On a recent visit to Nepal, I realised how the country was too India. In fact, as you enter Nepal's Terai regions you will feel as though you are driving on any other highway in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. The clothes, the culture, the food and the language are all the same—yet as you drive further you can sense the mood changing.
The people from the hills are becoming increasingly unhappy with India due to its perceived interference in Nepal's internal affairs. Taking advantage of this, the Chinese influence in Nepal is at an upsurge and if ground reports are to be believed then over the past year or so, the Chinese have opened 32 border crossing points into Nepal. This poses a clear and present danger to India's national security interests. However, its current foreign policy initiatives are doing little to bridge the chasm in Indo-Nepal relations.
If China succeeds in replacing India as the key economic as well as security partner for Nepal... it would have breached the Himalayan borders that separates the Indian mainland from China.
To understand the current geo-politics of Nepal more clearly, we need to understand not only the society but also the geography and political history of the country. Nepal, at a very broad level, can easily be divided into two parts i.e. the plains and the mountains along the entire length of the country. There has always been an asymmetrical distribution of power between the residents of the hill and the Terai regions, with the hills always holding political sway.
Historically, it has been the Bahun, Chettri and Newari groups in Kathmandu who have held political power and cultural hegemony over the national narrative of Nepal at the cost of the numerically significant yet politically marginalised ethnic groups in Nepal, mostly residing in the Terai region.
The people living in the Terai region are diverse in nature. The Tharus, the largest group of original settlers, are some 16 lakh in number. Other hill castes who have been living here for several generations are around 60 lakh. Those who are referred to as Madhesis number around 56 lakh (Source: 2011 Census). Tharus do not like to be called Madhesis, and those of hill origin are still identified as Pahadis. The Madhesis have castes and ethnicity similar to Bihar and eastern UP, with frequent intermarriages between families on either side of the border. The Madhesh has historically been part of the larger Mithila region and has close ties with India. Thus many of the power centres in Nepal have spread the perception that most of the residents of Madhesh are in effect immigrants from Bihar rather than native Nepalis and retain their loyalties towards India.
The Madhesis led a large political movement in 2007 seeking the enlarged participation of the Terai in Nepal's politics and policymaking which resulted in the word "federalism" to be included in Nepal's interim constitution. The earthquake in April 2015, forced the Nepalese legislature to fast track the new constitution which reneged on the basic tenets of federalism as envisaged in the peace agreement in 2006 and the interim constitution. Thus the ground was laid for another round of Madhesi agitation, which Kathmandu accused India of backing. The agitation began in September of 2015 and severely paralysed the Nepalese economy as well as society since Nepal depended heavily on India for all kinds of supplies.
The [post earthquake] reconstruction efforts bore flags of all major donor countries—India was conspicuous by its minimal presence and China was ominous by its over-bearing presence.
The Nepalese government accused India of imposing an undeclared blockade. India denied the allegations, stating the supply shortages have been imposed by Madhesi protesters within Nepal, and that India had no role in it. However, despite Indian denials, minimal border entries even from border points that have witnessed no agitation added to the allegations that it was indeed an India-enforced border blockade. Many hill based parties took advantage of this divide and claimed India had infiltrated the Madhesh with Indian protesters. Nepali social media sites took to immediate protest against the alleged Indian interference with the hashtag#BackOffIndia as well as street agitation and this online movement gained immense popularity among the youth in Nepal. Over a period of time India and Nepal have worked out their differences with the passage of a constitutional amendment by Nepal, but the bitter memories still linger in the minds of the people of Nepal with clear demarcating lines among the population. The Terai regions populated by Madhesis seem to be more favourable to India while the Hills seem to be increasingly reticent about India's alleged interference in the internal affairs of Nepal and are seeking more and more Chinese intervention to balance their dependence on India in terms of key supplies, especially fuel.
It was during these turbulent times when China made huge inroads into not only the political set-up of Nepal but also the hearts and minds of the Nepalese people, especially among the hills. It is this sentiment that India needs to be wary of. If China succeeds in replacing India as the key economic as well as security partner for Nepal then China will literally be at our gates and would have breached the Himalayan borders that separates the Indian mainland from China.
An apt example of the failure of India's soft diplomacy was in evidence among the heritage sites of Nepal that were badly damaged during the 2015 earthquake. The reconstruction efforts bore flags of all major donor countries—India was conspicuous by its minimal presence and China was ominous by its over-bearing presence. This despite a multitude of sites that were built to worship Hindu deities or bearing the names of royalty who had close ties with India. We are losing the battle for the hearts and minds of our Nepalese friends. Our common culture, our shared history, and shared borders are our bulwark against a rampaging China. If we lose the people-to- people connect, then we will surely have China at our gates!