Fraying ties of bread and brideOther than pilgrims, politicos and plutocrats, few travel between India and Nepal regularly.
Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba is a great believer in the power of astrology. It's quite possible that he scheduled his first visit abroad during his fifth term after consulting the fortune teller who had predicted that he would be prime minister of the country seven times.
Premier Deuba probably believes that he needs the continued goodwill of the southern neighbour to ensure the fated outcome without a jinx. There is no other reason to choose All Fools' Day and immediately after hosting the Chinese foreign minister to visit the Indian capital.
According to the lunar calendar, Amabasya heralds the new moon after its dark phase, and is generally considered to be an auspicious day to embark on a pilgrimage. It's a conjecture, but that could be the reason Premier Deuba has squeezed in a visit to Varanasi. The blessings of Kashi Vishwanath are needed to infuse some warmth back into the India-Nepal relationship.
During his first term, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made four trips to Kathmandu. During his first visit in 2014, he mesmerised Nepal's Parliament with the promise of the acronym HIT (hydro, information and highways) and a $1 billion credit line. He came once again in November 2014 to attend the 18th SAARC Summit and tried to appease the dominant community by castigating Madhesi lawmakers for their opposition to the drafting of a majoritarian constitution.
The charm offensive of Premier Modi begun to fade soon after the Gorkha Earthquakes and the 16-point conspiracy to "double fast track" the formulation of a fresh statute. The third visit was in May 2018, purportedly intended "to reset ties", but that agenda fell flat despite Premier Modi's charades in Janakpur and Muktinath.
The fourth attempt to win over the permanent establishment of Nepal to the Indian side was made when Premier Modi was in Kathmandu to participate in the BIMSTEC Summit in August 2018. His overtures were smilingly acknowledged and slyly ignored. He couldn't make it to the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini. Perhaps that was when Premier Modi finally realised that it was best to leave Nepal policy to the professionals—the security establishment in New Delhi—that has been dealing with Kathmandu after its Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1960 with China.
Despite the diplomatic dance of love and hate between the governing elites of Kathmandu and New Delhi, the people-to-people relationship between the two countries remained strong due to cross-border kinships. The deployment of paramilitary forces such as Sashastra Seema Bal and the Nepal Armed Police Force has transformed the once-free borderlands into an intensely patrolled border.
The usually well-informed and highly astute journalist of strategic affairs Nayanima Basu reports that a review of the India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950 is also on the cards during Premier Deuba's upcoming New Delhi visit. But it's not just the controversy over mapmaking exercises, the situation on the ground in the borderlands has changed to such an extent that the contentious treaty has become almost redundant.
In the aftermath of the Treaty of Sugauli, the victorious East India Company drew an arbitrary line in the Ganga plains to demarcate their possessions from those of the losing side in the war. For various strategic reasons, a part of the land was restored to Nepal in lieu of its promise to stay loyal to the Company Bahadur. Such settlements between Calcutta and Kathmandu divided families and tore the social fabric of Madhes.
For the people on the frontier, however, the border mattered little more than an obligation to pay taxes to the respective authorities. Marriages were common, and feasts and festivities united families from both sides of the Jange Pillar. The obligatory no-man's land was the common ground to play games, dry grain and tether cattle.
Public memory is indeed phenomenally short. Few remember that Kathmandu was the faraway Nepal for most of its citizens in the plains up until the early 1960s. Travelling to the capital city entailed crossing the border, taking a bus to the Indian railhead, boarding a train for Raxaul Junction, crossing the border again and then taking a rickety lorry from Birgunj and travel through the newly built, meandering and unstable Tribhuvan Highway. Only a few Madhesis took the trouble of going to their capital city unless absolutely necessary. For every other need, it was much easier crossing over into the nearest Indian town.
Community schools had sprung up after the overthrow of Ranarchy in 1951, but crossing the border was still necessary for the pursuit of higher education. Patna College, LS College of Muzaffarpur, CM College of Darbhanga, Goenka College of Sitamarhi, RK College of Madhubani and MS College of Motihari were household names even in the early 1970s.
Tulsi Giri, infamous as the "Mother of Panchayat", was an alumnus of Darbhanga Medical College and Hospital in Laheriasarai, which was the treatment centre of last resort for the entire region between the Kamala and the Bagmati. The Muzaffarpur Institute of Technology was the Bihar version of IITs, and lured talented Madhesi students desirous of pursuing engineering education.
It's possible that some students still attend these institutions through various schemes of the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, but it's no longer possible for a Nepali citizen to walk into the principal's office and get admission without the mandatory clearances from various ministries of the central government in New Delhi. The "citizen's treatment" clause of the India-Nepal Friendship Treaty of 1950 has become superfluous.
The maze of laws, bylaws, rules and rulings in Nepal has made the acquisition of citizenship by a newly married bride a nightmare. Hence cross-border marriages have begun to go down. Since the opening of the labour market in West Asia and Malaysia, the Madhesi poor no longer have to go to Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat or Maharashtra in search of work. Fewer Indian labourers come north of the border for transplantation of rice during the monsoon after the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005 (MGNREGA). Less interaction at the people-to-people level implies that the understanding of each other's plight has gone down too.
Other than pilgrims, politicos and some plutocrats, few commoners travel between India and Nepal on a regular basis. Students swarm Australia. Workers rush towards Malaysia. Big talk of higher connectivity is all very well, but lower interaction on the ground implies that more business transactions are unlikely to restore greater warmth in Nepal-India relations.
The United States de-coupled its Nepal policy from India after the momentous Nixon-Mao meeting in Beijing in 1972 and has retained its hegemony over the "full-bright, half-bright and quarter-bright" elite in Kathmandu ever since. Europeans have a great distaste for Hindutva politics that sometimes overflows into Madhes from across the border. The growing intolerance of diversity, increasing persecution of minorities, public disdain for secularism and sheer callousness in governance has turned India into a pariah state with little moral standing in the international community. Declared a state tending towards becoming an "elected autocracy", India is no longer a draw for aspirants of democracy.
Premier Deuba is unlikely to break new ground in Nepal-India relations with his ritualistic visit. If he succeeds in maintaining the status quo, that should suffice for now.