Even the most uninformed Indian might be able to understand India’s troubles with Pakistan and China. But even a genius will find it difficult to make sense of India’s current relationship status with Nepal.
When it came to power in 2014, the BJP-led NDA government was naturally expected to develop deeper linkages with what was once the last Hindu kingdom on Earth.
India and Nepal share a long 1,850 km long border spread across five states. There were centuries of shared kinship and culture. Hundreds of thousands of citizens moved across and worked in both countries.
When Nepal became the second country Narendra Modi visited after becoming PM, there was great hope.
But after the initial hype, the exact opposite has happened. Over the last six years, the relationship between India and Nepal have plummeted to a point of ridicule.
A petty economic blockade choked Nepal when it had been hit by two earthquakes. India has had problems over what Nepal wants to put into its Constitution. More recently, India had issues with the territories Nepal wanted to include in its maps.
The result of all this arrogance and hubris is that Nepal has developed greater proximity and deeper economic ties with China. Mandarin is now formally taught as a language in Nepalese schools.
Muddying the messy waters further is Indian media, especially television media. Last week, Nepalese cable operators blocked Indian TV channels in a fit of outrage over linking Nepal’s prime minister with China’s ambassador to Nepal.
“Indian exceptionalism”, he says categorically, has eroded the exemplary relationship between the two nation-states.
And sections of Indian media are making things worse not between India and Nepal but perhaps also with China with their undisguised sexism and misogny.
In this episode of J-POD, Mr Dixit, who studied law at Delhi University during the Emergency and went on to study journalism at Columbia University, says the deceleration of Indian democracy that began with Indira Gandhi has accelerated under Narendra Modi.
The way India is going right now, he says, is a matter of “civilisational distress”.
5.50: “China’s aggressiveness in its geo-political stance is clear from South China Sea to Hong Kong. Here in Nepal, you find the Chinese embassy, which has always been a benign presence, whose main interest was that Nepal not be used as any kind of springboard vis-a-vis Tibet, begin to flex its diplomatic muscles in the last 4-5 years. China seems to have begun to make the same mistakes that India has made in the past and not learnt from. A kind of interventionism.
7.00: “Indian geopolitics, as seen from Kathmandu, seems to have focused its ire, anger and diatribe on Pakistan. Pakistan is a feckless state where the theocratic nature of the state, the role of the Army, the support of militancy across LoC are all apparent. Indian policy makers have focused so much that they have forgotten that the people of Pakistan suffer much more than the rest of us in South Asia. I don’t see any kind of empathy for the pressures that the public of Pakistan is under.
“By this exclusive or near-exclusive focus on Pakistan, which is a weak enemy if you will, India seems to have completely neglected that if there is any adversary, it is China. The shock and surprise of the Indian masses at what happened in Galwan is partly because Indian media and policymakers have been overly focused on a weaker partner, forgetting that the real dragon is out there and waiting.
10.45: “I am not for bans on the media unless it is so prurient or if it can incite violence. I do hope the ban [on broadcast of Indian TV channels by Nepal cable operators] will be temporary. Indian TV channels especially North Indian Hindi channels and some English channels should not be taken seriously. They take on a holier-than-thou aura and do discussion programmes that are essentially shouting matches which are meant to be entertainming to the Indian public and add to TRPs.
“The harsher they speak, the sharper their words, the more orgasmic the reaction, if not from the audience but from rating points. The Indian public may or may not see this as reflecting real news but it is impacting public opinion in India. There is no doubt about it. We may think it is bakwas. After the Balakote incident, Narendra Modi won the election on the coverage of Balakote, which was a disaster for the Indian military, as I understand it. It was turned to become a rallying cry for the ultra-nationalists.
13.20: “India and Nepal have (or had) the ideal South Asian relationship.Everywhere else you have barbed wire fences, guard dogs and halogen lamps and borders you can see from satellites. Nepal and India have the most evolved frontier that South Asia should be proud of. An open border, cross border linkages that are cultural, social, economic. We should be holding this up as an example for Pakistan and Bangladesh. Instead what has happened, at least at the state-to-state level, there has not been this bad a relationship, and this much out in the open. I don’t know in the modern era if it has ever been this poor.
14.50: “Indian public and policy makers who have not been watching India-Nepal relations because they have been too busy with Pakistan, the West and China partly, think the map issue is a new issue. Whereas if you look at it from the point of view of Kathmandu, this issue has been bubbling away and everybody from Atal Bihari Vajpayee to Sushma Swaraj have accepted that there is a dispute in that area to the Northwest of Nepal and that it has to be discussed.
15.55: “Indian scholars talk about American exceptionalism. Let me talk about Indian exceptionalism. ‘Oh, because we didn’t know about it, it didn’t happen. You are raising an issue for the first time ever. You should not do these things. You are naughty people.’ Unfortunately, it is not child’s play. Suddenly, two enormously intensely connected nation-states of South Asia have become distanced. This was picked up by gusto by Indian television.
16.55: “What Indian TV wallahs, political analysts, social scientists, and policy makers do not realise is that Nepalese public is actually consuming what you are producing. When you produce something that is ultra-nationalistic for your audience, for your TRPs, for your government’s sense of self, it is creating an equal and opposite reaction in Nepal. This does not happen to the same extent in Pakistan or Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. You are creating not a force-multiplier for India but a force-subtractor when all this excessively violent language comes up.
18.10: “It was extremely demeaning, insulting, in every way you look at it for sections of Indian media to talk of some kind of a relationship between the Nepalese PM and the Chinese ambassador in Nepal. Firstly, it’s got to be news, if it is not, it is salacious “undetail”. Just because you dislike K.P. Oli, you can go roughshod over him and over all the Nepali sensitivities that attach to the Nepali nation-state. This is the point about Indian exceptionalism that Indian TV anchors just don’t seem to get it. Indian TV needs a reset, a whole new set of anchors.
19.33: “Just because you find there is a lady ambassador, a youngish one who has a social media presence, a different kind of diplomat, there is a very prurient, sexist and misogynist angle to this that has not been discussed enough. One is the geo-political angle vis-a-vis K.P. Sharma Oli, said to have a relationship only because there is a youngish ambassador from China who is seen more than previous ambassadors at the very point India has suddenly discovered the danger of China. So you bring all of this together.
“Does Indian media, and do Indian policy makers almost by extension—the two are not the same but one seems to be completely feckless vis-a-vis the other—must be watching askance as TV goes out and makes policy for India. Rather than think of this as something that demeans the Nepali nation-state, have the policy makers sat back and thought, does this also hurt our relationship with China because we are not only targeting the PM of Nepal but the formal plenipotentiary representative of Beijing to Kathmandu? Has that been put into the mix of analysis, and the misogyny of it all. How dare you do this? Full stop.
21.50: “There are three aspects [to Indian TV’s coverage of the alleged dalliance]: the denigration of the elected PM of the Nepali nation-state. It denigrates the Chinese people. And it is highly sexist and misogynist.”
23.40: “I was a student at Delhi University during the Emergency, during its implementation and release. From that point on we have seen a slow deceleration of Indian democracy and an acceleration of that deceleration in the time of Narendra Modi. There is a lumpenisation of politics in India in a way that Indira Gandhi under Emergency could never have implemented because she didn’t have that network, even if she wanted to, the Congress party cadre may not have followed her. But you have the RSS and the Hindutva brigade in every mohalla in most parts of India and that is where the top-down message is so so dangerous and divisive and negative that it goes right to the capillaries. It creates political power, it creates silencing.
“The way India is going right now is a matter of civilisational distress because of the individualised, collective, cumulative distress of so many individuals. Everything is seen from the perspective of an ultra-rightist Hindutva-laced ideology that is actually running the state right now. I would compare what Trump’s USA is going through a parallel crisis and Modi’s India. In the US you can see mainstream media pushing back; in India I don’t see that. The vernacular press the situation is even worse. A whole new reality is being created which then becomes the new reality, the horrific new normal. The accidents that lie ahead are seen in the accidents we have already seen, just pre-COVID, and which are probably set to resume after the pandemic trails away.
“It is very important for vernacular media to really move in and do the fact checking and correct reporting that is required, especially in Hindi, print, TV and online. The market is being fed poison.
32.20: “Nepal-India relationship had a kind of protection till the mid-1990s because Nepal’s leaders fought with Indian leaders for India’s independence. They realised that until you got rid of the British in India you could not dislodge the Rana autocracy. They went to jail together.
37.20: ”The axe fell on Nepal after its adoption of a new Constitution in September 2015. The Madhesi population, citizens of Nepal, were made to take responsibility for a blockade that was created and implemented by the Indian government under Narendra Modi. A society that was reeling from two debilitating earthquakes in April and May 2015, and a blockade of all essentials and blockade of the border at all points, five months was enough to create enormous illwill within Nepal towards India, which was completely unnecessary. Because the Constitution was adopted by an elected Constituent Assembly.
“This is again an example of Indian exceptionalism in the media that the strengths of the Nepali Constitution in terms of inclusion, voting practice, the kind of thing India should be studying for its own future evolution of its polity, have not been presented. The new Constitution could be, would be amended as time progresses, but there is nothing so negative within it that it needs to be wiped away. Instead, there was a blockade, not the first but the most excruciating. That memory lingers. The Indian media should keep in mind that the acceleration towards China was triggered by the blockade.
43.00: “The Indian discourse is that you people are so dependent on us. Your Gorkhas work all over India, you are a weak economy, etc etc. The reality is Nepal sends more remittances to India, from Indian citizens working in Nepal, than vice-versa. Nepal is the seventh largest remittance-sending country to India. But much more important than that is the fact that Nepal is helping sustain some of the weakest parts of India which have been neglected by New Delhi.
“The poorest of the poor who come to Nepal from Poorvanchal (eastern UP), Bihar, Odisha, are sending back income to the very poorest communities in India. It is not true that Nepal is an abject recipient of Indian largesse. There is genuine give and take, but the narrative is that Nepal is always asking, asking, asking, and India is always giving, giving, giving, and there is no love for India despite all the love we shower upon Nepal.
44.42: “India and Nepal had a turbulent relationship, then it went up with Modi’s visit, it went down with the blockade, and it was moving upward. Modi and Oli were in telephonic touch. What happened after that? How did the Limpiyadhura maps’ issue erupt? Why are Nepal and India are at loggerheads? Relations has never been this bad, but you could also say it could not get any worse.
“Some people talk of a reset; we need to go back to where we were. Both countries need to sit down and discuss how shall we tackle these issues—the border issue, the territorial disagreements—that keep coming up between us? All of this require cooler heads than those that appear on Indian TV channels. I guarantee you that there is enough to rebuild this relationship and hold it up as an exemplar for other relationships in South Asia.
49.10: “The Eminent Persons Group comprising diplomats, scholars and poltical scientists worked for two years. It was appointed by the respective PMs, Modi and Oli. EPG worked on issues that come up between the two countries and come up with suggestions for the reset.
“What has happened to the EPG study? It is gathering dust. It is a consensus agreement. It was to be presented to Modi in Delhi, to Oli in Kathmandu, and then to be released to the public. For the last two years, Modi and his office have not found the time to simply receive the EPG report.
55.20: “The translocation of Himal SouthAsian to Colombo from Kathmandu is a true South Asian evolution, when one country cannot manage something you pass it on to another one. Maybe this is a formula for the future, how a country that is relatively more free can come in when another is going downhill, and I can see some countries doing so.
57.05: “Nepali media is vibrant, the way you will not find in India right now. In India it is taboo to critique your own government when it comes to international affairs, especially South Asian affairs. In Nepal, it is more of a free-for-all. Relatively speaking, it is holding the flame of media freedom but we have to be vigilant.
“Nepali media is not given enough credit because much of the discourse is in Nepalese. We have to compare Nepalese media today with the pre-1990s era when it was a desert, and India was the exemplar: Indian media, Indian polity, Indian parliamentary democracy. The tragedy today is while people won’t think of Nepal as an exemplar, India has certainly fallen from that pedestal, and that is a sad, sad fact. We have to set our own example. We can’t look at India, for now at least.
60.05: “This is the worst of times for South Asian cohabitation. The major share of the blame for this lies with the nation-statism that has enveloped us, and this nation-statism is very much anti-people. I am all for cultural nationalism, by region, language, faith, city, province. But South Asia cannot only go by the treaty of Westphalia and the nation-states as evolved in Europe.
“South Asia is a different kettle of fish, or a different curry. We have to have that extra identity of being South Asian. Being South Asian links us to our history. It links an Indian to Mohenjadaro, a Nepali to Bodhgaya.”