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The uses of outrage

Publication Date : 02-10-2012


Anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal is deeply rooted among sections of the population and has a long history. It has two different aspects. The first is a general resentment of India’s civilisational and cultural dominance over Nepal. From its inception, Nepal has struggled to define itself as a separate entity with its own values and culture. This is difficult as almost all Nepali cultural forms are either borrowed from Indian ones or have deeper roots in India. This can clearly be seen over the great passions that the issue of Buddhism arouses in Nepal. Many Nepalis, who do not practice Buddhism in their daily lives, are keen to claim that the Buddha was born in Nepal. They are outraged when claims are made that the Buddha was born in India. Underlying this outrage, even exacerbating it, is an awareness that Buddhism as a doctrine and cultural form originated and flourished on what is now Indian soil before it came to Nepal.

The second aspect of hostility towards India is more directly political. This has to do with real or perceived attempts by the Indian government to intervene and influence the political process in Nepal. In most cases Nepal’s politicians cannot resist this influence and it often explodes in impotent rage.

Nepal’s politicians have sometimes sought to resist this influence. But very few of them have been successful. King Mahendra was perhaps the only Nepali ruler who managed, though to a limited extent, in undermining Indian influence by reaching out to China and other countries such as the United States.

More often, Nepal’s rulers have sought to exploit anti-Indian sentiment for reasons quite separate from ensuring greater autonomy for the nation. During the Panchayat years, for example, the rulers succumbed to Indian influence. But they cultivated the public rhetoric of “nationalism” in order to suppress internal rivals. By publicly stating that India was the enemy, they could suppress dissident activities within the country on the grounds that they were “anti-national”. The government could rely on the general resentment towards India to gain at least some public support for its actions.

Nepal’s communists recognised this. It was this awareness that led them to state that the Panchayat regime was paying service to a “fake nationalism”. Their own brand of nationalism, the communists claimed, was in contrast genuinely concerned with maintaining greater autonomy.

Such a position was easy to maintain during the years of the Panchayat when the dissident communist parties had no role to play in the affairs of the state. As they grew more powerful, however, and either came to occupy positions in government (like the Unified Marxist Leninist) or established something of a parallel state (like the Maoists during the time of the rebellion), they too exploited anti-Indian sentiment in ways that closely resembled the methods of Mahendra.

In 2004, for example, the arrest of a number of senior Maoist leaders in India caused the rest of the leadership to move back to Nepal. They established their headquarters in Rolpa and declared a major change in their strategy. The Maoist Chairman Prachanda declared that the party was now engaged in a movement of nationalist assertion. He claimed that an Indian invasion of Nepal was imminent, and urged the entire Maoist army to dig tunnels and bunkers to prepare for it. Nationwide, Maoist activists tried to instigate hostility towards India among the population.

In fact, this attempt had very little to do with India. There were a number of other problems that the Maoist chairman was trying to resolve. He was first, trying to unite a demoralised Maoist party organisation under him and infuse it with energy. Second, he was trying to create conditions through which he could discredit his party rival Baburam Bhattarai and ensure his unparalleled dominance. And third, he was trying to create public opinion in favour of the Maoists rapprochement with King Gyanendra. (At that time, the Maoist leadership desired to reach a power-sharing agreement with the monarch and marginalise the parliamentary political parties. This gambit of course failed miserably when the king took over executive power in February 2005.)

The Mohan Baidya-led Maoist party is currently engaged in a similar attempt. Despite the rhetoric of their leaders, the intention in the campaign to ban Hindi moves and prevent Indian vehicles from Nepali soil has little to do with preventing Indian influence over Nepali political affairs. Rather, this is an attempt to exploit the latent grievances that Nepalis feel towards India to propel the party towards greater national significance. The CPN-Maoist leaders are trying to shape public discourse in a way that will distract attention from the other crucial political matters over which they have little influence and regarding which they are ambivalent—the federalism debate being the most important of these.

As during the Panchayat years, it will be the general population that will suffer as a result of the anti-India campaign. Anti-Nepali sentiment has already emerged in India’s border regions with Nepal. Cinema halls are starting to bear economic losses. Over time, the campaign may lead to a diplomatic rift between the two countries and the disruption of the transport of essential commodities into Nepal.

The matter of ensuring greater political and economic autonomy for Nepal is of course an important one. This, however, requires sustained effort on the part of Nepali leaders. For one, it is essential for them to maintain a united front in foreign relations and abandon their historical propensity to try and use Indian influence against their domestic rivals. Campaigns of the sort currently led by the Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist, on the other hand, will have no positive impact on the nature of the Nepali state and society.


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