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Misinterpreting Nepal

Gaurav Bhattarai

Gaurav Bhattarai

Misinterpreting Nepal

Indian experts on Nepal are entrapped in Westphalian narratives, consistently missing the prospect to offer a counter-narrative on India’s rise, and its responsibilities toward the neighborhood

Indian authors have written diversely on Nepali history, culture, politics, society, and geography. Still, their works stand small compared to Western scholars writing about Nepal, its people, and politics. Despite the geographical proximity and cultural homogeneity, very few Indian scholars have worked on the multidimensionality of Nepal-India relations, and the trend is acutely decreasing if heed is paid to the duplication of the perspectives and contents.

In the past, Nepal study centers in a handful of Indian universities used to discuss, research, and publish about Nepal. Although they were required to offer an alternative narrative, at least not conforming to the position of the Indian state, they failed to meet their objectives. 

At present, along with the newly established think tanks, scholars and researchers take no less time to endorse the interest of the Indian state, instead of weaving the alternative narratives—which may place people, culture, and civilization at the center, not solely on power and state politics. Upon the same realization, this article intends to shed light on how the priorities of the Indian foreign policy intellectuals are shaped by the interests of the Indian state. As such, India’s Nepal experts perceive Nepal, in the same manner as the Indian state does. Endless reiteration of the same perception has led to flimsy duplication.

Nepal experts in India

Universities, academicians, diplomats, retired military officials, think tanks, and journalists deliberate and write about Nepal, in India. Despite having an interest and objective to understand and analyze different facets of Nepali politics and foreign policy, they are entrapped in Westphalian narratives, consistently missing the prospect to offer a counter-narrative on India’s rise, and its responsibilities toward the neighborhood.

Only on rare occasions do we see Indian foreign policy analysts divided over Nepal. Usually, they converge on the interest of the Indian state. In 2015, when India imposed a blockade on Nepal, resulting in an artificial shortage of goods in the landlocked country, few Indian foreign policy experts dared critique India’s neighborhood policy towards Nepal. But, at usual times, there is no divergence in approaching Nepal and gauging Nepali politics. A survey of the evolution of India’s Nepal experts after the establishment of an independent India reveals the same.

Nepal studies in independent India began with the establishment of the School of International Studies (SIS) in Delhi in 1955. The school, set up to offer a “second opinion” on India’s foreign policy, started Nepal studies in 1960. SIS merged with Jawaharlal Nehru University in 1970. Besides SIS, the South Asian Studies Center under the University of Rajasthan in Jaipur, and the Centre for the Study of Nepal in Banaras Hindu University (BHU) also contributed to Nepal studies. 

The products of the South Asian Studies Center in Jaipur include the likes of Ramakant, S.D. Muni, MD Dharamdasani, R.S.Chauhan and B.C. Upreti. They all have contributed books on Nepal and written for the center’s journal South Asian Studies.  Although the Center for the Study of Nepal in BHU also started the Indian Journal of Nepalese Studies in 1987, it couldn’t continue for long. 

While the center in Jaipur studied Nepal’s diplomatic history, foreign policy, Panchayat, political parties, and regionalism, its BHU counterpart focused on Nepal-India trade, Nepal’s democracy, elections, and constitutional practices. 

Although the objectives of the two centers and the SIS were to offer an alternative narrative, independent of what has been propounded by power elites in New Delhi, the state as their unit of analysis constrained the critical approach and thwarted the self-reflective appraisal. Idolizing the Indian state as the harbinger of sovereign power, they missed inculcating creative and experimental approaches to international relations through studies on connected histories, borders, culture, mobility, and lived experiences. 

The possibility of offering greater breadth and depth in perspectives endowed by historical sociology and political anthropology is neglected in their writings. The same tradition continued, whilst the new generation of Indian experts, as their works depict, remain less aware of the social science writings in Nepal. As a result, their understanding of Nepali society, culture, history, and geography is reduced to the monolithic narrative of bilateral relations.

China scare 

The perennial problem of India’s Nepal experts, whether they be academicians or diplomats, or retired military officers, is their failure in examining Nepal’s foreign policy empirically without hauling China. The rise of China and Sino-Indian contestation has predetermined the understanding of India’s Nepal experts. 

In academics, whatever Ramakant and Muni produced, the generation after them has been replicating the same geo-political tune, without any innovative approach to studying Nepal through methodological pluralism. Diplomats’ world is also not free from the plight of duplication. The portrayal of Nepal is nearly the same in the writings of MK Rasgotra, Deb Mukherjee, K V Rajan, Shyam Sharan, Rakesh Sood, Manjeev Singh Puri, and Ranjit Rae, all of them who had served as the Indian ambassador to Nepal in different periods of time.

Disseminating their understanding of Nepal to the outside world usually implicates China’s increasing role in India’s periphery, influencing the methodical approaches of research centers and think tanks accordingly.  Although the South Asian Studies Center and Center for Study of Nepal are not very effective today, think tanks like Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (IDSA) are obliged to endorse the view of the Indian state as circumscribed by their mandate. Indian media, too, is not an exception. 

For instance, in 2020, when Kathmandu protested India’s Mansarovar route and unveiled its new map, the then chief of the Indian Army General Manoj Mukund Naravane stated in a conference organized by Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defense Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) that Nepal was acting at the “behest of else”, which was an indirect reference to China. Following Naravane’s remarks, India’s foreign policy experts, security analysts, and media were spotted endorsing the remarks of the Indian army. Thus, the representation of Nepal-China relations by India’s Nepal experts today is by no means different from that of the Modi administration.

Their proximity to the attitude of the Indian state is also understandable from the way Indian experts are heard justifying the relevance of the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India, and the significance of the Himalayan frontier theory in the context of the rise of China. Since the days of Nehru, the Indian state has always perceived the Himalayas as its natural defense frontier (not as Nehru’s original contribution to strategy but as a colonial legacy), because of which Indian experts take no less time to justify India’s military occupation in Kalapani-Lipulekh region. India’s Nepal experts appeared helpless when the Modi administration expressed its reluctance in receiving the report prepared by the Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG), which was constituted of experts from both countries in 2016 to evaluate the Nepal-India relations and offer key recommendations on the 1950 treaty and open borders. 

The study on people-to-people relations existing between the two countries is limited to the political rhetoric of Roti-Beti (Bred-Bride) ties. It divulges the dearth of Indian scholarship on Nepal. In 2017, when the Modi administration was exerting pressure on the Deuba government to amend Nepal’s new constitution, and accommodate the interest of the Madhesi community inhabiting the Nepal-India borderlands, India’s experts’ understanding of Madhes was instantly reduced to the interest of the Indian state. They remained ignorant of the reality that people-to-people relations between Nepal and India are not driven only by the interest of the two states as in the case of Nepal-China relations. Instead, people-to-people relations influence and shape the interests of the two states.

Conclusion

The world reads and trusts what Indian authors write about Nepal, and vice versa. As such, proficient Nepali language and access to fresh information and data (not only based on secondary sources but enriched by field visits and ethnographical details) could have been convenient to India’s Nepal experts. Scholars from Darjeeling and Sikkim have this benefit, which is also visible in their works on cross-border work and migration between Nepal and India. 

Also, the lack of required funds and deficiency of a long-term plan to conduct social science research dishearten one’s commitment to knowledge-based foreign policy. As a result, India’s Nepal expert finds an easy refuge in endorsing the interest of the Indian state.

The author has written the book, Nepal between China and India: Difficulty of Being Neutral, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2022

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