Amid soured Nepal-India ties, Oli is threatening relations between peoples of two countries, leaders and experts sayForeign Ministry scrambles for damage control after the prime minister made unsubstantiated arguments about Ram’s birth and accused India of cultural aggression by creating a ‘fake’ Ayodhya.
At a time when Nepal-India ties have hit an all time low over boundary issues, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s remarks on Monday regarding the birthplace of Lord Ram have done more harm than good, as he has stoked a controversy that could affect people-to-people ties, leaders and foreign affairs analysts said on Tuesday.
While addressing a function to mark the 207th birth anniversary of poet Bhanubhakta Acharya, Oli accused India of cultural aggression and distorting historical facts. Oli said that Lord Ram was born in Ayodhya, which was near Thori in Nepal’s Birgunj—not in India—and that he was a Nepali.
Oli, however, stopped short of providing any concrete evidence to back his claim.
“Our historical facts were distorted. We thought Sita got married to Prince Ram of India. But this is not true. Sita was married to Ram of an Ayodhya that is in Nepal, not in India,” said Oli. “And that Ayodhya is a village situated west of Birgunj. India created a fake Ayodhya.”
Oli’s statement garnered quite a response, with leaders from his own ruling party describing it as “uncalled for” and ludicrous. Some leaders from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, too, were quick to rebut his arguments.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Foreing Affairs was scrambling for damage control.
“Attention of the government of Nepal has been drawn to the various interpretations of the remarks made by Prime Minister Oli,” said the ministry in a statement. “The remarks made by the prime minister are not linked to any political subject and have no intention at all to hurt the feeling and sentiment of anyone [sic].”
Leaders of Oli’s Nepal Communist Party (NCP) as well as the opposition, former ministers and diplomats, however, said that the damage had already been done.
According to them, Oli’s remarks were insensitive and that they could even lead to the souring of ties between the two countries at the people’s level.
Raghuji Pant, a Standing Committee member of the ruling party, told the Post that the prime minister should refrain from making statements on issues related to religious sentiments.
According to Pant, by stoking controversy over the birthplace of Ram, Oli has touched a raw nerve, as Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party came to power on the plank of Ram’s birthplace and with the promise to build a temple in Ayodhya.
“As Pashupatinath and Lumbini evoke emotions among Nepalis, it’s similar with millions of people of India when it comes to Ayodhya,” Pant told the Post. “Debate and discussions on such historical facts should be left to intellectuals and researchers. The prime minister should keep out of such issues. After the prime minister’s statement, I am afraid our bilateral relations will take a further dip.”
Oli, who came to power on his nationalist plank in the wake of an Indian border blockade in 2015, has upped the ante against India once again of late, accusing it of encroaching upon the Nepali territory and even sending a more lethal coronavirus than China. After his government decided to publish a new political map depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limipiyadhura as parts of Nepal, Oli had even taken a jibe at India’s national emblem.
The decision to publish a new map, and its subsequent adoption from Parliament, has made the Indian media, which itself is accused of toeing Modi’s line, hostile to Oli.
Oli, who is facing a tough time in his party for his poor governance, recently received a sudden support from across the spectrum after a section of the Indian media broadcast “news reports” about how he had fallen into Beijing’s trap and his relationship with Chinese Ambassador Hou Yanqi.
There was a vocal outcry against the “news report” in the Nepali public sphere, with politicians, civil society and social media condemning the allegations.
Some say Oli seems to have misinterpreted the widespread condemnation of the Indian media as a support for him and went a step ahead to talk about Ram’s birthplace in a bid to needle India.
“At a time when our ties with India have hit an all-time low since 1947, remarks made by the prime minister are very unfortunate,” Rameshnath Pandey, a former foreign minister, told the Post. “This is actually a cause for concern.”
Pandey said since Nepal and India entered a state of cartographic war, there has been a deadlock with dialogue not forthcoming in the near future.
“We are not talking with each other. This has never happened in the history of Nepal-India relations,” said Pandey. “If we fail to bring our ties back on track, or if our relationship further deteriorates, it will seriously impact the geo-political positioning in South Asia. We have to find a remedy before it’s too late.”
Some foreign policy experts suspect that Oli’s remarks on Ayodhya could dilute the agenda of boundary dispute with India.
“The timing is very important and a statement coming from the prime minister on such sensitive issues could divert the main agenda of holding talks with India,” Durga Prasad Bhattarai, a former foreign secretary and ambassador, told the Post. “Such remarks can become a distraction at a time when the boundary row is an important issue and both the countries need to sit down and talk.”
According to Bhattarai, such uncalled for remarks can also weaken Nepal’s position during talks.
“I wonder if our prime minister deliberately wants that,” said Bhattarai.
Bhattarai’s suspicions emanate from the fact that Oli has tried to use a bad press he has got in India to his advantage at home turf.
Meanwhile, a scrambling Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Pradeep Gyawali, who is Oli’s trusted lieutenant, however, has made an all-out effort to avoid any further damage.
“As there have been several myths and references about Shri Ram and the places associated with him, the prime minister was simply highlighting the importance of further studies and research of the vast cultural geography the Ramayana represents to obtain facts about Shri Ram, Ramayana and the various places linked to this rich civilization, the statement added after huge uproar from various quarters,” said the ministry.
“The remarks were not meant to debase the significance of Ayodhya and the cultural value it bears. It may be underlined that the tradition of celebrating Bibaha Panchami where a marriage procession coming from Ayodhya, India to Janakpur, Nepal takes place every year.”
Oli, who is facing a crisis in his own party, is currently also in a diplomatic quagmire given his government’s relationships with India, China and the United States, say foreing affairs analysts. And it would have been prudent on his part if he thought before he spoke, according to them.
“Oli himself has served as a foreign minister in the past so he should know how timing is of paramount importance in diplomacy,” said Bhattarai, the former diplomat.
“If there are issues, there are diplomatic channels at his government’s disposal. He does not need to always comment on all issues of international relations. Such actions can damage our ties with our friendly nations.”