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Nepal’s religious diplomacy with India

Pragya Ghimire

Pragya Ghimire

Nepal’s religious diplomacy with India

There is a strong case for avoiding the religionization of politics and the politicization of religion

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a one-day trip to Lumbini, Nepal on 16 May, coinciding with the 2566th birth anniversary of Lord Buddha. This trip was of high significance not because it was Modi’s fifth trip to Nepal as India’s Prime Minister, but because the jaunt was widely viewed as ‘religious diplomacy’.

Many foreign policy pundits have argued that the main objective of Modi’s religious diplomacy was to send political messages. Thus his Lumbini visit overshadowed important political and economic issues, including border disputes and discussion on the outstanding EPG report.

In this context, two important questions need to be asked. Did religious diplomacy this time trump all Nepal-India political and economic issues? And should Nepal continue promoting religious diplomacy with India as an effective foreign policy tool to strengthen bilateral ties?

Even though Modi’s visit to Lumbini was religious in nature, Nepal also achieved some of its foreign policy goals by inviting him. For example, this is the second time Modi spoke of Lumbini as the birthplace of the Buddha. The visit has also given continuity to dialogues between India and Nepal on many issues. The pact on developing hydropower projects with India’s investment, five memoranda of understanding on education and culture, and Prime Minister Deuba’s request for additional air entry routes from Bhairawa, Mahendranagar, Nepalgunj and Janakpur were some notable outcomes of Modi’s visit.

Previously, to give impetus to Nepal-India religious and cultural ties, Modi visited Janakpur, the birthplace of Sita, and Muktinath, a sacred temple for both Hindus and Buddhists. These two visits made headlines in the Indian media, widely promoting Nepal as a religious tourism site among Indians. Please note that Saudi Arabia’s religious tourism to Mecca and Medina is not only instrumental in bringing in revenue but also strengthening goodwill with many countries through cultural and religious exchanges.

Some benefits of religious diplomacy as a soft foreign policy tool are well known, but the question is: How and to what extent should Nepal promote religious diplomacy given its constitutional identity as a secular and pluralistic country?

Since Narendra Modi came to power in India in 2014, there has been an increased emphasis in employing India’s soft power in foreign policy, including the promotion of yoga through a UN Yoga Day, the global image of Mahatma Gandhi, and the worldwide outreach of India’s music and movies. However, critics also argue that Modi’s strong promotion of Hindu religious diplomacy somehow undercuts India’s other soft powers, such as its traditions of non-violence and pluralism, diversity and tolerance.

No doubt, religious diplomacy, which incorporates religious dimension into the practices of international relations, is an increasingly used diplomatic tool.  It is true that traditionally state and religion had no demarcation. Over time, when the right-based democratic systems and institutions became the cornerstone of democratic societies, the rigorous separation of state and religion started. Madeleine Albright, the former US State Secretary, once said, “Many practitioners of foreign policy– including me–have sought to separate religion from world politics, to liberate logic from beliefs that transcend logic.”

However, as Samuel Huntington noted in his famous book ‘Clash of Civilizations’, religion is also a defining element of culture and thus, having good cultural ties between nations could strengthen relations. The Obama Administration acknowledged the possibilities of religious diplomatic cooperation with the realization that religion motivates people and shapes their views. For example, the recent conflict in Iraq and Afghanistan taught the world a hard lesson that bridging the gaps between political and religious spheres is important for both peace-building and nation-building.

When there is a rupture in relations between two nations, religious diplomacy can reconcile the relationship when the antagonists cease dehumanizing each other, and start seeing a bit of themselves in their enemy. For example, in track-two diplomacy, the inter-faith religious leaders often engage with diplomats and foreign policy analysts to seek solutions to complex foreign policy issues, including conflict, stabilization and peace.     

However, when religion is pushed too far as a diplomatic tool, it can disbalance a society with a secular identity. Leaders like Slobodan Milosevic of the former Federal Republic of Yugoslavia have manipulated religion for their own purposes.

The main purpose of religious diplomacy should be to promote culture and interfaith dialogue to bridge gaps between people and societies. In the current world, diplomacy often takes place in cultural and religious contexts. This helps us understand the interplay of religion and diplomacy. Religious misunderstanding and misinformation are also fueling the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis. Russian President Vladimir Putin has claimed that Ukraine is an inalienable part of Russia’s history, culture and religious space. Putin’s claim originates from the history of Orthodox Christianity in Russia. On the other hand, the Ukrainians claim that both President Vladimir Putin and Patriarch Kirill, the head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, ignore a long history of Ukrainian independence and diverse religious landscape that is fundamental to Ukraine’s national identity. Similarly, religious and social reconciliation as well as the interfaith dialogue could play an instrumental role to end the protracted conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians.

With this background, the question is: How could Nepal effectively use religious diplomacy to enhance diplomatic ties between Nepal and India? No doubt, the relationship is age-old and people-to-people based with many historical, social and cultural linkages. The joint prayer by Prime Minister Modi and Deuba for the peaceful and prosperous planet on the auspices of Budhha’s birthday sent a clear message to the world about how close India and Nepal are in terms of their common culture, festivals, religion, languages, and traditions.

There have been many ups and downs in Nepal-India ties in the past seven years, including during India’s undeclared economic blockade in 2015 and Nepal’s revision of political and administrative maps to claim Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani. These two issues stalled diplomatic correspondence between India and Nepal for a while. But Modi’s visit to Janakpur and Deuba’s visit to Varanasi have helped reopen the lines of communication.  Modi’s visit to Lumbini should be seen in this larger context.

In a nutshell, Nepal should effectively use all diplomatic measures and channels to continue dialogue with India and to find amicable solutions to outstanding issues. Given Modi’s strong affinity for elaborate Hindu religious rituals and visits to holy sites, Nepal could continue promoting its soft power through religious diplomacy, albeit with some caution.

First, religious diplomacy should be promoted as a cultural soft power, not as a boost for one religion. The religionization of politics and the politicization of religion should be avoided because this could challenge our cultural identity as a diverse country, peaceful, tolerant and harmonious society, and our status as a constitutionally secular and pluralistic country. Religious diplomacy should not be a tool to deepen religious divides but rather to bridge gaps between religions.

Second, religious diplomacy should be a means not an end. It should be used as an effective tool to promote Nepal’s tourism, investment, trade, transit and many other political, economic and social goals. 

The author is a member of the board of directors at the Institute of Foreign Affairs, Nepal