in deep agony caused by the death of all of his one hundred sons in the war they themselves had launched, the blind monarch pretended to be normal and courteous to his visiting nephews. In that ceremony, Yudhishthira, the eldest among the five, led the group. He was to be crowned king soon thereafter. But what happened in that brief yet tumultuous function is best described in the book (English) titled ‘Mahabharata’ written by C. Rajagopalachari, the first governor general of independent India. Since the scene in question carries a pithy message and is also relevant to the present times, it may be useful to offer a detailed quote for the benefit of readers of this article:
Yudhishthira approached Dhritarashtra and bowed before him. Dhritarashtra embraced Yudhishthira, but there was no love in that embrace.
Then Bhimsena was announced to the blind king.
“Come,” said Dhritarashtra.
But Vasudeva was wise. He gently pushed Bhima aside, and placed an iron figure before the blind Dhritarashtra knowing the old king’s exceeding anger. Dhritarashtra hugged the metal statute to his bosom in a firm embrace and then the thought came to him of how this man had killed every one of his sons, and his wrath increased to such a pitch that the image was crushed to pieces in his embrace.
“Ha! my anger has deceived me,” cried Dhritarashtra. “I have killed dear Bhima.”
Then Krishna said to the blind king: “Lord, I knew that it would be thus and I prevented the disaster. You have not killed Bhimasena. You have crushed only an iron image which I placed instead before you. May your anger be appeased with what you have done to this image. Bhima is still alive.”
The presence of Krishna made the difference; saved a precious life. But there is no divine power now to mount a rescue mission of that nature or magnitude. A seasoned Nepali diplomat, who has since retired from government service, discussed this potential scenario with me when a different political party was governing India. Situation has worsened since then.
Surprisingly, it now appears that apprehension of this kind did not germinate in a vacuum, or in a sudden manner. Ranjit Rae, Delhi’s ambassador in Kathmandu till March 2017, mentions about “India’s claustrophobic embrace”---something that Nepal wants to steer clear of. In a recent opinion piece in The Economic Times (of India), Rae also touches on the shrill statements emanating from India through a few television channels, and states that these are vitiating the atmosphere. He wants such shouting media foray to be avoided if “we are to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.”
Coercive diplomacy
But Delhi has thus far failed to read such realistic assessments which expect it to abandon coercive diplomacy, and replace it with a persuasive one. The platitudinous remarks like ‘roti-beti’ bond and ‘brotherly base’ are, however, unlikely to yield desirable outcomes. And the wounds inflicted through frequent blockades and other punitive actions are too many and too recent to be healed or forgotten easily. In addition to this, the shrill statements that ambassador Rae refers to is bound to increase suspicion. Besides, it is a common knowledge that the military capabilities that China possesses visibly exceed that of India’s. But a perception in Nepal has always been that China’s approach to its smaller neighbours is less threatening than that of India’s. Why? Perhaps it is imperative for Delhi to do some introspection.
Dale Carnegie is often remembered for his famous book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’. India’s well-known opposition leader Shashi Tharoor once chose to remind his parliamentary colleagues about this book, in an oblique manner. Tharoor was obviously critical of India’s Nepal policy in the wake of 2015 blockade, and made a sarcastic observation that the rulers of Delhi knew well ‘how to lose friends and alienate people’!
Those involved in formulating and executing India’s “Neighbourhood First” policy have a lot of points to ponder.

(Adhikary is a journalist active since 1978 and writes on regional issues.