Ah Nepal. Proud, sovereign, never conquered. Landlocked yet a feisty yam despite two massive grinding boulders, China to the north, India in all other directions. A good Nepali looks around him with distrust. He knows that since British times—even Mughal times—others have coveted his territory and his natural resources. Hell, he is even taught that his forebears fought the British East Company and won in the early nineteenth century. He—and it is almost always a “he”—is ready to fight and fulminate at the merest questioning of Nepali sovereignty and independence.
Britain’s successors, who run today’s Indian state, are—he believes—even more rapacious. Why, I was once told by a Nepali writer who should have known better, India has even developed ways to drain Himalayan rivers, some nefarious downstream technology that magically sucks up water as it approaches the border.
I encountered this anti-India mindset very early in my time as BBC Nepal correspondent. As a reporter of some experience in South Asia, I was asked to host a call-in program about Nepal-India relations that postulated several scenarios. These ranged from an avowedly multi-lateral Nepal that ignored its neighbor’s concerns and made its own way in the world to capitulating and seeking to join the Indian union. Between those extremes were several options, all of them reasonable variations on current arrangements. Admittedly, most assumed much better Nepali diplomacy and statecraft than actually existed. As a Canadian, I knew only too well the challenges and opportunities of having a large, pushy, overweening neighboring state; in our case, the USA. Nepal, I believed would see the discussion in this spirit.
I was wrong. Before the show, I awoke one morning to frantic phone calls about demonstrations, riots, burnings of effigies marked “BBC.” My guests for the program, save one, the respected editor of an English-language newspaper, fled to the hills. Apparently, I read in newspapers, the BBC was urging Nepal to join India. Shock, horror, outrage. Some suggested that my employer in London had lost sight of that ignominious defeat that Nepal inflicted on Britain in the Anglo-Gorkha War of 1814–1816. You know, the one that led to the loss of a third of this country’s territory, a lasting and often-interfering British presence in Kathmandu and ceding the best military manpower to the Gurkha regiments to this day.
“Never forget BBC,” wrote a now-prominent journalist who shall remain nameless, “we beat you (Britain) once and we’ll beat you again.”
Oh dear, I thought. What is going on?
More measured responses came from friends who assured me it was a typical Royal Palace-led, right-wing orchestrated anti-Indian rhetoric that flared from time to time—usually serving some nefarious agenda such as covering up the latest failures and dysfunctions. I was just the poor chump who served as an excuse, a mere catalyst. Indeed, it all blew over after a week with no hard feelings, although the odd nutty newspaper did ruminate whether or not I was an Indian spy; strange as it might seem to represent both London as a provocateur and forgetter of history, and covetous New Delhi with its giant water-sucking technologies on the border.
So sad then to see it all happening yet again in the new Nepal, a republic, federal, proudly democratic, ostensibly secular. You’d think with hard won new ideas, the culmination of a peace process, a new—if not generally welcomed—constitution, that the elite of Kathmandu would at the very least find a new bugbear, something else to fire up the masses and distract them from the dirty business of failed politics. But no. It’s all anti-India, all the time.
I don’t mean to make light of this. For when Nepal’s manipulators of public opinion—be they Maoist, monarch or democrat—play this card, they inevitably and deliberately unleash ugly forces of racism against Madhesis, the long suffering people of the border regions. Second-class citizens with second-tier citizenship, the Madhesis are regarded in their own country as Delhi’s fifth columnists, using the revenge of the cradle and the wedding to push India’s land-grabbing agenda. You see this dangerous attitude reflected in the new constitution, unique in the world for its denial of rights to women and others born on the “wrong” side of current prejudice.
Let’s be honest here for once. All of this anti-India business is cynical and dangerous eyewash. If Nepal’s politicians and patriots really cared about losing sovereignty or land to India, if they really valued independence, would there be an open border? Would they be sanguine about Nepalis going to India for jobs or even ration cards, let alone spouses? Would the local currency be indelibly pegged to the Indian rupee at a rate that hasn’t changed for decades?
A nation that doesn’t control its economic, monetary or labor policy, that outsources these vital tools to a neighboring state, is not independent. It is yoked to a democratic reality next door where politicians must live and die by their economic decisions, in marked contrast to their Nepali counterparts. Indian governments that don’t create jobs and prosperity don’t get re-elected.
So why do successive administrations in Nepal maintain the status quo with India? It’s simple. They don’t want to make policy on their own. They don’t want to work hard or even govern. Across that open border, India will always provide the jobs and economic opportunity for Nepalis that they themselves will not create through policy and political action. Put more plainly, they are “whole-timers,” paid by their parties—usually with black money—to be layabouts and troublemakers awaiting their share of the loot, their turn in the “chair.” Yet they persist in both condemning India when it suits them, when they are not racing to New Delhi seeking support for some lame-brained scheme to rescue them from their own self-inflicted political disasters.
Alas, this behavior, while familiar, has been effective beyond the political class. Kathmandu’s self-appointed patriots and nationalists know who they are, and why they ignore the realities of their country’s deliberately restricted independence. That’s for them and their own consciences. I’ll say this though. To those who boldly tweeted #backoffIndia in the most recent round of Delhi bashing, please reflect on the meaning of sovereignty. If it means so much to you, please urge your leaders to behave as they say they believe. Exercise real independence and make your own economic and other domestic policy decisions. Abroad, manage relations with giant neighbors and other important countries well. Appoint a proper, non-political diplomatic corps. Base bilateral ties with all countries on respect and mutual self-interest.
More importantly, have the confidence to be inclusive and democratic. Don’t celebrate the near-failed state of today that always disappoints its own citizens and the rest of the world. Work toward a constitution that entrenches equality and freedom from state overreach. Invest in the future through education, job creation and health care. Treat public finances with respect. Respond to challenges—including disasters—with speed and compassion. Governments should live and die politically on their policies and actions, not through back room deals to share power and black money.
Finally, lose the yam and boulder analogy. It’s more of a choice than a geopolitical reality. Who knows? The next national mindset may finally evolve into something useful, something to be proud of. Jai Nepal.
Cover photo: A crow flies over the Ghadiarwa pond in Birgunj. By Sagar Chhetri, a freelance photographer in Kathmandu.