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Political Briefing | Problematic Nepal-India ‘special’ relations

Biswas Baral

Biswas Baral

Political Briefing | Problematic Nepal-India ‘special’ relations

Is there a way to minimize Nepal’s India dependence, irrespective of New Delhi’s wishes?

The controversy over 33-year-old Nepali national Jaya Singh Dhami—who was swept away by Mahakali River after the ‘rope bridge’ he was using to cross the river was cut by an Indian border official—is emblematic of the vastness of Nepal-India relations. People on one side routinely cross to the other to attend to some small business, see a relative, or in search of a job.

Bilateral relations depend perhaps more on such dealings than the one between Kathmandu and New Delhi. So is this what makes the relations between these two countries ‘special’? Yes, in a way.

Few other bilateral ties are based on such extensive people-to-people, commercial, religious, cultural, and historical ties. Nepali political leaders like BP Koirala and Ganesh Man Singh were participants in Gandhi’s satyagraha against the British. This in turn motivated them to seek freedom in their homeland. When the Rana rule in Nepal ended, it was only natural for them to borrow ideas from the south, including those shaping the country’s new bureaucracy and security forces.

Arguably, the biggest determinant of such closeness is geography: It would be hard to imagine such extensive contacts had, say, the highest mountain in the world separated them, as is the case with Nepal and China. But then that is just another way of saying that the bilateral ties are somehow special. (It’s a different matter that Nepali pride is pricked whenever India invokes that specialness to impose its will.)

But should any two sovereign states have such special ties in this day and age? What if the special ties with India prevent Nepal from engaging more with the rest of the world, China especially? In other words, is Nepal, as by far the smaller of the two powers, too dependent on India? If yes, is there a way to minimize this dependence, irrespective of New Delhi’s wishes?

In theory, yes, Nepal can and should diversify beyond India, and venture into every part of the world, and derive maximum benefit from globalization. In practice, surrounded on three (more accessible) sides by India, we are India-locked. It will always cost us less to import third-country goods from Indian rather than via Chinese ports, Nepal’s only other option. Moreover, thanks to the mass media, the centuries-old socio-cultural ties between Nepal and India are being strengthened, not weakened.

This suggests that Nepal can’t have good relations with another country, including China, if it does not get along with India. Concomitantly, Nepal can’t prosper without prosperity tricking down to the lowest rungs of the Indian society. Without the prosperity of bordering parts of India, Nepal’s development will be stymied: All kinds of influences, good and bad, are continuously trickling through the porous borders.

So perhaps Nepal should look to enhance its relations with these bordering Indian states and apply their success stories in Nepal, at least in Tarai-Madhes. But then New Delhi keeps the states on a tight leash on foreign affairs. This makes it hard for these states to prioritize their agenda in what little interaction they have with neighboring countries. Never mind the rhetoric emerging from New Delhi. The ‘roti-beti’ relations between adjoining areas of Nepal and India are the least of their concern.

The SSB official who cut the rope bridge isn’t answerable to anyone in Uttarakhand but reports directly to the Indian home ministry. So the Pithoragarh district magistrate, posted by the state government, writing to Darchula’s chief district officer to clarify that no SSB official was involved is meaningless. This incident again goes to show that special relations need special attention for their sustenance.