India needs to be sensitive to smaller neighbours or China can step in

The latest rift with Nepal is over India’s inauguration of a 80-kilometre road link, through Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand, which connects to the Kailash Mansarovar route in China

India, Pakistan Nepal, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, mediator, SAARC summit
Nepal has had a lengthy relationship with India that continues to this day. Representative image: iStock

Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s remark against India in Nepal Parliament was not unexpected. India-Nepal ties have been on a slippery slope for some time and his caustic reference to the Indian version of the Coronavirus being more lethal than either the Chinese or Italian strain is in keeping with the general anti-India feeling encouraged by the Nepalese Communist leader.

The latest rift is being dubbed the “cartographic war” by many. It will further strain ties between the two neighbours. This one is over rival claims on territory, triggered by India’s inauguration of a brand new 80-kilometre road link through Lipulekh Pass in Uttarakhand. The road connects to the Kailash Mansarovar route in China. Indian pilgrims travel once each summer to the Mansarovar glacier in Tibet on pilgrimage. It is also in keeping with India’s move to build infrastructure across border areas. Nepal claims this construction is on its territory.

Once India’s Defence Minister inaugurated the new road, Nepal released a new map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limipiydhura, as part of Nepal. Kathmandu’s claim is based on the treaty of Sugauli signed in 1816 with the British-India government. Prime Minister Oli took a nationalist line while talking of this in the Parliament. He thundered that these places would be reclaimed by Nepal and said this was not just rhetoric. All this will certainly escalate further tension.

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It is unlikely that India and Nepal will go to war over this land dispute, the stakes are too high for that. Both sides will talk and perhaps have several rounds before hitting the right buttons, acceptable to the two countries. Many Indian commentators believe that Nepal has been put up to this by China. It would be wiser to look into India’s dealings with Nepal instead of jumping into conclusions. India should have settled this matter earlier instead of letting it fester. New Delhi has not covered itself in glory in dealing with its neighbours either.

India’s size intimidates its neighbours. Many of India’s smaller neighbours including Nepal, Bangladesh (in the past) and Sri Lanka had often regarded India as the regional bully. This is not uncommon for most nations confronted with a huge country in the neighbourhood. Former NSA J.N. Dixit would often say that India has to take all this in its strides as it is natural for smaller nations to be intimidated by India’s size. He gave the example of the US and how countries in the region were afraid of the Superpower while their people flocked to the US for jobs.

Nepal, squeezed between the two Asian giants, India and China, has often used its unique position to play one against the other. From the time of the monarchy, the palace often used the China card, when the King wished to ward off India. With the overthrow of the monarchy and the Communists in power, Oli is doing the same. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was once extremely popular in Nepal. So how did matters come to this?

The Indian Prime Minister took Nepal by storm on his first visit to that country. That was in 2014, just a few months since taking office. He had already made his pitch about “neighbourhood first policy”, and was ready to start a new chapter. He was an instant hit in Kathmandu. People lined the streets to see him. He addressed the Constituent Assembly and got a standing ovation from lawmakers, including the Communists and the Maoists. On that visit, Modi pressed the right buttons as Nepal looked at him as an Indian Prime Minister who was very different from the rest. All was smooth till Nepal announced its brand new Republican Constituency in September 2015.

When the Indian origin Madhesi’s began their agitation against the new constitution, on the grounds that they were not given equal status as citizens, New Delhi backed them. That is acceptable. What was not was the blockade organised by the Madhesi protesters, which stopped Indian trucks carrying essential items to cross the terai or the plains of Nepal where the Madhesis live. New Delhi denied it had any hand in the blockade but it is well known that without India’s backing the blockade would have fizzled out.

The same foolish mistake was made by the Congress government under Rajiv Gandhi. In 1989, India stopped sending supplies to Nepal over a dispute over the treaty of friendship with Kathmandu, which was to be renewed. That too led to a massive distrust of India by Nepal and its people. Yet institutional memory was forgotten when the Modi government repeated the same mistake.

Land-locked Nepal depends for nearly 80 per cent of its essential items on India. The blockade resulted in intolerable hardship for people in Nepal. Medicines, petroleum products, including kerosene, gas and every item of daily use was in short supply. The hardship faced by the people ignited outrage against India. Oli openly charged New Delhi of organising the blockade. He promised that Nepal would never again be as dependent on India and turned to China. Once the crisis was over, Oli was removed from office. Many believe that New Delhi had a hand in this. The Indian embassy in Kathmandu was a power centre in Nepal, and ambitious politicians wishing for the top job would cosy up to India. But this was before the 2015 crisis. During the elections that followed in 2017, the Indian embassy kept a low profile and ensured that no one accused Delhi of supporting any party. India-friendly Nepali Congress was trounced in those elections.

With Oli now firmly in the saddle, he is ensuring that Nepal is no longer dependent on India. The country has a transit agreement now with China and the government hopes to balance out ties with both its neighbours. Oli visited India after taking office. Modi too went again to Nepal and tried his best to repair ties. But China is now spreading its wings in the neighbouring country.

Indian diplomats have been confident that Nepal’s ties with India, religious, political and most important people-to-people cannot be replaced by China. The government may want to but people have close links with India. Nepal and India have open borders and Nepalese work in this country and send back money home. What diplomats must not forget is national pride which plays an important role in political decision making. No country likes to be humiliated. Both the blockades in 1989 and 2017 did just that. China will naturally take advantage of the situation.

(The author is a senior journalist who has worked for several national newspapers, specialising in foreign affairs)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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