Almost every Nepali is an expert on relations with India, and social media has profuse conspiracy theories about Big Brother. Many writers and diplomats have dissected Indo-Nepal relations during the turbulent period from 1990-2017. For his part, Sharma tries to provide evidence of India’s constant meddling in Nepal’s internal affairs – right from the 1950 Treaty to the 2015 blockade.
Sections of Saran’s book that deal with Nepal see things quite differently, of course, and that is to be expected. He has an opposite take on New Delhi’s behind-the-scenes dealings in Kathmandu. In the chapter ‘India and Nepal: A Relationship of Paradox’, Saran describes the souring of the relations between the neighbours after the promulgation of Nepal’s Constitution and the economic blockade that followed in 2015.
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Saran defends India’s handling of that tumultuous period, absolving South Block and the PMO of all blame for allowing bilateral relations, which Prime Minister Modi had normalised with his 2014 visit to Kathmandu, to disintegrate. The chapter may as well have been titled: ‘How the Indian State Wrecked Relations with Nepal’.
Saran describes how it was India that steered the Maoists into above-ground politics in 2006, introduced secularism into Nepal’s new constitution, and how it opposed that same constitution for the sake of the rights of Madhesis. Ironies of ironies: regime change in India meant the BJP is no longer a big fan of Nepal’s secular constitution.
Sudheer Sharma’s analysis of the Indian blockade calls a spade a spade: India was angry about not being consulted about the new Madhes province which did not include five contentious provinces: Jhapa, Morang, Sunsari in the east and Kanchanpur, Kailali in the western Tarai. ‘After it refused to entertain India’s counsel and coercion, many in Nepal thought India decided it was time to teach a lesson to its small neighbour … with the ultimate weapon of a border blockade,’ writes Sharma, providing examples of covert Indian involvement in supporting the Madhes agitation.
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Shyam Saran sees it differently: ‘Supplies from India to Nepal were blocked by the Madhesis in the border leading to hostile sentiments among Nepalis.’ Saran sticks with the story that India supported the rights of Madhesis in the writing of the 2015 Constitution. He writes, rather condescendingly, that India has always been generous towards Nepal and that, despite all the help, Nepalis always misunderstood its large neighbour.
Interestingly, Shyam Saran himself reviewed Sudheer Sharma’s Nepal Nexus in the India’s Business Standard newspaper. He wrote: ‘The book creates the impression that the Madhesi issue is somehow created by India and that it flows from the ethnic links of the people of the Nepal Tarai and those living across the border in UP and Bihar. However, there are several million Indian citizens of Nepali origin especially in Uttarakhand, West Bengal and Assam, and they are all from the hill districts of Nepal. Mr Sharma could have at least acknowledged some of these additional and significant dimensions of the relationship between the two countries.’
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Shyam Saran goes on to accuse Sharma of making an ‘illogical claim’ that India was afraid that the communist insurgency would spill over from the Nepal into the Gangetic plains and destabilise the entire region, and that this was why it felt Nepal’s Maoists needed to be mainstreamed.
Bilateral relations between Kathmandu and New Delhi are once more at a low point because of the border dispute over Kalapani, and perspectives that do not engage beyond the state’s official line will not help find common ground. Hopefully, both political leaders and the general public in India and Nepal and India will better understand the complex chemistry of their ties, and will find common ground. Alas, neither of these two books will help do that.