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Nepal: India's dear friend or a fast-turning enemy?

Nepal recently changed its political map showing parts of India’s Uttarakhand state as belonging to them.

India

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  28 Jun 2020 7:56 AM GMT

Izaaz Ahmed

(The writer can be reached at [email protected])

Nepal recently changed its political map showing parts of India's Uttarakhand state as belonging to them. By claiming Lipulekh along the Kali Nadi, along with Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, as Nepalese territory, it has challenged India's sovereignty, something it has never done before.

Many have criticised the move. Dr. Karan Singh, a senior politician who has invested a lot in Indo-Nepal ties, said that the move has caused "irreparable damage" to the relations.

What has shocked many is the fact that it decided to Nepal recently changed its political map showing parts of India's Uttarakhand state as belonging to them. By claiming Lipulekh along the Kali Nadi, along with Kalapani and Limpiyadhura, as Nepalese territory, it has challenged India's sovereignty, something it has never done before.

go hostile when India was already battling with COVID-19 on the inside and China on the outside. Is this how trusted friends behave? Or, is Nepal no longer a friend, and is working in collusion with China to put pressure on India on multiple fronts? Let's find out.

HISTORICAL TIES

India and Nepal share deep historical ties. As per Buddhist texts and popular legends, Gautama Buddha – the founder of the great religion of Buddhism – was born in Lumbini, Nepal. The quest for the ultimate truth and knowledge is believed to have brought Buddha downhill to the Northern Plains of India, where he attained enlightenment under a Peepal tree at Bodh Gaya, Bihar.

Besides the strong Buddhist link that India shares with Nepal, the latter also has a significant Hindu population. Until 2015, the now secular Nepal was the only Hindu country in the world. Being so close to India in terms of geographical proximity, the Sanatan Dharma is considered to have travelled to Nepal from its neighbour.

When India was under British rule, Nepal was almost like a vassal to the East India Company under the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816, before, of course, the Nepal-Britain Treaty of 1923 acknowledged the country's sovereignty in a true sense.

Just a couple of years before, Prime Minister Modi had visited Nepal and made it a part of India's Religious Tourism Circuit. In simple words, the plan was to leverage the shared commonality and seamlessly link the religious sites of Nepal with those of India for the convenience of the pilgrims of both the countries.

TIES AFTER INDEPENDENCE

India continued to have extremely cordial relations with the then Himalayan kingdom for the larger part of its independent history. Respecting each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity remained one of the major highlights in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship being signed between the two countries back in 1950. The treaty also allowed free movement of people and goods between both the nations, besides forging a close relationship on matters of foreign policy and defence.

The Citizenship Act of 1952 enacted by Nepal allowed Indians to emigrate to that country to acquire Nepalese citizenship. However, the act became repulsive for many Nepalis when it resulted in mass exodus of Indians, especially from Bihar, to Nepal. The 1950 Treaty, similarly, remained controversial in the eyes of many people of Nepal, who saw it as a breach of sovereignty. Many other Nepalese again took an anti-India stance in light of India's growing economic and political clout in the subsequent years of India's independence.

From India's external security point of view, Nepal has been of utmost importance. It is a buffer zone for India with respect to China. In International Relations, having such a zone between two rivals mitigates the danger of conflict. Bhutan, similarly, is another buffer zone for India.

As such, under the famous Gujaral Doctrine, Nepal was offered many unilateral benefits.

WHAT WENT WRONG THEN?

Like any other relationship, that between India and Nepal has also had its own share of frictions. However, a few incidents seem to have strained Nepal's ties with India more than others.

The people of Nepal accused India of imposing an economic blockade in 2015, restricting the entry of many essentials, including petroleum, into Nepal. The blockade was a blow to landlocked Nepal's economy. The background to this was the adoption of the new Constitution by Nepal by 2015, which was seen as being discriminatory to a couple of communities in Nepal, including the pro-India Madhesis, who live in the Terai region, bordering India. Given their proximity with India, Madhesis have always had a soft corner for their neighbour, and vice-versa.

India role's was suspected in the blockade as it was widely believed to be a protector of the rights of the Madhesis. And, despite India having refuted all allegations of any involvement, anti-India sentiments found a new lease of life among huge sections of people in Nepal. Hashtags like #BackoffIndia began to trend in Nepal.

In the same year, another chink developed in the otherwise sturdy relation when the Indian Media was heavily criticised for its 'insensitive' reporting of the 2015 Nepal Earthquake, which claimed around 7000 lives.

Such was the outrage against Indian Media that India's former foreign minister as well as a seasoned diplomat, Dr. Sashi Tharoor, was forced to tweet, "Our media "continues to embarrass and dismay India." India's rescue operations were no doubt praised by the people, but the backlash against its Media was louder and resonated all across.

Many in Nepal also accuse India of slow implementation of projects. Being a Himalayan country, India has an understanding with it to buy electricity from the hydropower projects installed there. India also invests a lot in hydroelectricity there.

Now with the slow implementation of these projects, perennial rivers-rich Nepal, considers itself being snubbed to a certain degree. Many experts have opined that this lacuna in Indo-Nepal ties has been used by China to its advantage. By extending easy debt and making other investments, China has made deep inroads into Nepal, and has moved closer to the latter more than ever. The fact that more flights now operate between Nepal and China than between Nepal and India corroborates the shift in relations.

The current communist regime of Nepal, led by KP Sharma Oli, is also seen by many as pro-China and anti-India. Being a proponent of Communist ideology, his party, Communist Party of Nepal, shares more in common with Communist Party of China than India.

WAY AHEAD

Nepal is crucial to India. Being a buffer zone, India can't afford to lose it completely to China. India must cash in on the cultural and religious ties that we have in common. Track II diplomacy, which involves people-to-people connection, should be promoted with more alacrity than ever.

Being a landlocked country with no coast, Nepal is dependent on India. Now China might promise Nepal its coast while trying to bring it completely under its influence, but India must find a way out to keep things in its favour. Factors like transportation cost and supply chain can be used by India to convince Nepal otherwise.

Nepal, as per media reports, is increasingly becoming a base for anti-India elements. Terrorists backed by the deep state of Pakistan often design plans against India from Nepal. In this backdrop, India must engage with the Government of Nepal on all fronts to eliminate this lurking threat. What India is doing with Myanmar to What India is doing with Myanmar to check the threat coming from there can be done with Nepal. "Nepal emerges biggest hub for Indian Mujahideen," said a 2019 US report.

Coming to the question of Nepal changing its map and claiming certain Indian areas as its own, the Indian government should engage with its Nepalese counterpart diplomatically, and solve the crisis. Taking a populist step, in view of future electoral gains, will only push Nepal further away from India, only to be nurtured by China.

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