For much of its modern history, Nepal has been viewed through the lens of India, as an offshoot of its dynastic histories or Indian cultures, and little attention was paid to its interactions with Tibet and China. Imperialists often saw their subjugation of the subcontinent as a natural result of historical affairs, one which sought to ‘bring’ civilisation to ‘Your new-caught, sullen peoples/half devil and half child,’ as Rudyard Kipling wrote in ‘The White Man’s Burden’. These quasi-imperialist views dominate the popular discourse even today, best illustrated by how Nepal’s modern-day relationship with China is being seen in the aftermath of the 2020 Kalapani dispute.
The Indian media, particularly some of its loud news channels, decided Nepal was being a pawn to Chinese ‘designs’ in the subcontinent without understanding that the Kalapani dispute has lingered on between the two countries since the 1990s onwards, and more recently, since the 2015 agreement between India and China that opened up Lipulekh pass for trade and was objected to by Nepal at the time too. Unfortunately, beyond the ridiculous and sexist falsehoods about the Nepal prime minister being ‘honey-trapped’ by the Chinese ambassador, headlines such as ‘China Uses Nepal’ suggest surprise at the possibility that South Asian countries could have relationships with nations other than India.
But relationships are not made overnight. Nepal’s newfound affinity to China is not the result of one disputed road or a new map; rather, it is a decades-long process in which India has erred and lost focus on issues around Nepal, while China has steadily gained its trust. While it has come at the expense of India’s political and economic ties with
Nepal, there is little doubt even among the most nationalist of Nepalis that China will replace India in cultural, religious and social spheres. And yet, there is little evidence that Indian policy, or its media, which shapes the popular discourse, has attempted to understand the nuances that have led the Nepali establishment to shy away from the corridors of Delhi.
To understand Nepal’s ties with Tibet and China, one must turn to the past. Until the annexation of the Kathmandu valley’s city-states by the Gorkha Shahs in the eighteenth century, Nepal’s relationship to the north was primarily with Tibet, shaped by trade and Buddhism. While China figured in the imagination of Nepali rulers, contact between the two civilisations went through several periods of lapses.
In 1792, the Qing army marched till nearly 30 km to Kathmandu as the crow flies, desperate to protect its Tibetan interests after the Gorkhas initiated a war with Lhasa in 1788. A stalemate and a peace treaty later, the Qings returned home, while Nepal sent five-yearly missions (which Kathmandu called ‘trade missions’ while the Qings interpreted it as ‘tribute’) until 1908. It was only when the People’s Republic of China entered Tibet in 1950 that China emerged as an immediate neighbour to Nepal. Subsequent to that, while Nepali leaders saw China as an alternative to Indian political and economic influence, there was little China could do, except provide moral support and continued aid, because of its infrastructural limitations in the Himalaya, which changed in the 21 st century.
But why did Nepal look to China as an alternative in the first place? The answer lies in the ‘special’ nature of ties it has with India.
The key to understanding India–Nepal ties lies in how the British viewed Nepal. The British had a firm influence in the Kathmandu court by controlling Nepal’s foreign and defence matters. The 1923 treaty which affirmed Nepal’s independence and sovereignty was the basis for the 1950 agreement between India and Nepal—one that the latter continues to regard as unequal. A post-colonial India under Jawaharlal Nehru wanted a special relationship based on its security umbrella over all three of its Himalayan neighbour-states, Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim. Nehru’s standing among his contemporary Nepali leaders meant his beliefs carried weight, but they also resulted in the perception that Indian political influence would erode Nepali sovereignty. And while the religious, cultural and economic ties between India and Nepal are, without doubt, the backbone on which the political relationship is built, it is this ‘special’ nature of the ties that Nepali leaders since 1950 have chafed at. Indian micromanagement of Nepali political affairs during the post-Maoist conflict transition peaked with the 2015 ‘unofficial’ blockade which furthered the belief that Nepal’s dependence on India must be reduced.
Today, contemporary India’s insecurities over losing its influence in Nepal and South Asia to China are well-founded. Delhi may regard the subcontinent as its natural sphere of influence, but without internalizing the errors that led South Asian countries to shy away from India’s bear-hug, such a state of affairs may not always be so.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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