Sinophobia revisitedNepal needs to rethink how we can build a relationship with China—a nation we understand so little about
One hears of Sinophobia much more in Delhi than in Kathmandu. Chinese influence on Nepal is a question many Indians ask—whether they are the supposed intelligentsia (some of whom comment on the Nepali constitution without having read it), the hotel managers or the shopkeepers in Karol Bagh. Unlike other neighbouring countries of India, China is one with which it shares few commonalities in terms of political system, colonial history, language, food or culture. The shape of one’s eyes continues to be a feature that distinguishes whether one is an Indian or not. Therefore, a sense of mystery is quite obvious.
Folks in Delhi were surprised to learn that the Indian Institute of Management in Shillong, Meghalaya (a state in northeast India) now offers a joint MBA programme with the Ocean University, China on Managing Business in India and China. This is an important moment since northeast India needs to prepare itself for a new kind of connectivity that will emerge as sub-regional market paradigms—where political boundaries will be less relevant—will develop.
It seems people in Delhi, the power centre of India, are not aware of what happens beyond Gurgaon or Noida. After the shift of the Indian capital from Calcutta to Delhi about one hundred years ago, the relationships with and understanding of Himalayan states have become a major concern for India as Calcutta was a transit point and commercial centre for those states. The political issues of the Himalayan states remain unresolved in India, and we need to give Delhi the benefit of the doubt. Until Delhi dedicates separate administrative machinery in its Foreign and Home services to understand and deal with these states, Sinophobia will persist.
An accidental neighbour
Tibet, Nepal’s neighbour to the north, was annexed by China in 1951. Nepal, especially Kathmandu, had a roti-beti (literally, bread-daughter; figuratively intimate) relationship with Tibet very much like the Madhesis’ relationship with the neighbouring Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh or the relationship Ranas and Shahs share with Rajasthan and other princely states of India. While growing up, we were told that ‘Shigatse’, the second largest city in Tibet, was christened by Newah traders. At one point in time, this village had around ten houses, and therefore, in the Newah language it was called ‘Zhikha’ meaning ten and ‘chhen’ meaning house. The Mallas of the Kathmandu Valley minted coins for Tibet. Newah traders returned with Tibetan wives. In the bhoey (feasts) of Nagbaha, the baha with largest number of Tibetan business folks in Patan known as ‘Lhasa Newahs’, Phing and Tofu found their ways into different Nepali dishes. Long before the habit of drinking Darjeeling/Assam tea with milk and sugar, tea was drunk like they did in Lhasa using chiyari or bhakchu with salt and butter. Mahjong, a Chinese board game, was more popular than cards.
However, after the Sino-Indian war of 1962 the routes to Tibet via Kalimpong and Sikkim were closed. Then Nepal had to deal with Beijing not Lhasa, similar to having to deal with Delhi instead of Calcutta after the change in the Indian Capital in 1911. King Mahendra wanted to take advantage of India’s defeat in the 1962 war and tried to cajole China through a policy of equidistance between the two neighbours. China obliged by starting trolley buses, textile factories and plants to manufacture tires—none of which are currently operational. The Naxalite revolutionaries of the 1970s found solace in the ‘China Pictoral’ magazine while the glossy ‘Sachitra Chin’ found its way into people’s drawing rooms along with Chinese pencils, pens and kung fu shoes. Romanticising with the Chinese became a popular pastime for the Valley’s denizens as Nepal continued to see India as a bullying big brother and China as the sweet cousin sister—to borrow the words of columnist CK Lal. Some Nepalis in the power quarters of Kathmandu still see the need for Nepal to replace India with China. But how will people who get scared at looking at the pictures in the menus of Chinese restaurants build proximity with a country whose language, script, religion, culture, political system and food habits are so different from ours? Therefore, we need to rethink how we can build a relationship with China—a nation we understand so little about. Economics may be the only good reason.
A section of the Indian population continues to think that India has been a benevolent neighbour that has bestowed transit facilities to Bhutan and Nepal. It is difficult to explain to this section that such facilities are the right of landlocked nations as per international conventions rather than a favour bestowed by India. As for security maniacs in Delhi, they need to think what the costs of fencing a 1,850 km long border that India shares with Nepal and of maintaining a border security apparatus will be. Will the costs be lower than having an open border? With the per capita income of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar being lower than that of Nepal, the Indian side of the border does benefit tremendously from the open border regime. While continuously questioning the open border between Nepal and India does spice up the lives of some retired folks in India and politically-irrelevant folks in Nepal, it is best to look at the issue with a cost-benefit analysis in mind rather than with fervent nationalism.
The 21st century is surely going to be an Asian century with China and India at the centre of economic activities, growth and development. Nepal has the unique geographic position to be linked to both the countries with special trade and transit arrangements. The political transformation in Myanmar gives Nepal a strong competition to advance linkages with the two
big neighbours. The opportunities of the 3Ts—Transit, Tourism and Transmission (power and communication)—remain. Rather than getting stuck in political discourse, we need to focus on taking advantage of Nepal’s unique position and unleashing its potential.