I am a Nepali and don’t like Indian bullying. But as a man from the Terai-Madhes—a third generation Nepali of Indian origin, whose grandfather migrated from India, whose mother originally hailed from India, whose wife is Indian, and who studied and now works in India—deepening the India-Nepal relationship on relatively equal terms to benefit citizens on both sides is one of my core political commitments.
I have argued passionately in favor of Nepali secularism and countered those who call it a foreign project, an imported conspiracy. I believe that the rise in religious conversions in Nepal—if there is one—is not a cause for concern, and if Hindus are worried, they should think about where Hinduism and its hierarchies have left people for them to turn away from the faith. And I have written extensively about communal politics in Gujarat. But I believe that in diplomacy, emphasizing shared culture and religious heritage is not amoral; it is even acceptable. In fact, it may reflect many people’s lived experiences, and those unaware of this, who decry such bonds, are wholly unaware of the power of a shared history.
I detest Hindutva identity politics. But I am an advocate of another kind of “identity politics”: I have a deep empathy for those discriminated against on the basis of their identity, and so I admire those who speak up for genuine identity-related grievances. Majoritarian politics based on manufactured grievances and demonizing minorities does not fall in that category. Politics in Nepal’s plains led by the Madhesis who have been stripped of dignity and excluded from the power structure does.
So what should I feel about Modi, his desire to visit Janakpur, and now the possible cancellation of this visit? Should the secularist in me feel happy since he may have used the visit to play the Hindutva card and could have jeopardized Nepal’s transition to secularism at a time of right-wing surge? Or should the Madhesi in me feel disappointed because his visit would have increased the Terai’s importance and now the opportunity is gone?
Should the Nepali nationalist in me feel happy? We are a sovereign country; we have shown India its place; and anyway this is about SAARC and not one leader or one country. Or should that person in me committed to deepening India-Nepal ties feel sad? This was an opportunity to show the world our open border, to highlight the special bond between us, and to regret the politics that allow Modi to speak in New York, Sydney, and in the future at Wembley, but not next door in Nepal.
I feel all of this. But I must be honest: I am more disappointed than relieved.
Modi would have played his Hindutva politics subtly. He planned and maybe still plans to declare Ayodhya and Janakpur sister cities. His visit would have coincided with Bibaha Panchami, the day Ram and Sita wedded, which is accompanied by a symbolic baraat backed by Vishva Hindu Parishad traveling to Janakpur from Ayodhya. He would have spoken with an eye on the Bihar polls next year, given that nearly every family in the Janakpur belt has a strong Bihar link. The domestic political calculus is obvious. Modi would definitely not have said “Make Nepal Hindu,” but his presence would have bolstered Nepal’s right wing constituencies. This is very discouraging.
But that fear—that our secularism is weak, so keep Modi away—cannot be a reason to undermine what India and Nepal share.
We are not normal neighbors because we are not normal states to each other. Nepalis work in India without documentation. We serve as soldiers in the Indian army. We depend on India for everything from fuel to salt. Each of our political streams was inspired by Indian movements. Our politics has the undeniable imprint of the Indian establishment. Families across the border have a roti-beti relationship. So to expect a detached, almost cold and formal, relationship limited to banquet speeches is to ignore the depth of what we share.
The strength of this bilateral relationship comes not from the capitals but from people-to-people ties. It comes from the special link between the Terai and Bihar. It comes from the open border. Millions of people cross the border every day, and millions depend on its open access for their livelihoods, education, and medical treatment. An Indian prime minister driving across the border would have brought the attention of the Indian media and the world to the dismal infrastructure on both sides. It would have highlighted how people on the borderlands live, and the bonds between them.
It is not appropriate for an Indian prime minister to play ethnic politics in another country. Our political borders and cultural boundaries do not match. There are communities on both sides, and it is tempting to forge bonds based on them. The trick is to use these bonds to boost the relationship but not get dragged into the politics of each other’s countries. That was India’s mistake in Sri Lanka, and Delhi is wary of repeating it. And that is why during his August visit to Kathmandu, Modi was careful not to hurt the Nepali nationalist sentiment by appearing too cozy with the Madhesi political leadership (who anyway are identified as Indian).
But this does not mean that that those bonds should be denied. And yet it seems this is exactly what the Kathmandu establishment was trying to get Modi to do. Modi and the Indian establishment wanted the large, historic public grounds of Janakpur, Barabigah to be the site of the address. But the Nepal government, led by conservative hill-dominated parties, felt this would bolster Madhesis and boost their political morale. Remember this is a time of deep political polarization in Nepal, where different forces and social groups are in the middle of a raging debate over the future of the state structure. Kathmandu did not want the Terai to accrue any real or perceived advantages.
It was this mindset that riled the people in the plains (who anyway have a persecution complex). A common refrain has been, “We struggle to get citizenship, we have no say in the power structure, we don’t have a state of our own seven years after demanding federalism, and now Kathmandu does not even want an Indian prime minister to come and address us despite the fact that we live next to the border?” It can come as no surprise that so many in Terai are so deeply upset.
Modi, on the floor of Nepal’s parliament, promised he would visit Janakpur and Lumbini when he traveled to the country next. The possible failure to meet this promise, for whatever reason, has made Modi an object of controversy in Nepal. It has also exposed and deepened Nepal’s already existing fault lines.