India-Nepal Ties: Strengthening People-To-People Connect Is The Way Forward
Focus should be on leveraging people-to-people connect as an alternative for stabilising Indo-Nepalese ties.
Breaking the ice, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke to his Nepali counterpart K P Oli on India’s seventy-fourth Independence Day since the controversy on border erupted.
The talks that ensued two days later, focusing on bilateral development and economic cooperation, are being considered a silver lining in an all pervasive tensed Indo-Nepalese ties.
Often described in terms of ‘beti-roti’ binary, will this silver lining manifested by the longstanding economic and development cooperation help in reviving the warmth in the relationship?
Will the shared socio-cultural and religious ties and people-to-people connections be able to repair the damage?
The Long Shadow Of Politics
Although both countries have seen many ups and downs in their relations, yet the recent border disputes relating to cartographic demarcation in the area of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura have added much consternation.
The immediate trigger of the incident was the inauguration of the new 80 km-long road in the Himalayas, connecting to the border with China, at the Lipulekh pass by India on 8 May, 2020.
However, the Nepali government claims that the area falls under Nepali territory as per the 1816 Sugauli Treaty between Nepal and British East India Company, which demarcates Kali River as the boundary.
Referring to maps issued by the British Surveyor General of India in 1827 and 1856, Nepal maintains that the origin of the Kali River is at Limpiyadhura.
The tension escalated when Nepal released a new political map claiming that the territories of Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh areas in the Indian state of Uttarakhand are part of Nepal. To make matter worse, Nepal introduced a constitutional amendment to formally extend its territorial claims over approximately 400 square kilometres.
However, India rejected this claim as “unjustified cartographic assertion” and an “artificial enlargement of territorial claims”. Presenting tax records and administrative and historical documents, India justifies the claims over river Pankhagad, to the south of Kalapani and the ridgeline on the east side of the Kalapani area, to be the original border, and Kalapani as an integral part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.
The border skirmish has since been a topic of debate among the governments, intellectuals, and media.
The Seesaw Game
China has always been considered a major factor in Indo-Nepalese relations. For instance, when bilateral ties saw a hiatus in 2015, China and Nepal developed closer ties with each other.
Similarly, to counter India’s presence in Nepal, China has been establishing relations with Nepal through the Belt and Road Initiative. It has also been argued that the recent controversy over the border between the two countries was the consequence of China’s pervasive influence over Nepal.
It is apposite to mention here that India has an added advantage over China vis-a-vis Nepal. China’s presence in Nepal is mostly driven by strategic and security interests.
In contrast, shared socio-cultural, geographical, religious, historical proximity and people-to-people connection, besides security relations, can go a long way to restore trust and normalcy between India and Nepal.
The Way Forward
Despite the ups and downs in the relationship, India-Nepal relations have survived all tests as a kutumb (family), nurturing each other’s connection. For bringing the relationship back on track, the following aspects can be further explored and strengthened:
The unique relations that India and Nepal share is complemented by a number of achievements in terms of investment in upgrading cross-border infrastructure and economic assistance in building rail and road links, an electronic cargo system for Nepali goods to transit and a new cross-border pipeline for petroleum products.
To build into the existing achievements, both countries need to focus more on political engineering and create a positive atmosphere for a dialogue.
In this regard, the meeting held on 17 August 2020 to review the progress of development and economic projects such as border infrastructure and cross-border pipeline, under the aegis of the oversight mechanism, is just the first step of political engineering to start a meaningful dialogue.
Yet, more such initiatives are required to bring the relationship back on track.
One of the major reasons for sustenance of Indo-Nepal relations, regardless of intermittent spells of strains, is strong people-to-people contact. Such cultural and familial affinities between the two are woven around many religious and sacred connections linked to Ramayana and Mahabharata and with other faiths such as Buddhism.
For instance, Janakpur was the birthplace of Goddess Sita and Lumbini is of Lord Buddha. Pashupatinath Temple located near Kathmandu is a symbolic representation of Hindu religion and culture.
Similarly, there are lingual affinities based on shared languages like Hindi, Nepali, Maithili, Bhojpuri and Devanagari script.
Amidst the border conundrum, India and Nepal must leverage the core strength built on the edifice of unique socio-cultural and economic ties to rekindle strategic and political relations.
Focus should be on a bottom-to-top approach, ie, to leverage people-to-people connect as an alternative way for stabilising Indo-Nepalese ties.
Revival of the roles of diaspora, connectivity, religion, myths and histories to shape the people-to-people is germane for building trust and connecting with people anew.
Further, to embolden the trust level and connect the people, civil society organisations from both sides can provide a common platform to discuss the issues with a positive approach to fix the damage and elevate the ties.
(Views expressed are of the Author and not of the Council)
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