[This post provides background information for another post that details the specifics of how Modi can start a new chapter with Nepal. If you do not need this background information, please skip to the other post.]
On Sunday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will embark on a two-day visit to Nepal. There has been a lot of discussion, speculation and anticipation in Kathmandu regarding the visit, the first one by an Indian Prime Minister in 17 years. During these years, Nepal went through a Maoist insurgency, popular street protests, abolishment of monarchy, mainstreaming of insurgent Maoists and two elections for the Constituent Assembly that has so far failed to give Nepal a new constitution.
Perception about India in Nepal see-saws between i) a friendly partner for peace and democracy and ii) a big-brother bully that is always working behind the scenes to make things go wrong in Nepal. Certainly, such a confused and mistrustful perception is doing no good to India. As much as Nepal is free to turn to China, which has created the image of a more trustworthy and benign neighbor, we’d love to trust India more and help in her ambitions to grow as a mature world power. After all, an economically vibrant, open and democratic India is a lot more beneficial to us as a closer friend rather than a suspicious neighbor.
I’d begin by briefly revising what events shape an average Nepali’s perception about India today.
Roots of anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal
It is clear that a lot has changed in Nepal during these 17 years. The Maoist insurgency first stoked, then fed on the cheap anti-Indian sentiment that was largely a product of its own propaganda machine. As a pretext to the armed struggle, Dr. Baburam Bhattarai, then leading “Rastriya Jana Morcha” (National People’s Front), launched nationwide anti-India strikes. The strikes demanded banning of all Indian movies, magazines and vehicles in Nepal. Additionally, they demanded Indian business and investors to be forced out of the country, and several Nepal-India treaties to be nulled.
Surprisingly to many in Nepal, the Maoist rebels, including Dr. Bhattarai and Prachanda were receiving secret support from Indian intelligence agencies. It has been revealed by multiple sources, including Dr. Muni, a person who mediated such contacts between the intelligence agencies and Nepal’s Maoists. It was apparent that they were hiding in their safe shelters in India while their guerrilla army was waging a violent war in Nepal. It was also frequently reported in Nepal about how their children were leading comfortable lives and uninterrupted education in Indian schools as their party cadres were forcing schools to shut down and cancelling exams in Nepal where they wanted to replace “bourgeois education system” with a “people’s education system.” As this blogger has written elsewhere, the primary losers of this mayhem were Nepal’s poor, who essentially funded the war and the excesses of their leaders in India. They could not afford such escapes like sending their children abroad. The businesses and livelihood in Nepal’s remotest regions were worst hit. Investors had to look for other options and the increasing cost of doing business meant high prices for Nepal’s consumers. The loss of employment opportunities forced a large population of adult Nepalese population, especially those from rural and remote regions to leave the country for India, and the Middle East.
Reputation of India in Nepal came full circle with i) Dr. Bhattarai first stoking hatred against India, ii) India partnering with him with the hopes of putting off that fire, but iii) the plan backfiring because of the hidden and secret ways in which India was seen as harming Nepal’s people by helping the extremists.
Nepalese are as confused as ever regarding how they should perceive India and her interests vis-à-vis their country.
Indian intelligence and middlemen
Even after helping broker a peace deal between Nepal’s political parties and the Maoists that resulted in the restoration of democracy, the goodwill earned by India was rather short-lived. The Indian intelligence agencies continued to flirt with the Maoists and also some separatist forces operating from Indian borders to destabilize Nepal’s southern plain lands called Terai/Madhesh. Dr. Bhattarai, a very popular figure until he became Nepal’s Prime Minister, turned into one of Nepal’s most unpopular Prime Ministers because of his overt affiliations with the middlemen of Indian intelligence in Nepal.
Allegedly, Bhatttarai’s arrogant stand during the dissolution of first Constituent Assembly was because of the firm backing he received from Indian intelligence agencies. He refused to help any agreement reached among Nepal’s political actors, including his own party chairman Prachanda. His several moves, including those hinting of his authoritarian ambitions had already miffed a large section of population in Nepal. From the first week in office, he started making statements and taking actions against free press, rule of law, and the role of opposition parties in Nepal. He constantly blamed the democratic setup for his inability to perform, making the people further suspicious of his democratic commitments.
Being seen as a patron of such a line of politics did a lot of harm to India’s goodwill among Nepal’s population, that has time and again shown a strong love for freedom and democracy. Indian intelligence’s middlemen and interlocutors in Nepal’s affairs added to the damage. They appeared to be micro managing Nepal’s affairs and setting agenda through a constant and threatening voice in newspapers and television screens. Such middlemen in political parties, media circles and elsewhere were instrumental in giving the final blow to whatever was left of goodwill for India in Nepal. It became increasing difficult for anybody sympathetic to democratic norms, rule of law and a stable future for Nepal to associate themselves with such a brash and shameful politics that was apparently possible only because of Indian intelligence agencies’ high handedness. Furthermore, involvement of such middlemen in the debates over the highly polarized issues of federalism and Nepal’s identity did not help India’s cause in Nepal.