Neighbourhood NirvanaWhen I am in a class room with students from many countries, I ask two students from Nepal and India about where India and Nepal meet as two sovereign countries.
When I am in a class room with students from many countries, I ask two students from Nepal and India about where India and Nepal meet as two sovereign countries. Their enumeration of meeting points flow; they talked of tough heights, rugged terrains, fascinating cultures and diverse farmlands, crowded cities, calm villages, wrinkled faces and blossoming youths. Listening to their accounts, students from other countries profess amazement. They cannot imagine that two sovereigns can coexist peacefully in this manner. We are always wondering as to which international relations theory captures this phenomenon.
I put another question to the same two students: Tell us where these two countries do not have intersecting interests? Now they are hesitant and speak haltingly, trying to gather courage. Suddenly there is a silence and desperation fills the class room. Then they say that Nepal and India do not share aspects related to size, population, history, perception, emotions, attitude, gratitude, acceptance, orientation, public opinion, handling of domestic affairs and thought processes. They say that the two countries do not meet on points concerning domination, respect of each others’ national security interests, interference, micro management, and dealings with other countries. These replies demonstrate that the meeting points are vast, deep and objectively quantifiable. On the other hand, the points of discord and apprehension are largely subjective and based on misperceptions.
These students have just emerged from their teenage years, but they have already formed an opinion about India-Nepal relations. This formation of opinions is interesting, because while issues on India-China relations are amply discussed and written about in the media, they do not figure into the text books of these countries. Students are our next generation; they are the decision makers of tomorrow. Educational institutions have to reinvigorate and inspire students with history, knowledge, wisdom and wider orientation. Such institutions must become the flag bearer of positive, detached and objective thinking.
India and Nepal meet everywhere. From democracy to pluralism, biodiversity to livelihood, folk tales to religious spaces, fossil fuel to pharmaceuticals, disasters to cross border environmental injuries, historic evolution to hydrological flows, yoga to sports, freedom struggles to political revolution, health to education and aspirations to vision, these two countries intersect from all sides to generate a new equilibrium. They meet from the grass roots to the governance level. They meet at many different points, with layers of relations that epitomise local, national and regional integration.
Reprioritising four layers
India-Nepal relations have been firmly established in four distinct interactive terrains viz., people to people level, civil society level, business-commercial level and government to government level. These intrinsic interactive matrices buttressed by an open border regime make this relation unique and special. The very nature of state formation, foreign policy orientation, governance structure, and power echelons on both sides of the border put the government to government relations at the top.
This overwhelming domination of governments underplaying and even neglecting the other three core interactive terrains invariably creates an awkward situation with bilateral chicaneries and imbroglios. This government-led relationship could work effectively in other geographies and countries, but not in India and Nepal as the bilateral flows are historically so natural, smooth and unhindered. This becomes much more serious when governments identify themselves with particular regimes in each other’s political system and sometimes on a specific ideological plane. And when this proves problematic, it often affects geographical horizons that are beyond the realm of protractedly practiced bilateralism. This is where relationships that have been nurtured so assiduously tend to hit the rock bottom.
People to people exchanges are actually neutral to government and political formations. They have remained unaffected even in conflict situations. However, the discourse and debate have remained government driven and nation centric. It is precisely because of this that day to-day-incidents and events tend to overtake the ‘eternal and exemplary’ relationship.
Therefore, when India and Nepal rethink and renegotiate their relationship with the aim of meeting the challenges of the 21st century, could the roles of these four interactive matrices be reprioritised? This amounts to consciously recognising the real order of interactions and also firmly institutionalising them. In fact, except for fringe elements, these crucial stakeholders propagate, and sustainably conserve and secure the national interest of both these countries. Let the people-to-people inter-dependence lead the relationship along with civil society and business-commercial level interactions. And let the government to government deliberations, negotiations and operational details facilitate and consolidate the role of these three core actors. This is where both India and Nepal can propagate a new policy of Neighbourhood Nirvana.
This sounds impractical, but it is possible. This looks ludicrous to supporters of the status quo, but people at large desire that this out of the box thinking be operationalised. The fiercely adverse diplomatic and media exchanges between India and Nepal after the hijacking of the Delhi bound Indian Airlines (IC 814) flight to Kandahar in Afghanistan in 1999 brought the traditional-special relations between these two countries to an extreme low. The stakeholders in the thriving tourism sectors on both sides of the border started raising a hue and cry as they were the ones who were the hardest hit. Deeply entrenched stakeholders like travel agents, hotels, communications, trade and commerce, trekking and mountaineering, conferences and pilgrimages and tourists at large pressured their respective governments to negotiate.
So the tourism sector also acted as a positive stakeholder in restoring peace and normalcy. This is a minute example of how a people centric context could be a determining variable. This people driven ethos has to criss-cross all crucial intersections including in connectivity, infrastructure, energy, science and technology, education, health, trade, agriculture, media, sports creative interactions, water and disasters. This could bring a more rewarding and higher equilibrium.
This is where the conventionally dominant Delhi-Kathmandu axis could be substantially based on new models like India’s ‘cooperative federalism’ and Nepal’s newly evolving constructive federalism. Nepal’s new states can now interact with the bordering Indian states more intimately and formally. The relationship could thus move from dependence to interdependence.
Lama is a Senior Professor in Jawaharlal Nehru University and also served as Member, National Security Advisory Board, Government of India