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A reset in India–Nepal relations

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India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is offered a 121 Kg garland during the civic felicitation in Janakpur, Nepal, 11 May 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Navesh Chitrakar).

In Brief

No two countries share a more intimate and complex relationship than India and Nepal. India is where Nepalis go to study, find jobs, plan marriages, invest in a second home and undertake pilgrimages. Yet some Nepalis accuse India of interfering in Nepal’s internal affairs and taking Nepal for granted. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal in May 2018 — his third since he became Prime Minister in 2014 — reflects the importance and also the tension in the relationship for both countries.


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Modi’s first visit to Nepal in August 2014 as part of his ‘neighbourhood first’ policy was highly successful. He was the first foreign leader to address the Constituent Assembly — the body tasked with drafting Nepal’s new constitution. His remarks drew widespread praise from all Nepalese political parties and seemed to promise a new beginning in India–Nepal relations.

Three months later, Modi was in Nepal again for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation summit. This time, Modi only went to Kathmandu and side visits to areas with strong Hindu links were cancelled because of logistical and security difficulties. But this trip was overshadowed by the looming deadline of January 2015 for finalising Nepal’s new constitution.

Nepal’s constitutional drafting exercise began in May 2008 with a newly elected Constituent Assembly. This brought the Maoists to power and saw the emergence of the Madhesi community as a political force. A 240-year-old monarchy was abolished. The constitutional drafting process was meant to be completed in two years but remained unfinished until 2012, when the Supreme Court intervened. Fresh elections were held for a new Constituent Assembly in 2013. The two traditional parties — the Nepali Congress and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist–Leninist) (UML) — both made a comeback.

Nepal has been traditionally ruled by individuals from the hill elites groups (Bahuns and Chhetris largely) who constitute 29 per cent of the population. Madhesis inhabit the Terai, the plains bordering India, and constitute 35 per cent of the population. The Madhesis are a marginalised group that share strong kinship ties with the Indian communities across the border, which is why the 1850 kilometre-long divide between the two countries is an open border.

The saga of Nepal’s constitution aggravated political polarisation in Nepal and made Modi’s comments during his second visit to Nepal look like interference in Nepal’s domestic matters. Modi’s suggestion, conveyed by a special envoy, that Nepal’s new constitution should reflect the aspirations of all Nepalis did not go down well with the leaders of Nepal’s political parties, who belonged to the hill elites community. The new constitution was adopted in September 2015, even as the Terai erupted in protests that claimed nearly 45 lives. Khadga Prasad Oli of the UML took over as Nepal’s Prime Minister.

The movement of goods across the India–Nepal border came to a standstill, which led to acute shortages of essentials like petroleum products, LPG and medical supplies. Oli blamed India for imposing an economic blockade, while India blamed the deteriorating law and order situation in the Terai for inhibiting truck movement. After a constitutional amendment in Nepal in early 2016 to address some of the Madhesi issues, border movements returned to normal but the distrust continued.

New elections are provided for under Nepal’s new constitution and were held in 2017 at national, provincial and local levels. These resulted in a victory for UML in an alliance with the Maoists. Oli successfully exploited anti-Indian sentiment generated by the 2015 ‘economic blockade’ and emerged with a far stronger support base compared to 2015.

Both Modi and Oli have realised that the time has come to repair the relationship. In keeping with tradition, Oli made India his first foreign destination in April 2018 and Modi reciprocated with a quick return visit. This time, Oli received Modi in Janakpur — the capital of the only province under Madhesi rule. Modi described his visit as that of a ‘prime pilgrim’ rather than a prime minister. Together with Oli, the two leaders inaugurated the Ramayana circuit, a direct bus service between Janakpur and Ayodhya, the seat of the legendary Lord Ram’s kingdom in India. The focus was on the common cultural and religious ties that link the peoples of Nepal and India rather than only government-to-government relations.

The resulting Joint Statement was short (compared to August 2014) and focussed more on  implementing pending Indian projects in Nepal and addressing ‘outstanding issues’ related to trade, transit, river inundations and other matters before Nepal’s Constitution Day on 19 September. But it will take more than just visits to restore relations on the basis of ‘equality, mutual trust, respect and mutual benefit’.

Rakesh Sood is a Distinguished Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation. He has served as India’s Ambassador to Nepal and Afghanistan, and as India’s Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva.

2 responses to “A reset in India–Nepal relations”

  1. Here is India’s shortcoming: While india criticizes the Canadian prime minister for inviting someone said to promote Khalistani agendas… Indian diplomats in Nepal were openly meeting Madhesis “dignitaries”. This article while mentioning that this is Narendra Modis third Nepal visit didn’t mention that Nepal had never been a part of the India’s long term foreign policy plan and thus far was treated accordingly. To put that in perspective, Modi’s visits were the first time any important high level Indian official had even visited Nepal in 17 or 18 years.

  2. Time has come that Nepal – India so-called ‘special relationship’ has come to an end which was commenced by unequal Treaty of Peace And Friendship 1950 where newly independent British India used this Treaty as a bargaining tools for RANA’s of Nepal to stay in power. But it did not happen .
    EPG will submit its final report on this first week of July where Nepal has strong reservations on certain provisions. *Nepal- India open border must be strictly regulated with strict visa policy
    -Kathmandu thinks that India is fueling terriosm in southern belt of Nepal. Terriost groups like CK Raot , Jwala Sinha And Goit are making a safe haven in Bihar and Patana. The Indian consulate in Birgunj was heading the terriost organization with inline Indian embassy in Kathmandu . In Nepal, the Indian ambassador is the Head of Terriost Group which controls all the terriost organization in Southern Nepal and also anti-China activity . Nepal is 80 per cent of Hindu , 10 per cent bhudhist and 10per cent other religious groups. Nepali politicians think that declaring a Hindu state will hurt 20 per cent of other religious citizens who have different opinions. So Nepal was declared secular state. Looking at India 40 per cent of total population is Muslim: however India is pushing Nepal to become Hindu state . People in Darjeeling , Kashmir, Sikkim, Punjab (Khalistan) and Tamil Nadu (Dravidian) are protesting for their rights from Many decades but the Indian government thinks that by using armed force they can close their voice .

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