Friday, June 14, 2024


Dhaka Tribune


The currency of Nepal and India’s border spat

What exactly are the conditions of loving one’s neighbour?

Update : 20 May 2024, 08:35 AM

Borders can occasionally bring out the best and often the worst in neighbours. South Asia knows it all too well.

This past month India’s nearly 1,850km-long border with Nepal gained a touchy fresh currency. Literally.

A flap ensued in early May when Nepal’s government announced plans to print new 100-rupee notes with a map that would contain the regions of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani far to the country’s northwest. It followed a decision taken by the cabinet over two meetings.

The thing is: these areas belong in India’s northern Uttarakhand state -- by India’s estimation.

The disputed areas lie along the border with Tibet Autonomous Region. This adds a supercharged geo-political layer to an on-again, off-again border dispute between India and Nepal since Nepal placed it front-and-centre on a bilateral stage in 1997.

Nepal reinforced that position in 2020, when it updated its official map, citing measurements by the Survey Department of Nepal’s Ministry of Land Management. It followed India’s updating of its own maps in 2019 which shows these areas as being within its borders. Indeed, India even unveiled a road link via Lipulekh for pilgrims to Kailash-Mansarovar in TAR, a move that drew a diplomatic protest from Nepal.

Expectedly, India strongly responded to Nepal’s announcement of the proposed currency design. India’s foreign minister S Jaishankar, who has morphed from career diplomat to a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) demagogue, led the pushback in the midst of that country’s communally charged general elections.

Nepal has refrained from responding, and will inevitably wait to see which political coalition forms the new government in India this June, before calibrating its India policy.

Even so, irrespective of what happens in India’s elections, that country will face an outspoken Nepal and the fraught matter of optics that translate directly to pro- or anti-India sentiments. As ever, India’s often monomaniacal domestic presumptions in tandem with barely concealed regional arrogance, a problematic tag team over the past decade, will have done the bad stuff to itself.

Most establishment drum-beaters in India will have forgotten a flap from last year, related to the formal inauguration of India’s new parliament building in end-May 2023. A pet project of India’s prime minister Narendra Modi -- he inaugurated the building, not India’s president or the speakers of the two houses of parliament. The inauguration accompanied overtly religious and imperial motifs with Modi front-and-centre.

The building also contains a mural depicting what is widely billed as Akhand Bharat, or undivided India, a pet theme of extremist Hindu torchbearers from a time before 1947. This mural-map included territories that form almost all of present-day Pakistan, large areas of present-day Nepal, and parts of present-day Bangladesh.

All three countries sought clarifications with varying degrees of insistence. India’s foreign ministry spokesperson at the time publicly explained the mural away as depicting “the spread of the Ashokan Empire and the idea of responsible and people-oriented governance that he adopted and propagated.” The spin didn’t arrest fallout.

Nepal’s prime minister, Pushpa Kamal Dahal, who continues to append his rebel-era nom de guerre “Prachanda”, or fierce, to his formal name, visited New Delhi right after Modi inaugurated the new parliament building. Dahal downplayed the mural, opting instead to talk up crucial trading, connectivity, and electricity transmission and export deals -- not just between Nepal and India, but also tri-laterally with Bangladesh.

Upon his return in early-June 2023, Dahal presented an honour-saved position to his colleagues and fellow citizens, saying he did bring up the matter of the boundary with his Indian counterpart. But Modi’s colleagues and political enforcers stuck to their hard-line guns, immediately diluting the foreign ministry’s finessing.

As The Telegraph of Kolkata wrote of it then: “The reason the controversy is not dying down even a week after this explanation is a tweet by parliamentary affairs minister Pralhad Joshi in Kannada, which translates into: ‘The resolve is clear: Akhand Bharat.’”

Irrespective of what happens in India’s elections, that country will face an outspoken Nepal

Where Dahal played possum, Kathmandu’s young and combative mayor, Balendra Shah, did not. From Bengaluru, where he was at the time, Shah sent word home to place a map of Greater Nepal in his mayoral office. The 34-year-old former hip-hop star and trained engineer won his post as mayor in 2022 as an independent candidate.

The map of Greater Nepal, in response to Akhand Bharat, harks to a time before 1816. That year marked the end of a two-year Anglo-Nepalese war with the Treaty of Sugauli. The treaty ceded to the British East India Company the Garhwal and Kumaon regions of present-day Uttarakhand state of India, large strips of territory in present-day Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, Sikkim, and even the control of Darjeeling, among other areas.

If “Balen,” as he is often called, was being irredentist, as some accused him of being, then by extension so was India’s establishment.

The currency issue underscores a simmering Nepali dissent about India’s ideological imprint in addition to its generally cloddish regional footprint.

During two visits to Nepal last year, I heard from a number of Nepali analysts and media persons their concern about the steady ingress of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and its ancillaries across the country’s southern Terai plains. These border Uttar Pradesh and Bihar -- with Uttar Pradesh for long an undisguised laboratory of hard-line Hindutva policies engineered by the “Sangh” and assiduously implemented by its primary political engine, the BJP.

This past March, Kanak Mani Dixit, a leading commentator in Nepal, scathingly posted on X (formerly, Twitter): “… the R&AW, IB and now RSS are activated in Nepal,” referring in the first two instances to India’s overseas and domestic intelligence arms. “But KTM intellectuals will examine the mouse cowering in the corner while ignoring these three large elephants in the room.”

Such interference, and such resentment, have a history. During the upsurge of the Maoist rebellion in the late-1990s and 2000s, and the subsequent demolition of the monarchy and establishment of a chaotic but resolute democracy, I have witnessed as an analyst and chronicler the machinations of India, China, the US, some countries of the EU, and a mission of the UN in Nepal tasked with providing peace-making and post-conflict services and advice. This mission practiced a near-unfettered mission-creep, as it were, until it was compelled to leave, depriving some upscale Kathmandu watering holes and Japanese and Indian SUV manufacturers of years-long revenue streams.

But while UN organizations hold significant sway in Nepal -- much like in Bangladesh, where elements of the government and numerous NGOs are a part of the UN’s food chain -- they have long lost their brief geo-political hold. China and India have not.

Indeed, their foreign policy claws have competitively dug deeper into Nepal, evident in every area from domestic politics to connectivity and security. It compels this sandwiched country to play a complicated game of geopolitical chess, sometimes as a coquette and sometimes a caregiver but almost always as a victim. (See: Nepal and the ménage à trouble with China and India, Dhaka Tribune, September 18, 2023).

Sometimes, it evidently gets too much and emasculatory gestures cut in. The pushback with the ongoing border issue and the currency flap is one such.

It rankles India. Equally, it could amount to a loss of face for Nepal if its government were to climb down from the proposed redesign of the 100-rupee note. It would be seen as a capitulation to India, a massive prestige issue.


Sudeep Chakravarti is Director, Center for South Asian Studies at University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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