Nepal’s relations with India are multi-faceted with hardy any sphere of every-day life not linked. Such ties, in-fact, are not witnessed anywhere else in the world. But, complexities and willingness to invoke anti-India nationalism pervades in Nepali politics. In recent weeks, such politics has propelled time-tested India-Nepal ties, borne by geography and history, into a grave challenge and for little reason.
Matters went into this tailspin with Nepal amending its constitution last week and updating its map incorporating cartographically sovereign territories of India. These are the areas of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpyadhura in Uttarakhand near the Chinese border that have been used traditionally for the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra. An outline of this map is in Nepal’s coat of arms (national emblem). The incorporation was done unilaterally and has unleashed an issue that is clearly untenable and should have been avoided under all circumstances.
Matters are likely to be further compounded with news that Nepal is amending its citizenship laws. By way of background, under the present law in Nepal, foreign women marrying Nepali citizens can initiate the process of acquiring Nepali citizenship immediately after the marriage. This is particularly beneficial to people living in the areas bordering India where cross-border familial ties are a common feature and such marriages are the back-bone of the “roti-beti” relationship that characterizes India-Nepal people’s ties.
The amended law will provide a seven year period only after which the foreign woman can initiate the process of acquiring Nepali citizenship. With the Nepal Communist Party of Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli having a comfortable majority, the amended law is likely to sail through Parliament.
Whichever way one looks at it, this vastly enhanced period will weaken the strongest of links, those at family level, between people in India and Nepal. People in Madhesh, the southern part of Nepal, would be most affected and are understandably agitated about the new law. It is also worth noting that this law is not gender neutral going against one of the basic tenets of Nepal’s new (2015) constitution ensuring gender equality.
The two acts, on territory and people-to-people links, which are the most critical in relationships, especially between neighbors, fly in the face of Nepal traditionally referring to India as ‘mitr rashtra’. Certainly, these acts do not reflect and bode well for friendship.Nepal is faced with a very significant challenge emanating from Covid19. This not only includes the medical burden, its negative economic repercussions will be huge with remittances likely to fall and Nepali workers returning from overseas. The tourism sector will also take years to recover.
The country is also agog with protests by the youth demanding good governance and seeking accountability on Covid19 spend by the country’s Government. All of this makes the Nepali Prime Minister’s position very shaky and a resort to anti-India nationalism at this time is neither helpful not useful for Nepal. Indeed, the special relationship between the two countries allows Nepali citizens to live and work in India without hindrance and this provides Nepal unique opportunity to harness geography for gain and also act as a cushion.
It is heartening that even during the Covid19 lockdown, trade between the two countries remained generally unaffected and India supplied critical drugs and testing equipment to Nepal. Moreover, the two countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to finance construction of additional sanitation facilities in the Pashupatinath Temple complex. Furthermore, another MoU cemented ties between India’s National Hydel Power Corporation (NHPC) and Nepal’s Hydropower Investment and Development Corporation Limited to jointly develop hrdopower projects in Nepal.
All efforts in the near future must focus on benefiting people at large, encourage trade, investment and tourism along with nurturing long standing cultural ties. India-Nepal ties at the level of people are too important for both countries and must be taken forward curbing the play of politics in Nepal.
Script: Amb. Manjeev Singh Puri, Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal