India and Indians: Friends of Two Different Kinds

By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
This article appeared in today’s Op-Ed of The Kathmandu Post. Here is PDF of the page

Sometimes, I wonder why the official Nepal-India relationship doesn’t become as friendly and earthy as the down-to-earth friendship I enjoy with some Indians here in Delhi. Why doesn’t the bond between the two countries become as affectionate and emotional as the bond itself? The bond being that of roti aur beti (bread and daughter) that has brought families across the open border closer together.

[Somehow related:
1. Indian parties spat over Nepal crisis (PDF)
2. How Maoist-Delhi Relations Soured]

It seems friendship between the two nationals is not the same as the relationship between their respective countries. The diplomacy is ruthless, heartless and, in the words of a former Indian diplomat who was talking about Indo-Nepali relationship in Delhi a few weeks ago, immoral. Otherwise, a prime minister, in a nationally televised address, wouldn’t have complained about foreign intervention albeit without naming the country (but who doesn’t know the name!). And his finance minister wouldn’t have angrily told an Indian channel the story, in his own words, of the intervention of Delhi’s bureaucracy in Nepali affairs.

On a personal level, for instance, I never complain about such intervention in my relationship with Indians. Instead, we treat each other with respect and equality. Uncle Mehra, my landlord, loans me money without hesitation when I ask him. So do I. Apart from the usual rent, when he asks me for additional money as a loan, I give him the money promptly without a question. But reports that say India is not even selling Indian currency to Nepal when the latter wants to buy it by paying for it in dollars dishearten me as a Nepali citizen. Almost all the Indians I meet on the street — from university students to chiawallas, from journalists to other professionals — are friendly. But then, why is there so much anger and dissatisfaction among Nepalis with the Indian establishment and the people who come to power in Delhi? This, I feel, must be one of the biggest paradoxes in the Indo-Nepal relationship. Last week, I was having a very nice conversation with an Indian friend of mine over tea and a weird thought came to my mind: What would happen if this man reaches an influential position in South Block? Would he change the situation or would the situation change him? I can’t help it, but such questions keep coming to me these days every time I meet a new, friendly and talented Indian.

This past week, Nepal was making the headlines in the Indian media because of what happened in the corridors of power in Kathmandu. In those headlines (and the stories under them) was reflected, partly, the lack of in-depth knowledge about Nepali affairs among Indians. And those that were well informed about the ground reality criticized their own government’s policy in Nepal. For various reasons, I believe Nepalis have better knowledge about India than Indians have about Nepal. The geopolitical reality and our relatively insignificant economic size make India more important to us than we are to them. No grievances. The wide and deep presence of the Indian media in Nepal means we get to know almost every aspect of cultural, social and political India while the Nepali media has almost zero presence in India. That means Indians have to rely on their own media to get information about Nepal. And the media here limits itself to major political developments that occur only once in a while. I can’t remember coming across any social and cultural stories from Nepal in the Indian media in years. Such apathy means the Indian public is less informed about Nepali society.

Still Nepal and India enjoy a nice and close people-to-people relationship. Barring some exceptions, the Indian people think very positively about Nepal and I have found many people in Delhi who have come from all over India and think that their country shouldn’t poke its nose into Nepali affairs. In the recent incident, not only the politically motivated opposition Bharatiya Janata Party but many independent articles criticized their government’s handling of the Nepal situation though the minister of state for external affairs defended Official India by saying that they had not intervened in Nepali affairs. But the truth was highlighted in the Indian media that talked about the Indian ambassador “who behaved in a vice-regal fashion” in Nepal, “virtually camped” in the official residence of the prime minister of Nepal during the crisis and continued parleying with various political leaders to influence their decisions. One headline said: “India blunders in Nepal again.”

I think the excessive “China-phobia” in some Indian quarters is harming the official Indo-Nepal relationship. Nothing is more unfounded and baseless than the Indian notion that China will win the “influence war” in Nepal which will undermine the security of India. That feeling comes because of lack of geopolitical and, to be precise, Himalayan understanding. Yes, the Nepali people do have a roti aur beti relationship with China as well, but that is insignificant compared to what we have with India that borders us on three more accessible sides. Plus, the cultural and linguistic similarity, frequency of communication and the feeling of proximity with India is beyond compare to what we have with China. There is even a saying: “Delhi door nahi” (Delhi is not far), but Beijing is. And those similarities and ties have not been created because we wanted to create them. And they won’t go away just because one of us, or say China, wants them to disappear. They have not been established by South Block either. They are our natural bond, just like the Himalaya with China that were there and will remain there for ever.

I don’t think I will stop watching Shah Rukh Khan flicks or Sachin Tendulkar’s batting and start learning Mandarin just because China builds a hydropower dam in Nepal. Yes, I will be thankful to that neighbour, and I certainly want them to help us more in our efforts to come out of poverty, but that won’t affect my relationship with India. Why can’t India offer more help in our economic progress instead of trying to destabilize our political and government structure to counter the so-called growing Chinese influence? Those who treat us with respect obviously get respect. For some, such interpretations might come as over simplistic; but that’s how Nepalis feel. That’s how I feel. Official India doesn’t seem to see that reality, let alone understand it.