Anti-India sentiment in Nepal rising as PM Sher Bahadur Deuba begins bilateral visit

Madhesis, traditionally seen as pro-India, are also gradually turning their back on New Delhi due to current government’s inability to walk the talk

PTI Photo Kamal Singh
PTI Photo Kamal Singh

Dhairya Maheshwari

As Nepalese Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba starts his five-day official visit to India, the prevailing “anti-India” sentiment in the Himalayan country as well as Kathmandu’s tilt towards China is making observers in New Delhi worried.

The inability of Nepal’s political establishment to incorporate demands of pro-India Madhesi population in the Constitution, the recent floods in the Terai plains that left at least 150 people dead and blamed on dam construction on Indian side of the border, and the Gorkhaland state demand, which is being accompanied by calls to ban free movement of peoples, are the being seen as primary reasons behind anti-India feelings.

The growing and rather irreversible influence of China in the region is adding to the cauldron of Nepalese resentment, experts argue.

“India’s advice to Nepal doesn’t matter as much as it used to. We should start accepting that Nepal is a sovereign country and it should be treated as one,” KV Rajan, the Indian Ambassador to Nepal, from 1995 to 2000, said at a round-table conference organised by South Asian Dialogues on Ecological Democracy (SADED) in New Delhi on Wednesday.

Noting that Nepal had in May signed a framework agreement on China-backed One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, Rajan, however, cautioned that Kathmandu would be “playing with fire” if it embraced China.

“If Nepal joins the OBOR initiative and embraces China, it would undermine any chance that India has of salvaging its relations with Nepal,” Rajan said.

Former Indian Ambassador and Distinguished Fellow at New Delhi-based Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) Professor Sukh Deo Muni said that India had itself to blame for the rising anti-India feelings in Nepal.

“Any big power which provides solace against a big neighbour is always a draw for a small country,” Muni said, noting that Nepal had relied on India too much in the past but had been let down on several occasions.

The former diplomat said that the surge in nationalism in Nepal in recent years is another worrying sign for India, since it was being fuelled by genuine anti-India sentiment among Nepalese people.

Major General Ashok Mehta (retired), also a member of the India-Nepal Track 2 Dialogue, agreed that the economic blockade after the earthquake really increased the hardship.

“There is no more of the special relationship left that the two countries used to enjoy,” Mehta said.

“Never before has the China factor been so deeply embedded in this relationship as it is now,” he added.

Dr Uddhab P Pyakurel, a Nepalese national and a former research scholar at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), said that the economic blockade imposed by India in the wake of the devastating earthquake in 2015 really soured relations between the two countries, besides creating a wedge between the people in the hills and the Madhesis in the Terai plains.

“India calls itself our big brother and closest ally. Is this the way you treat your neighbour at the time of need?,” he questioned.

He further expressed frustration that the $4 million aid package promised by India for earthquake rehabilitation hadn’t been delivered yet.

“There have been several high-level dignitary visit from Nepal and recentlt the Indian External Affairs Minister, Sushma Swaraj, visited Nepal, but the relief package is yet to reach,” he said.

“It is humiliating as well as frustrating. They just want to one-up China,” he added.

Pyakurel noted that Madhesis, usually seen pro-India, are also now starting to turn their back towards India in the wake of floods this month as India’s dam-construction spree is being seen as the primary reasons behind the havoc.

“India is also seen as withdrawing from backing the Madhesi movement after wholeheartedly throwing its weight behind it,” the Kathmandu-based scholar noted.

The Madeshis had started an agitation against the implementation of Nepal’s Constitution in September 2015 through February 2016, claiming that the new Constitution “marginalised” them.

However, umbrella support from across political spectrum for clearing the Constitutional amendments that would pacify the Indian-origin Madhesis hasn’t been forthcoming. The ruling coalition of PM Sher Bahadur Deuba failed to garner two-thirds majority in Parliament to pass the amendments as recently as on Monday, two days before Deuba embarked on his India visit.

Critics of Madhesi-based parties, which includes Professor Muni, say that the current Indian government wants to undermine the secular fabric of Nepal’s Constitution by making Kathmandu cede to demands of the Terai people.

Nepalese Prime Minister lands in New Delhi

Meanwhile, after Nepal’s lawmakers failed to reach consensus on the new Constitution, Deuba reassured the Nepalese diaspora gathered for his reception in New Delhi that his government wouldn’t rest till the amendments were passed.

Hari Odadi, the political counsellor at Nepal’s India mission, echoed the sentiment.

“We fully support taking all stakeholders onboard and we are pretty optimistic that the amendments would be passed soon,” Odadi said

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