India’s relations with its northern neighbor, Nepal, are tense once again with reported allegations that an Indian diplomat played a role in recent protests by Madhesis, Nepalese of ethnic Indian origin. Over the decades, sins of both omission and commission have plagued India’s ties with its northern neighbor.
Nepal and India have close historical, religious and cultural ties. However, Nepal’s strategic ties with India date to the Treaty of Sugauli of 1816 signed between the Nepalese monarch and the British East India Company. As per the treaty, the British annexed large parts of the Nepalese kingdom, a British resident was stationed at Kathmandu and Nepal agreed to defer to the British with respect to its foreign policy. While Nepal regained some of the lost territory in later years, even today Nepal lays claim to areas like Kalapani, along the India-Nepal border.
Modern-day India and Nepal signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1950 which granted rights to Nepalese and Indian citizens to reside and work and even obtain citizenship in India and Nepal respectively. Further, India granted Nepal the right to transit trade across its territory and to the use of Indian ports for importing and exporting commodities free of customs duties. Continuing a British legacy, Gorkhas—ethnic Nepalese known as fierce warriors—still form a key part of the Indian army.
Over the decades, New Delhi has consistently sought to influence Nepalese politics, sometimes directly, often indirectly. In 1950, India was instrumental in helping the Nepalese monarch regain his traditional power and reduce the powers of the powerful hereditary prime ministers, the Ranas.
While supporting the Nepalese monarchy, India also gave refuge to the pro-democracy political party, the Nepali Congress, and supported the democratic movement. This dual policy often created problems for New Delhi as it is often perceived as a Big Brother who interferes for its own interests.
In 2005, New Delhi helped broker the 12-point understanding between the Maoists and Nepal’s other political parties enabling the rebels to emerge from the underground. India also played a key role in convincing then monarch King Gyanendra to step down.
While desirous of democracy in Nepal, New Delhi is apprehensive of the growing power of the Maoists. Not only does India fear that Nepalese Maoists would provide assistance to their counterparts in India but New Delhi is also concerned that Beijing’s influence will deepen as a consequence.
Indian strategists and policy makers consider Nepal as critical to India’s security. The British Indian Empire saw Nepal as the buffer with China and after 1947 India continued with that policy. New Delhi views the presence of any external power—especially China—as anathema to Indian interests.
Nepal is India’s sole buffer with China after Tibet was absorbed by China during the 1950s. The growing Chinese economic investment in Nepal, China’s rising military aid to Nepal and the political power of the Nepalese Maoist party are giving nightmares to New Delhi.
Nepal has often tried to play a balancing act between India and China, with some degree of success. For China, ties with Nepal are also important with respect to Tibet: China has often pressured the Nepalese government to take action against Tibetan activists.
From the vantage point of Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, there has always been fear of absorption by India, not simply physical but also economic and cultural. The fear of physical absorption increased after India’s role in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 and Indian absorption of the independent state of Sikkim in 1974.
In the economic arena, Nepalese resent the large Indian business diaspora, and friction over transit trade has never been amicably resolved. While India and Nepal share rivers, they have not been able to come up with a solution whereby India could fund hydro-electric projects in Nepal and benefit from the large energy production. Over the decades, many Hindi-speaking ethnically Indian migrants settled in the Terai region of Nepal. Nepal has been reluctant to offer these Madhesis citizenship which has only aggravated existing tensions with India.
India’s relations with its neighbors in South Asia—all of whom are smaller in size than India—have never been amicable and tension-free. India has often acted as the big brother and not taken adequate notice of how its behavior is perceived in these countries.
Indian ambassadors and diplomats have often thrown their weight around and interfered in domestic politics which has only hurt India’s case in the long run. Rumors in Nepalese media about Indian diplomats trying to influence voting in local elections or encourage protests hurt India’s image, irrespective of whether they are true or not.
Friendly and peaceful relations with Nepal are in India’s interest and the Indian government would do well to offer no-strings attached investment aid to Nepal, send diplomats who have knowledge of Nepalese affairs and are more attune to media management and perception management and offer more scholarships to Nepalese academics and media personalities to build deeper ties.