When India’s defence minister inaugurated an 80 km-long road along the northern border on May 8, few expected the uproar that would follow from Nepal, a traditionally friendly Himalayan neighbor.
Border provocations by a strident China have become a routine of sorts for the Indian government, which views them with steely resolve. Nepal is different, and friendly relations with Kathmandu are considered essential for maintaining New Delhi’s interests in a hostile northern region where India is flanked by Pakistan and China.
This is why the magnitude of anti-India outrage has caught Indian authorities by surprise. In an immediate escalation, Nepal deployed armed forces to the region and summoned the Indian ambassador in Kathmandu. On June 13, the lower house of the Nepalese parliament unanimously voted to amend the constitution and extend its territorial claims over the 400 sq. km strategic area.
A seemingly risk-free road-opening, possibly to boost national morale during a difficult pandemic, has inadvertently fueled an increasingly bipartisan opposition to India in Nepal. Now India needs to make amends with its neighbor and reinforce their relationship, or risk China taking advantage.
The relationship is close. The India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship that was signed in 1950 eliminated almost every barrier in recognition of their civilizational and cultural ties. Goods move freely, people travel without major documents, and there is absolute reciprocity in the privileges granted to citizens of both countries in terms of residence, ownership of property and commerce.
Nor was there anything especially new in the announcement. Nepal has traditionally accepted the area as part of the Indian state of Uttarakhand in the foothills of the Himalayas. It is hard to imagine a scenario where India would be willing to give up civilian and military control here.
The road is of significance to India because it creates one of the quickest links between Delhi and the Tibetan plateau. Military experts point out that India has had effective possession of this territory for at least 60 years and already deploys military forces up to the border pass.
Nevertheless, Nepal’s hostility has not come out of nowhere. A keen observer of Indo-Nepal relations could have predicted that the Indian announcement would embolden Prime Minister Oli as he struggles to maintain control within the fractious Nepal Communist Party.
Anti-Indian sentiment had already been brewing in Nepal since India’s implicit support of the 2015 blockade on the landlocked country. The road announcement has renewed nationalist fervor and offered the embattled Nepalese prime minister an opportunity to win broad support and stave off an internal coup.
But what senior Indian figures view with trepidation is China’s probable involvement in Nepal’s outrage. At a conference on May 15, India’s Chief of Army Staff suggested that Nepal may be bringing up the issue “at the behest” of a third party, alluding to China. The retaliation certainly is disproportionate, especially coming from a country that was once considered to be firmly in India’s orbit. There is no substantive proof of Beijing’s bidding, but given Nepal’s growing tilt towards China at the very least its belligerence towards India is likely to be met with approval in China.
China is not shy about asserting its heft in the Himalayan nation. In what would be called nothing other than a diplomatic intrusion in other countries, last month Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqui held meetings with senior members of the ruling Nepal Communist Party, purportedly to quell infighting in the coalition, support the current prime minister and convey that China would like for him to complete his five-year term. As a young democracy and a buffer state Nepal remains vulnerable to external influence from a dominant neighbor seeking to outmaneuver India.
The animus between China and India has been sharp lately. In May, the PLA made incursions along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with India in the Ladakh region. India’s defence minister, Rajnath Singh delivered a clear message: “India is no longer a weak nation,” he said, and that the government will neither relent nor “compromise with our national pride.” China cannot bully India through border standoffs, he implied.
India has legitimate concerns that China’s connectivity projects in Nepal will provide it access into India through the porous India-Nepal border. Tibet is another point of concern. According to a recent Human Rights Watch report, Tibetans in Nepal are now facing police harassment and a de facto ban on political protests. With the signing of the October 2019 agreement on boundary management, Nepal has committed to return to China “persons found while crossing borders illegally.” This directly endangers the security of Tibetan refugees fleeing to India via Nepal and is a violation of Nepal’s status as a safe-passage country.
Despite this India clearly has no desire to inflame the Nepal situation. Its response to Nepal’s cartographic maneuvers has been conciliatory and suggestive of moves toward peaceful reconciliation. On June 15, Singh said: “India-Nepal ties are bound together by roti-beti,” that is, bonds of livelihood and close kinship, adding that “there cannot be any bitterness among Indians for Nepal.”
Nepal and India are connected by language, culture and common religion. Both nations stand to gain immensely from a strong relationship of reciprocity. India clearly sees a more democratic Nepal as being in its interest. It is accordingly in India’s interest to engage with Nepal with sensitivity and understanding. The more proportionate response can be saved for the puppeteer and neighborhood bully to the east.
(Richa Jayal is a senior researcher on India-Japan affairs, and an entrepreneur in linguistics. She has worked for Goldman Sachs, and is a graduate of the Jawaharlal Nehru University and Osaka University).