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India, the neighbour Nepal loves to loathe

Sandip Ghose | Updated on September 16, 2021

Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal Ties / Ranjit Rae / Vintage Books / Non-fiction / ₹ 499

Kathmandu wants out from what it perceives to be a ‘claustrophobic embrace’ with New Delhi, and instead have a relationship between friends, not ‘bhai-bhai ka rishta’

* For any Indian diplomat, Nepal is one of the finest assignments, says former ambassador Ranjit Rae

* It is amazing how very few people who hold forth on Nepal, otherwise well-educated and well-travelled, have visited the country

* The ‘India-phobia’ is bound to have serious implications with China lifting its veil to woo Nepal

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Nepal, as my Nepali friends say, has had its share of good and not-so-good Indian envoys. As Ranjit Rae, himself a former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, writes in his maiden book Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal Ties – some of them behaved as “viceroys”. One of the better liked among them told me that foreign diplomats in Nepal cry twice. First on arrival – shocked to find it is different from anything they had expected. Next, when leaving as, by then, they had fallen in love with the country and its people. I asked him – what about the choicest brickbats reserved for Indian envoys in the Nepali media? He said you learn to take it in your stride for the salubrious climate and the lovely friends you make. And, if one is fond of trekking that is an extra bonanza. This ambassador was an avid trekker. It seems Rae too is fond of trekking. But the parallels do not end there.

For any Indian diplomat, Nepal is one of the finest assignments, remarks Rae – “complex and challenging, enriching and rewarding all at once”.  Another friend who had served at Indian missions in several South Asian countries, had explained this to me. He said, Indian envoys in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or even Bhutan – are, by and large –   left alone by New Delhi’s South Block. But, in the case of Nepal, everyone has an opinion.

As Rae points out very often these views are inaccurate, arising from a false sense of familiarity, presumption about cultural and religious similarities, and a misplaced “Roti, Beti Rishta” attitude (incidentally, contrary to popular belief, Nepal was declared a ‘Hindu State’ only in 1962 by King Mahendra). Rae writes, it is amazing how very few people who hold forth on Nepal, otherwise well-educated and well-travelled, have visited the country. As my friend would say, somewhat crudely, much of their impressions are formed from “aunties and ayahs”. The former refers to extended families related by marriage (the practice of inter-marriage among what he called the ‘feudocracy’ Ranas and Shahs of Nepal and the erstwhile royal families in India). A classic example of the latter was when riots broke out in Kathmandu over a remark attributed to a noted Indian film star. In trying to salvage the situation, he exacerbated it by saying he had the highest regard for Nepalis as the nanny who brought him up was a Nepali.

It is often said – the Nepalis like everything Indian, except Indians. In the book, Rae recalls a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Delhi when the PM asked - “Why don’t they (the Nepalis) like us”? He delves into this vexing question with remarkable honesty for a former ambassador. He acknowledges that “anti-Indian sentiment” is an ever-present factor in the relationship. He explains later how, instead of addressing it, India has sometimes added to the mistrust and antipathy. The ‘India-phobia’ is bound to have serious implications with China lifting its veil in wooing Nepal. Nepalis too have shed their coyness in responding to the Chinese overtures. Politicians such as former Prime Minister KP Oli played the anti-India nationalist card to their advantage.

Rae dwells at length on the Maoist Insurgency. He also brings an insider’s view on Nepal's transition to constitutional democracy. It is one of the most comprehensive account from an Indian perspective. But, in discussing the post-constitution fall-out, he has been less than candid. He skirts the controversy of the alleged “blockade” of 2015. As the incumbent ambassador of the time, he had to toe the official line of the Indian government. So, he treats it as an internal event of Nepal arising out of the Madhesi (plains people) Andolan. But every Nepali saw India’s hand behind it. Nepal-watchers regard it to be a singularly unfortunate watershed in India-Nepal relationship. It also opened the door for a brazen entry of the dragon.

Rae concludes his thesis with a prognosis. Nepal is now a youthful country with new aspirations. It wants out from what it perceives to be a “claustrophobic embrace” with India and have a relationship between friends not “bhai-bhai ka Rishta”. This is a reality that policy makers in Delhi would do well to recognise.

Check out this book on Amazon

(Sandip Ghose is a current affairs commentator and corporate strategy advisor. He did a stint in Nepal as country director of an MNC between 1998 and 2002.)

Published on September 16, 2021

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