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India-Nepal relations: Close neighbours tread a precarious path

By Shyam Saran
Last updated on: December 10, 2015 20:13 IST
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Presenting the ongoing Pahari-Madhesi divide as a reflection of an India-Nepal divide grossly distorts the reality on the ground, says Shyam Saran.

A woman walks past graffiti that reads 'Let's protest against the Indian blockade' in Nepali in Kathmandu, Nepal. Photograph: Navesh Chitrakar/ Reuters

The contrived controversy over the so-called blockade of the India-Nepal border has obscured the perilous path on which the current ruling elite in Nepal are taking the country.

A deliberate and risky political and social polarisation is being engendered in order to camouflage a brazen attempt to entrench the privileged status of high-caste elite with an arrogant sense of entitlement.

As has happened a number of times in the past, ultra-nationalism in the form of anti-Indianism is being assiduously peddled to deflect attention from a more sinister domestic agenda.

This carries the risk of reversing some of the historic gains made by the democracy movement, which all sections of Nepal's diverse population made sacrifices for -- and which won the support of India.

There are a number of misperceptions in India about Nepal. We appear to have tacitly accepted the Pahari-Plains dichotomy and the associated perception that the latter are ‘Indian-origin’ and thus enjoying the support of India as the Nepali government alleges.

The people living in the Terai are the original inhabitants of the region and not immigrants from India.

They became part of Nepal as a result of conquest and as a result of later British largesse for services rendered in the suppression of the first war of Indian independence. They are citizens of Nepal by right, not by generosity.

Yes, it is true that these plains people have kinship ties with people living on the Indian side of the border -- but so do most of the hill people of Nepal.

There are several million Indian citizens of Nepali pahari origin who live in various parts of our country. They are proud citizens of India but also have kinship ties with their brethren living in Nepal.

And over the past decade and a half, as a result of the long years of Maoist insurgency and economic deprivation, there are six to eight million Nepali citizens who have been living and working in India. They are overwhelmingly from the hill areas in Nepal.

There are also several thousand ex-Indian Army pensioners who are scattered across the villages and towns of Nepal. They are almost entirely ‘paharis’ or hill people.

And finally, even the high-caste Nepalis, including those claiming royal lineage, have close kinship and ties through marriage with their counterparts in India. They constitute part and parcel of the long-standing web of intimate ties that bind the people of the two countries together.

Thus, to project a Pahari-Madhesi divide as reflecting an India-Nepal divide grossly distorts the reality on the ground and one hopes that our own decision-makers do not fall prey to this gross misrepresentation.

India should continue to support an inclusive democracy in Nepal and equal rights for its diverse people, including the Madhesis and the several ethnic groups or janjatis which have been equally oppressed.

There can be no interest on the part of India to cause suffering and distress to any section of Nepal's population given the broad spectrum nature of India-Nepal links.

Not many people know that today much of Nepal's power supply comes from India. It continues uninterrupted and several other entry points into Nepal are operating normally.

Where is the question of a blockade? If agitating demonstrators in the south are interrupting movement across the border, it is unreasonable to expect India to pull the chestnuts out of the fire for Nepali leaders who have triggered this unrest by their short-sighted policies.

One sometimes hears Indian political figures and analysts dismissing the movement in the plains and in other ethnic areas by pointing to the divisions among their political leaders.

But, whatever be their squabbles, they are united on obtaining through their struggle the legitimate rights of the people they represent.

We are not supporting the individual ambitions of these leaders but the people whose rights are being denied. In fact the people are ahead of their leaders in many ways and this means that their struggle cannot be easily suppressed. And don't Indian politicians also squabble amongst themselves?

Ultra-nationalism based on a narrow and contrived hill identity and targeting a section of Nepali citizens as unpatriotic agents of a foreign power risks a counter ultra-nationalism, one feeding on the other.

We see danger signs of this already. Nepal is a country bound by strong economic complementarities among its various regions and sub-regions. The plains are the country's food basket.

Much of the country's industry is located in the plains, near the vast markets in neighbouring India. The Terai and its people are precious assets for the country and will remain the foundation for its economic prosperity.

Is it wise to endanger this economic lifeline just when the country is slowly recovering from the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal earlier this year?

Whatever grievances there maybe against India, the risks to Nepal's national unity and its economic welfare may become the biggest casualties of the policies being pursued by the Kathmandu political dispensation.

This is particularly so as winter descends on the country and large number of people remain without adequate shelter and food in the hill areas. The earthquake also severed the already sparse communication links with the rest of the country.

It is this looming human tragedy which should have been the over-riding preoccupation of the Nepali government rather than playing cynical political games to preserve the privileges of the traditional elite.

India had responded to the earthquake by rushing urgent supplies and reconstruction assistance. This support needs to continue but is being hampered by the negative attitudes of the Nepali establishment.

And finally there is the China factor.

Not surprisingly, the Nepali government has tried to create anxiety in India by suggesting that China would come to its aid through the road links it has built across the Tibet-Nepal border.

Some supplies have come through including some oil tankers. Over the past month, there is little evidence that Chinese supplies may assume anywhere near the scale of India-Nepal trade and economic links.

India needs to be watchful concerning Chinese activities in Nepal -- but letting the Nepali government use the China bogey to pressure India to acquiesce in its current policies would be counter-productive.

Shyam Saran is a former foreign secretary and a former ambassador to Nepal. He is currently chairman, RIS and senior fellow, CPR.

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Shyam Saran in New Delhi
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