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Why Nepal believes India isn’t treating it with the respect it deserves

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Even as the relationship between Nepal and India is going through a rough patch about disputed border territory, bilateral ties received a new jerk when Nepal Prime Minister KP Oli dissolved parliament on December 20, setting elections for April and May.

Inadvertently, Nepal’s political instability and internal power games have brought attention to the strained state of the country’s crucial relationship with India.

Oli’s decision led to disconcertion in some quarters in India. For instance, in an article in the Tribune, Shyam Saran, India’s former ambassador to Nepal, fretted about what this would mean for New Delhi’s interests. “Far from maintaining Indian influence in Nepal, we shall end up marginalised,” he warned.

Even China – Nepal’s giant northern neighbour – is concerned by the developments in Kathmandu. Newspapers have reported that Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi has held several meetings with Nepali political leaders.

India is wary of this. In his article, Saran described Yanqi as an “activist-ambassador” and claimed that the Chinese were “playing referee” in an attempt to resolve the dispute between factions of the ruling Nepal Communst Party that led to Oli’s decision.

India has long used the “China-card” to fulfil its dual objectives of deterring Beijing from attempting to play a greater role in Nepal, even as New Delhi tried to maintain a dominant role in the country.

The suggestion that Nepal’s actions to mark this border territory were carried out at the behest of another power, as India’s army chief asserted in May, seems calculated to further the Indian claim over the land that Kathmandu views as being encroached upon.

Open border challenges

Many in Nepal believe that India’s attitude reflects a colonial mindset that sees the region as either Indian or Chinese, denying smaller countries any space. It aims to paint Nepal as being in a vulnerable condition in the regional balance, a nation that is politically and economically dependent on external support. This, Nepalis say, allows India to assert its default paternal and hegemonic considerations.

In 1950, Nepal and India signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which allowed for an open border. But some in Nepal believe that the pact was signed when their country was politically weak. Due to the massive difference in the demography, economy and geographical size of the countries, Kathmandu believes that some of the provisions of the treaty are detrimental to Nepal, especially those that elate to the treatment of citizens of each country on a reciprocal basis in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce.

The open border favoured free movement, which resulted in more Indians settling in Nepal. In Nepal, one of the debates that is part of the contentious issue of citizenship rights has involved the Madhesi community who live in the Terai region adjoining India. Many in the community have kinship ties with people in India and marriages across the border are commonplace.

India says that Nepal discriminates against Madhesis as it does not automatically grant citizenship to foreign women marrying Nepali when they make applications. Instead, the naturalisation process takes seven years (which is the case in India too). In addition, under Nepal’s constitution, several key positions can only be held by people who are citizens by descent.

Nepal is apprehensive that the citizenship provisions suggested by India: its location next to the most populous country, the open border and high rates of inter-border marriages would ultimately jeopardise its security and sovereignty. As a small country, Nepal has a challenging task of addressing Indian concerns on the citizenship issue while it ensures that no Nepalis are deprived of citizenship rights.

Nepal has begun to take steps to revise the treaty to address the contemporary challenges. In 2018, an Eminent Persons Group in Nepal submitted its report on how this could be done. But India has not been ready to receive the report. Some people in Nepal believe that the country’s proposal to regulate the open border are the sticking point.

Nepal has complained that the unrestricted movement of people has resulted in increasing smuggling, frequent unrest and human trafficking. Nepal believes that the border needs to be regulated with ID card or a visa system.

Nepal has complained that the unrestricted movement of people has resulted in increasing smuggling, frequent unrest and human trafficking. Nepal believes that the border needs to be regulated with ID card or a visa system.

The open border favoured free movement, which resulted in more Indians settling in Nepal increasing. In Nepal, one of the debates that is part of the contentious issue of citizenship rights has involved the Madhesi community who live in the Terai region adjoining India. Many in the community have kinship ties with people in India and marriages across the border are commonplace.

India says that Nepal discriminates against Madhesis as it does not automatically grant citizenship to foreign women marrying Nepali when they make applications. Instead, the naturalisation process takes seven years, which is the case in India too. In addition, under Nepal’s constitution, several key positions can only be held by people who are citizens by descent.

Nepal is apprehensive that the citizenship provisions as suggested by India in the context of its location between the most populous country, the open border and high rates of inter-border marriages would ultimately jeopardise its security and sovereignty. As a small country, Nepal has a challenging task of addressing Indian concerns on the citizenship issue while it ensures that no Nepalis are deprived of citizenship rights.

Another cause for alarm

Another cause for alarm some people in Nepal has been the Millennium Challenge Corporation, the US foreign assistance agency that aims to fight against global poverty. US officials have admitted that the Corporation is part of their country’s Indo-Pacific Strategy, intended to encircle China. In a unilateral manner, US has included Nepal as a “partner country” of its Indo-Pacific Strategy. But Nepal has clearly stated that it is not part of such strategies, which run contrary to the country’s non-aligned foreign policy.

Amidst this, in his Tribune article, India’s Shyam Saran speaks of a keenness on “aligning US and Indian interests” in Nepal and to maintain “Indian influence” in the country. It is an illustration of the Indian establishment’s inability to move beyond Nehru’s Himalayan Doctrine, which unilaterally presumes that Nepal is part of the Indian sphere of influence.

Besides, by repeatedly criticising China’s political and economic engagement in Nepal, India seems to suffer from historical amnesia that New Delhi itself has been meddling in the internal politics of its independent neighbour for decades.

It is time for India to drop its Sinophobic lens and to attempt to win the hearts of the Nepali people. In 2014, after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first official visit to Nepal, many believed that Indo-Nepal relations had taken a historic turn. But the 2015 unofficial economic blockade by India because it was unhappy with some provisions of Nepal’s new constitution prompted an upsurge of anti-India sentiment in Nepal.

As a consequence, the visit of Indian Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal in 2016 had to be performed in a “secured’ and ‘curfew like’ situation”.

Of course, countries cannot change their neighbours. Culturally, socially and even politically, Nepal and India have vast affinities. The relationship, strengthened by the recruitment of Gorkhas into the Indian Army, which is often described as “special”.

But Nepal seeks to be treated with the respect owed to an independent, sovereign state. Nepal expects its neighbours to relinquish their hegemonic mindset.

Promod Tandan is a doctoral researcher in the International Relations, Centre for the Study of Democracy at University of Westminster, UK.

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