A chopper carrying India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi landed at a helipad in Lumbini on the occasion of Buddha Purnima – the celebration of the birth of Gautam Buddha – on May 16. This was Modi’s fifth visit to Nepal, India’s Himalayan neighbor, and the first after his re-election in 2019. The visit was preceded by Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s trip to India earlier this year.
It can be inferred that New Delhi has recognized the need to better bilateral ties with Nepal, which in the recent past had soured due to border disputes induced by territorial claims and counterclaims, resulting in months of diplomatic non-communication.
This time, Modi has once again opted for a religious motif to extend and better bilateral ties with Nepal. On his earlier trips to Nepal, he visited many Hindu sacred shrines important to followers of the religion in both India and Nepal, such as the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu, Janaki temple in Janakpur, and Muktinath temple. Modi’s religio-cultural diplomacy not only aims to speak to the domestic Hindu and Buddhist audience, but also aims to attract the religious forces of Nepal, which consider India-Nepal relations to transcend the narrow idea of a modern state.
Even though the Indian prime minister’s visit is being depicted as focused on religion – along with the goodwill of strengthening bilateral ties in the field of culture, technology, education, development, and electricity – one cannot ignore the geopolitical implications. The timing and the nature of this visit raise the question whether it is really an example of religious diplomacy by Modi or a case of arguably reactionary politics from India. It’s also worth examining whether this visit was indeed fruitful, in the sense that the mutual interests and views of both the states were discussed at the bilateral talks.
During the visit, Modi was greeted by his Nepali counterpart, after which he went on to visit Maya Devi temple, where he offered water to the sacred Bodhi tree sapling which he had gifted on his visit in 2014 to Nepal. That was followed by Buddha Purnima celebrations. During this visit, Modi also laid the foundation stone of the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage in the Lumbini Monastic Zone. A total of six memoranda of understanding were signed by Indian and Nepali counterparts, overseen by both prime ministers, extending and consolidating the cultural, technological, and educational ties. Memoranda of understanding were signed between the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR) and Tribhuvan University as well as Kathmandu University establishing a research chair on Indian Studies; and between the ICCR and Lumbini Buddhist University for establishing the Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar Chair for Buddhist Studies. A letter of agreement was signed between the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras and Kathmandu University for a joint degree program at the master’s level.
India’s Satluj Jal Vidyut Nigam Ltd and Nepal Electricity Authority (NEA) also signed an agreement to develop and implement the Arun IV hydropower project.
While addressing the gathering of monks, Buddhist scholars, and dignitaries, Modi said that Buddha’s importance knows no geographical boundaries and is for everyone, possibly an attempt to veil the geopolitical significance of the visit. Comparing the relationship between India and Nepal to the mountains, he stressed the ancient cultural and familial ties between the two states and emphasized the need to extend them in the fields of technology, science and infrastructure.
However, one should not understand Modi’s visit to Lumbini and its timing solely through India-Nepal cultural ties. Instead, the trip must be viewed through the larger geopolitical lens.
Interestingly, earlier on the same morning of Modi’s visit, Dueba inaugurated Gautam Buddha International Airport, only the second international airport in Nepal, built with Chinese assistance just 18 kilometers away from Lumbini. Modi’s choice to land via helicopter on a helipad in Lumbini and not at the newly constructed airport signalled India’s hesitance to endorse China’s infrastructural activities in Nepal. It is clear that India is not happy with the Chinese infrastructure and development presence in the Terai region of Nepal, which is in close proximity to the Indian border. Of late, there has been increasing infrastructure development in and around Lumbini, including the new international airport and the expansion of the Butwal- Narayanghat Highway of Nepal. Such Indian wariness about Chinese infrastructure has been increased after the 2020 border skirmishes in the Galwan Valley, along the disputed Sino-Indian border.
Another point to mention here is that since UNESCO recognized Lumbini as a World Heritage Site, many Western, European and Asian countries have been working in Lumbini for the development and maintenance of this site. However, the Indian presence was missing in Lumbini even though India has significant Buddhist heritage sites and more than 8 million Buddhists living within its borders. It is hard not to view the timing of India’s decision to finally establish its presence in Lumbini via university cooperation and the India International Center for Buddhist Culture and Heritage as a reaction to the growing presence of China. Earlier Indian leaders had clearly missed the opportunity to extend bilateral ties with Nepal based on shared Buddhist heritage, which the current administration wishes to rectify.
Another point to note is that a day after Modi’s visit, Naveen Srivastava, currently serving as additional secretary in the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, was made Indian ambassador to Nepal. Interestingly, Srivastava was also leading diplomatic talks in the eastern Ladakh border row with China. The appointment of a China expert as India’s ambassador to Nepal also indicates that New Delhi has carefully noticed China’s increasing presence in Nepal and taken measures to downsize China’s growing influence in Nepali politics.
One of the highlights of this visit was putting to rest some Nepali concerns about the Indian challenge to Lumbini being the birthplace of Buddha. There have been repeated reports and agitations in India claiming that Buddha was born in India. Nepal has long sought to secure Lumbini’s status as Buddha’s birthplace, so that it introduced a Nepali banknote featuring Lumbini, started convening annual Buddhist conferences in the World Heritage Site, and welcomed many other Buddhist countries to build monasteries in Lumbini. India, a country with rich Buddhist heritage, realized that it should not be left unnoticed. Modi’s assurance that Lumbini in Nepal indeed is the birthplace of Buddha finally helped put to rest one of the irritant issues in India-Nepal ties. India acting as a promoter of Buddhist heritage and culture will also help strengthen its soft power in the region.
However, acceptance of Lumbini as the birthplace of Buddha is only one of several Nepali concerns with India. The Nepali side is unlikely to be satisfied by this visit, which did not devote attention to Nepali concerns such as the border issue, lack of follow-through on the Eminent Persons’ Group report and recommendations on the bilateral relations, the bilateral transit regime, and facilitation of electricity exports. There are also unresolved issues related to the 1996 Mahakali Treaty as Nepal seeks to further develop its hydropower industry. The Nepali side is keen to resolve those problems, but the issue was not taken up during this visit.
India heralded this visit as a step to rejuvenate historical ties with its Himalayan neighbor and extend the relationship further in the areas of power generation, technology, and development by again tapping a religious frame. But it seems to be a diversion of the critical bilateral political and developmental agenda and lacks equal attention to the concerns of both states, which is pertinent for consolidating friendship and partnership.