Changing Contours of India-Nepal Relations
Date: September 11th, 2017
Venue: Institute of Social Sciences, Abdul Nazir Sab Auditorium, 8 Nelson Mandela Road, New Delhi – 110 070
Geography is often the mother of history. India and Nepal are bound by civilisational, cultural and religious affinities. The imperatives of geography and history have led to the intertwining of economic fortunes of the two Himalayan neighbours. India has enjoyed substantial influence in Nepal and Nepal has benefited from the free movement of people, with about 6 to 8 million Nepali citizens living and earning their livelihood in India to sustain their families back home. The Governments of India and Nepal grant, on reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.
This special relationship can be gauged from the fact that two thirds of Nepal’s global trade is with India and over 90 per cent of their exports/imports go through India. Hundreds of thousands of Nepalese people criss-cross the border every day.
However, over the years, despite the free movement of people, Indo-Nepal ties have gone through tumult, bitterness and trust deficits. Factors like the assertion of Nepali nationalism and India’s overt support for Madhesis, among others, have created strains and bitterness in their relations. Some political parties and groups in Nepal have tended to use their anti-India tirade to cultivate their own political constituencies and support base. India too seems to have taken its ties with Nepal for granted. Lack of high-level bilateral visits and meetings too has created elements of indifference, suspicion and doubt about their relationship.
Unlike India whose constitution has been flexible enough to undergo a little over 100 amendments, Nepal has experimented with four constitutions and two interim constitutions since 1948. However, the 2015 constitution has made Nepal a federal, democratic and secular republic seeking to recast the country into a new mould. A proposal to revert Nepal as a Hindu state was overwhelmingly rejected by the constituent assembly declaring that Nepal will remain secular.
Though India welcomed the adoption of the new constitution, it had certain reservations about the concerns of the Madhesi and Tharu communities who felt discriminated. These groups were protesting against the new constitution as they felt “discriminated” vis-à-vis others in terms of their as citizenship rights. They also had concerns about their representation in both houses of parliament under the new constitution.
India was of the view that issues on which there were differences should have first been resolved through dialogue in an atmosphere free from violence and intimidation, and that provisions should have been institutionalised in a manner that would enable broad-based ownership and acceptance of the federal constitution.
Thus not so much the federal constitution but the way it was implemented too became the reason for further bitterness between the two countries. Internal dynamics of Nepali politics like Maoist insurgency, Madheshi agitation, constitution-making and economic blockades etc. also influence India-Nepal relations.
China’s growing influence is another factor that has a bearing on India-Nepal ties. Over the years, China’s footprint has grown dramatically in Nepal. China’s interest in Nepal is not merely to keep an eye on Tibetans but to entangle India in the region. Nepal has become a launch pad for China’s broader strategic alliance in South Asia. Nepal’s participation in the ‘One Belt, One Road’ project clearly measures up to such a policy goal.
China has surpassed India as Nepal’s top aid donor and investor in Nepal. Both in terms of FDI and ODI, China has edged past India. China’s growing economic engagement with Nepal has given China instruments to change the security architecture of South Asia. China has become assertive in forging strong ties with India’s South Asian neighbours. Chinese aid and investment have the intended objective to hedge and reduce Nepal’s dependence on India. This is China’s way of getting Nepal’s support on sensitive issues such as Tibetan refugee protests within the country.
In dealing with Nepal, India may have made strategic miscalculations during Nepal’s prolonged constitution-making, adoption of the federal constitution and economic blockade (even though India did not impose any blockade) or in its inability to tap investment potential. India continues to face what Ambassador Shyam Saran calls the ‘challenge of proximity’.
Nepal is wrestling with the challenges of implementing the new constitution. It has long been a centralized country with centuries old feudal mindset of the past monarchy and oligarchy. The new constitution is a blend of mixed federal features under multiple parliamentary orders of governance. Nepal is dealing with the complexity of a new constitution and faces a number of pragmatic implementation challenges. Nepal now has a new federal constitution but states’ boundaries and names are still not certain. Challenges also pertain to defining electoral constituencies to the satisfaction of all parties. Nepal also needs to resolve the issue of citizenship and identity. It has adopted a three-tier federal structure but local elections are still being held. Nepal has created a federal edifice but it still doesn’t have a roof.
These and other issues will be discussed by the day-long seminar. The thrust of the discussion will be the major challenges facing India-Nepal relations, the China factor and internal dynamics of Nepal, particularly in implementing the new federal constitution.
Program Co-ordinator, Democracy & Dialogue Programme