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The Bharatiya big brother and all his neighbours

India’s relations with China and Pakistan are problematic is easy to understand. Less easy to justify are our troubled relations with Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In each case they are mostly of our own making, writes Ramachandra Guha.

columns Updated: May 09, 2015 23:28 IST

In his 2011 book The Tryst Betrayed: Reflections on Diplomacy and Development, Jagat Mehta argued that ‘Nehru did not fully recognise, and the [Foreign] Ministry failed to advise him, that in the twentieth century nothing was as difficult as diplomacy between unequal neighbours’. Then, speaking of one neighbour in particular, Mehta added that ‘there is no greater example of the squandering of permanent and beneficial interdependence in all history as between India and Nepal’.

I was reminded of Mehta’s words when following India’s response to the recent, tragic, earthquake in Nepal. Our government’s swift despatch of rescue teams was commendable, though it was sullied somewhat by the Prime Minister’s public boast that his Nepali counterpart only heard of the earthquake through his Twitter handle. (Even if this were true, the decent, as well as the diplomatic, thing to do would have been to keep it private.)

Far worse, however, was the breathless, voyeuristic, and sensationalist coverage by Indian TV channels in English and Hindi. As the respected Kathmandu editor Kanak Mani Dixit told the BBC, ‘the shrillness, jingoism, exaggerations, boorishness and sometimes mistakes in coverage have rankled the host community’. Another Nepali commentator remarked that the Salman Khan case had mercifully forced the Indian media’s gaze away from his country.

India’s overbearing attitude towards Nepal goes back a long way. It is described with feeling in the memoirs of the great democrat BP Koirala, a man who cut his teeth in the Indian freedom struggle and went on to fight against autocracy in his native land. Koirala revered Mahatma Gandhi, and was a close friend of Jayaprakash Narayan, Rammanohar Lohia and Jawaharlal Nehru.

In 1947, then still in exile, Koirala founded the Nepal National Congress, in name and organisational structure modelled on the Indian National Congress. After an arduous struggle, Koirala and his party finally forced the King to hold the country’s first democratic elections, in 1959. The Nepal Congress won a landslide victory, and Koirala himself became prime minister.

Because of his own personal and political background, Koirala was predisposed to being friendly towards India. But India made it hard, and then harder, for him to retain the sympathy he began with. In his Atmabrittanta he writes that, as prime minister of Nepal, he found three sets of actors ranged against him. Two were obvious and predictable — the royal court and the landed elite. The third was surprising — this was the Republic of India and its representatives.

Back in the 1940s, Nehru and Koirala had fought the British together and gone to jail together. Now, a decade and a half later, Nehru’s government wished Nepal to not chart its own independent course but take most or all of its cues from India. Indian ambassadors thought of themselves as imperial plenipotentiaries. Our man in Kathmandu ‘believed that he was even greater than the King’. One envoy was so pompous and overbearing that Koirala publicly complained that ‘the Indian ambassador wishes that our country be like his district board, and he regards himself as chairman of that district board’.

India’s two most difficult neighbours are China and Pakistan. Our relations with both have been fraught with tension. This is because of complex, disputed, historical legacies. The Chinese do not accept the McMahon Line, which demarcates our boundary with theirs, arguing that it was imposed on them by British imperialists. Both India and Pakistan claim the whole of the erstwhile princely state of Jammu and Kashmir. These territorial disputes are compounded by nationalist rivalries. China competes with India for influence in Asia and the world. Pakistan, or more particularly Pakistan’s Army, wants to avenge its humiliating defeat in the war of 1971.

That India’s relations with China and Pakistan are problematic is easy to understand. Less easy to justify are our troubled relations with Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. In each case they are mostly of our own making.

In Sri Lanka, Indira Gandhi and MG Ramachandran lent covert material and military support to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eeelam. Then, in a show of hubris, Rajiv Gandhi sent in the Indian Army to tame the Tigers. Our actions successively alienated the Sinhalas and the Tamils both, leading the former to seek succour from China and to the latter harbouring a smouldering resentment, occasionally manifesting itself in terror attacks (as in the one that killed Rajiv Gandhi himself). Like in Nepal, some (though not all) of our diplomats in Sri Lanka have thrown their weight around, one earning himself the appellation of ‘Viceroy’.

That Bangladesh became a free nation was largely due to Indian help and intervention. The hosting of nine million Bengali refugees in 1970 marks a high point in Indian foreign policy; just as the defeat of the Pakistan Army the following year is the crowning success of Indian military history. Yet it did not take us long to squander the goodwill. The Union government in New Delhi, as well as the state government of West Bengal, took an unyielding line on water disputes. Then New Delhi markedly favoured the Awami League, alienating other important political formations in Bangladesh.

‘They [the Indians] just did not understand clean diplomacy,’ wrote BP Koirala in his memoirs. ‘India’s relations with its [smaller] neighbours is its greatest failure in foreign policy,’ wrote Jagat Mehta in his memoirs. Two damning verdicts, one from a long-time friend of India, the other from a longserving Indian diplomat and former foreign secretary. And both largely true. It will take much more than prime ministerial tweets or planes loaded with food and housing materials to refashion our relations with Nepal (and Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh), so as to replace patronage and condescension with empathy and friendship.

(Ramachandra Guha’s most recent book is Gandhi Before India You can follow him on Twitter at @Ram_Guha. The views expressed are personal.)

First Published: May 09, 2015 23:23 IST