As with Tamils in Sri Lanka, India has close cultural, ethnic and linguistic ties with Madhesis in Nepal. But why only Lankan Tamils or Madhesis, if you go back deeper into Sinhala or Gorkha and the pre-Gorkha past, you’ll find ties with India organically woven. But, in the modern context, this doesn’t give India, as the more powerful neighbour, a right to define its neighbours’ nationhood, engineer their constitutional framework, control their policies and try to manipulate their sovereignty in the name of its own perceived or manufactured national interest. Despite different contexts, the lesson of burning its fingers earlier in Sri Lanka should guide India’s ties with Nepal.
More so with Nepal, because from the Gorkha times onwards, it has zealously guarded its sovereignty against any encroachment from the north, ie the Tibetan-Chinese side, or the south, from British India or independent India. In fact, the Nepalis are so touchy about their national pride that an argument among historians about the location of Buddha’s birthplace Lumbini—a shift of a few kilometres would shift it to either India or Nepal—last year became a debate about sovereignty and Indian hegemony among educated Nepalis.
On landmark moments in Nepal’s own march towards democracy, Nepalis have been appreciative of Indian cooperation—whether of the state or the people. But they have resented any hint of overbearing attitude from India or exploitation of their internal faultlines by it. Prickly issues include the Indo-Nepal treaty of 1950, especially the perceived unequal terms of riparian and military cooperation, the perception of India taking sides in the rivalry between political parties, factions and individuals, or during the Maoist civil war and the ‘interference and high-handedness’ of Indian security officials. During a visit to Nepal last year, I heard murmurs from the highest echelons of Nepali government that some Indian security officials even interfered in the award of contracts and transfer-postings of Nepali bureaucrats.
Nepal’s political and intellectual classes began to be aware of new sore points since the change of regime in India last year. Suggestions and instigations—subtle and overt—of nudging the proposed new constitution towards jettisoning secularism in favour of a Hindu rashtra began to be made by the NDA regime in India and its hangers-on. Suggestions and pressures for a curb on conversions, proliferation of non-Hindu places of worship and western-funded NGO activities began in earnest. Nepali lawmakers have rejected them vehemently and have stressed their preference for secularism. While perceived and real discrimination against Madhesis in Nepal has always caused concern in India given the close ethnic and cultural ties, many in Nepal think Indian agencies had had a hand in the Madhesi movement. The eruption of violence in the Terai should make India cautious about making unsolicited suggestions about federal provisions for tribes and Madhesis in Nepal’s new constitution. Some tribal and Madhesi concerns regarding representation as befitting their numbers might be genuine, but reported Indian suggestions regarding the definition of Madhesis according to descent, territory, migration and naturalisation might be seen as being actuated by ulterior motives. Remember Sri Lanka; don’t play with fire in Nepal.