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5 Factors Driving Anti-India Sentiment in Nepal

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5 Factors Driving Anti-India Sentiment in Nepal

Beyond the border dispute, there are other longstanding causes of Nepali resentment toward India.

5 Factors Driving Anti-India Sentiment in Nepal

People light candles on an outline of the new map of Nepal drawn on a road as they celebrate the approval of the political map to include territory claimed by both India and Nepal, in Kathmandu, Nepal, June 13, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

Indian professor Sukh Deo Muni rightly terms Nepal and India as the “world’s closest neighbors.” Many diplomatic and civilian engagements prove the same. For example, Nepal’s army chief is an honorary general of the Indian Army and vice versa. Thousands of Nepal’s Gurkha soldiers are serving in the Indian Army.

On the civilian level, citizens of both countries can freely work and reside on either side of the border. Such an incredible civilian bond was born even before India and Nepal existed as sovereign nations in South Asia: the two share similar historical roots and cultural camaraderie.

The close cultural relationship was reflected by the huge outpouring of condolences on social media platforms from Nepalis for the recently deceased Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput. Those messages came just a day after Nepal’s parliament approved a new political map that includes the India-controlled territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura, furthering a bitter diplomatic row between Nepal and India.

Indeed, the strong cultural ties belie undercurrents of frustration in public opinion, particularly in Nepal. Here are five factors causing long-lived resentment from Nepalis toward Indian state establishments.

1. Blockades

Land-locked Nepal is sometimes called “India-locked” because it border India to the east, west, and south. Utilizing this geographical advantage, India has imposed three periodic trade blockades — in 1975, 1989, and 2015 — against Nepal, creating huge anti-India sentiment among Nepalis. After facing the crippling blockade of 2015, just month after a powerful earthquake decimated the country, Nepal was compelled to sign a historic trade and transit agreement with its northern neighbor, China.

2. The Border

Nepal and India’s roughly 1,800-kilometer-long border is open. But this is not without tension. The two neighbors have several territorial disputes, which recently flared up thanks to dueling updated maps issued by the Indian and Nepali governments.

Another sore point is that the majority of Nepal’s border is unmanned, while India has strong border guards to protect adjacent Indian borders. At times, Indian security forces encroach onto Nepali lands and have even killed Nepali citizens. There are countless instances where Nepali migrant workers returning from India are extorted by Indian border guards. These incidents also serve to foster anger against India in Nepal.

3. Buddha’s Birthplace

There is no denying that the founder of Buddhism, Gautam Buddha, who is also known by his early name of Siddhartha Gautam, was born in Limbini, Nepal. Buddha’s heritage is an emotional issue in Nepal, where Buddhists constitute the second-largest portion of the national population. But some Indian films, books, and public figures say Buddha was born in India, generating strong public protests  in Nepal. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself said India “ has given the world … Buddha’s message of peace” during his address at the 74th session of United Nations General Assembly. This was widely criticized on social media platforms in Nepal, increasing anti-India sentiment among Nepalis.

4. “Big Brother” Behavior

Nepal is the oldest sovereign country of South Asia. At a time when its regional neighbors like India, Bangladesh, and Pakistan were colonized by the British, Nepal enjoyed a strong diplomatic relationship with the British as an independent and sovereign country. At the end of 2016, Nepal and Britain celebrated 200 years of  diplomatic friendship, whereas India became independent only in 1947.

Nepalis are proud of the prestigious history of their sovereignty. However, many figures in Indian politics and media habitually call Nepal India’s “young brother.” Nepalis do not countenance the framing of India as Nepal’s “big” or “elder brother,” often used by veteran Indian politicians, intellectuals, and journalists. Besides criticism of India’s “micromanagement” of Nepal, Nepalis have a more philosophical objection: they believe that neighboring India cannot be the “big brother” just because of its bigger physical size. To criticize this way of framing the relationship, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli famously stated, “Any country can be big or small in size or population … but nationality cannot be smaller or greater. All countries should get equal opportunity to exercise their sovereignty.”

5. Unequal Diplomatic Agreements

There are many diplomatic agreements between Nepal and India, and public perception holds that these are mostly beneficial to India. For instances, the Gandaki, Koshi and Mahakali water agreements with India are heavily disliked by the majority of Nepalis. These agreements, they say, have given India the upper hand over the use and control of Nepal’s precious water resources.

Besides these three controversial water-sharing agreements, said to be sealed under pressure at different intervals from the Indian state establishment, the very framework for the modern-day relationship is perhaps the most controversial agreement between Nepal and India. The 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty is highly unpopular in Nepal. There are strong civilian and independent intellectual voices calling to revise this treaty, which is seen as a formal diplomatic document putting Nepal under the Indian security umbrella.

Many Nepali politicians have talked about the need to revisit the three river-based agreements and the so-called Friendship Treaty to make them equal to both nations. In his official state visit to India in September 2008, then- Prime Minister of Nepal Pushpa Kamal Dahal raised this issue with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh. Over 10 years later, there is still no headway toward amending any of the treaties.

Birat Anupam is the senior English-language reporter at Nepal’s official news agency, called National News Agency. He mostly writes about tourism, diplomacy, and the environment.