The Pulse | Diplomacy | South Asia

Modi Visits the Buddha’s Birthplace in Nepal

The Indian prime minister’s religious diplomacy could make Nepal a pawn in India’s domestic politics, even make it appear complicit in BJP’s communal politics.

Modi Visits the Buddha’s Birthplace in Nepal

Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba (right) receives his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi at Lumbini, Nepal, May 16, 2022.

Credit: Twitter/Narendra Modi

On May 16, on the occasion of Buddha Purnima, the day that the founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, was born, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Lumbini, the birthplace of the Buddha. His Nepali counterpart, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba, accompanied him on the visit, Modi’s fifth to Nepal as prime minister.

At Lumbini, Modi visited the Mayadevi temple, laid the foundation stone for the construction of the India International Center for Buddhist Culture and Heritage, and held bilateral meetings with Deuba and other Nepali leaders.

Modi is known to be a religious person. When he was eight, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu nationalist organization with ties to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). During his previous trips to Nepal, he visited Hindu temples such as Pashupatinath, Muktinath, and Janakpur and had expressed interest in seeing Lumbini.

Although the Indian and Nepali governments emphasized that Modi visited Nepal at the invitation of Deuba, it does seem that Nepal extended the invitation at India’s request. First, the visit came barely three days after Nepal’s local elections, and even as the results were pouring in. Second, the visit agenda was light (including the number of hours Modi was in Nepal). Third, Deuba’s appearance during the visit indicated that he was there because he had to be there. He looked tired and short of sleep. Nepali social media was abuzz with memes mocking Deuba’s lethargy.

His religiosity aside, Modi’s Lumbini visit had political relevance for the Hindu nationalist BJP. The visit is aimed at showing that Modi stands not only for Hinduism but for other religions as well — with one glaring exception. The BJP has been surgical in separating Muslims from other religious communities. In 2019, Indian Home Minister Amit Shah stated that the BJP would implement the National Registration of Citizens (NRC) to weed out every infiltrator (read Muslims) while Hindus and Buddhists would be given Indian nationality. Modi’s Lumbini visit will only further that impression.

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The visit offers benefits for India-Nepal relations.

First, the place of Buddha’s birth has become a needless irritant in India-Nepal relations. Buddha was born in Lumbini, a part of modern Nepal, but went to India where he attained enlightenment and died. Some Indians, out of ignorance or conflating enlightenment with birth, have claimed the Buddha was born in India. Such statements have led to protests and anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal.

Insecure nationalists in Nepal have stirred controversy over the issue. The slogan “Buddha was born in Nepal” can still be seen in many taxis and buses in Nepal. Modi said all the right things during his time at Lumbini. He reaffirmed that Lumbini was the birthplace of Gautama Buddha (he asserted the same during his visit to Nepal in 2014). Hopefully, this will put the issue to rest.

Second, Modi is a master influencer and his visit to Lumbini could attract others. He was instrumental in the global acceptance and adoption of yoga. During the 69th U.N. General Assembly in 2014, he proposed a resolution establishing June 21 as the International Day of Yoga, which was ratified by 175 countries. The number of yoga practitioners has increased since. In 2021, 150 million people participated in yoga virtually on International Day of Yoga. Similarly, Modi’s visit to Muktinath in Nepal has led to an uptick in Indian religious tourism to the area.

Many expect that Modi’s visit to Lumbini will increase religious tourism in the area. It will also provide further impetus to the Buddha Circuit’s development, linking Lumbini, Kushinagar, Sarnath, and Gaya, the locations for critical events in Buddha’s life. Nepal expects more Buddhists from Southeast Asia and India to visit Lumbini with the enhanced awareness created by Modi’s visit.

Third, Modi’s visit has brought religious/cultural diplomacy to the center of India-Nepal relations. The shared culture and civilization offer an area of cooperation between two countries, including joint efforts to promote the same globally for soft power. During the visit, Modi stated that closer India-Nepal relations “will serve the benefit of the entire humanity.” Similarly, the global promotion of Buddha and Buddha’s philosophies too will benefit the whole of humanity (including Nepal and India).

However, the visit also exposed some issues of concern.

First, Nepal was unable to convince Modi to visit Lumbini via the Buddha International Airport. Deuba inaugurated the airport the same day Modi was to arrive. Yet, Modi landed on a custom-built helipad 18 kilometers away from the airport. Modi’s arrival via the airport would have provided more significant exposure to the new airport. Instead, Modi, who inaugurated an airport at Kushinagar six months ago, chose not to promote another airport in the Buddha Circuit.

Notably, the Buddha airport was built by a Chinese company. Nepal missed the opportunity to show that it could harmonize investments and influence from both countries by getting Modi to use the airport.

Second, Nepal risks being used as a pawn in Indian domestic politics. In acceding to Modi’s wishes, Nepal will be in the good books of Modi and the BJP. Yet, if Nepal is dragged into the Indian domestic debate on religious nationalism, it will affect Nepal’s ability to maintain friendly relations with India in the event of other parties coming to power. Worse, Nepal could be seen as complicit or turning a blind eye to the Hindu nationalism in India that marginalizes Muslims.

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Finally, the clamor for an “Akhanda Bharat” (unified India or a “Greater India”) continues to grow louder in India. This cultural construct argues that the larger subcontinent is a single cultural entity, and some harp on dreams of achieving the same unity in modern times. RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat has said that the goal of an Akhanda Bharat is within reach and should become a reality in 15 years.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has laid bare the vulnerability of small powers if rulers in powerful states use cultural linkages to further their territorial ambitions without regard for sovereignty. Though the threat to Nepal is not the same as Ukraine’s, the issue is worth pondering.