Juvenile remarks from a country’s executive head about a sensitive subject is capable of deteriorating the country’s international standing. Nepali Prime Minister KP Oli made a similar baseless and immature statement on July 13. He claimed that Hindu deity Lord Rama was born in a village named ‘Ayodhya’ which is towards the west of Birgunj. He further asserted that India somehow ‘twisted’ the cultural facts as Oli pondered how King Dashrath must have travelled to Janakpur to marry off his son when there were meagre transport facilities in the ancient time. Oli merely relied on the weak transportation and communication systems to clarify his stance and added that it was ‘impossible’ for King Dashrath to know there was an eligible princess for marriage due to communiqué barriers. According to PM Oli, therefore, the ‘real’ Ayodhya is in Nepal, near Birgunj, and refused to debate further as he sensed ‘one attack after another’.
The following day, there was an uproar across the border as people criticised PM Oli’s unproven remarks. PM Oli touched a sensitive nerve when he spoke about the already religiously controversial Ayodhya and also toyed with Bhartiya Janata Party’s principal ideology based on Hindutva. This naturally angered not only the Hindu Sena but also Hindu supporters across both the countries. Consequently, BJP spokesperson Bizay Sonkar Shastri condemned Oli’s statement and said no one is allowed to play with religious sentiments. Shastri also drew similarities between the left party of India and CPN, highlighting that playing with people’s faith will lead to widespread rejection like India’s left party did. Similarly, Indian netzines took to social media to ridicule PM Oli with anecdotes suggesting that everything originated from Nepal.
After the uproar, the Nepali foreign Ministry scrambled to do some damage control. The Ministry released a statement on July 14 clarifying PM’s stance and that Oli didn’t mean to hurt any religious sentiments. On the same account, India’s Foreign Ministry refrained from making any statement after receiving clarification from Nepal’s Ministry. However, some experts opined that by then, the bizarre remarks managed to worsen Nepal-India ties at the people level as well.
Kathmandu-Delhi struggles spread amongst the community, primarily affecting the border regions. There was an extreme scenario in Varanasi when a man who claimed to be a Nepali was tonsured and forced to chant anti-Oli slogans by the Vishwa Hindu Sena as a result of Oli’s comments. The President of Hindu Sena, Arun Pathak, shared the video where he forced the man to honour the livelihood opportunities he got in India despite being a Nepali. Pathak also threatened the lives of all Nepalis living in India if Oli doesn’t retract his statement. It was later revealed that the alleged Nepali man was an Indian who was paid Rs 1,000 to orchestrate the event. However, the religious outfit’s intention was apparent as it sent across a message to Oli about his remarks by threatening Nepalis, which could further jeopardise Nepal-India relations. Political and foreign policy experts expressed fear over such political bitterness penetrating in the community and said it’s a matter of ‘great concern’.
Oli, who came to power using the ‘ultra-nationalist’ agenda in 2015 after the Indian blockade, is now facing disapproval within his party for his ineffective actions and strategies towards the COVID-19 crisis. Oli accused the party leaders of having aligned with the southern block, after Oli’s government issued the new political map, to ‘remove him from power’. This move exacerbated the situation as leaders became more determined to take Oli down. Internal party dispute was seen percolating in the country’s foreign relations as well.
Oli is visibly growing closer with China and is gambling Nepal-India relations which is clearly against Nepal’s non-alignment foreign policy. Many experts and leaders have urged the government not to distance India but to instead keep both the countries at an equidistance. Nepal-India’s interdependence because of the socio-cultural ties that predate to the 19th century is extremely eminent. Nepal and India don’t only share Delhi-Kathmandu diplomatic relations, but the open border has created a very complex and nuanced border dynamics, which Nepal cannot neglect. People-to-people ties are the foundation of Nepal-India relations, and Hinduism is just a thread that further strengthens it. Therefore, Oli’s cultural encroachment was an insult to this unique dynamic.
Nevertheless, Nepal-India relations seem to have reached the lowest point for the first time in history. PM Oli has been provoking India for quite some time now as a series of events suggest the same. Firstly, the unilateral issuance of Nepal’s new political map, which includes the disputed territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura followed by the constitutional amendment to revise the emblem was scorned by India. Secondly, Oli’s remarks about the Indian Coronavirus being more lethal was another aggressive statement. Thirdly, Nepal’s decision to ‘ban’ Indian media channels as it displayed ‘objectionable’ content about a conspiracy with Hou Yanqi, Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, also was a provocative move. Finally, the juvenile claim that ‘real’ Ayodhya is in Nepal drew widespread discontent. PM Oli further added that science and knowledge were originated and developed in Nepal. This was analysed as an act of over-glorification of the ‘national identity’ and a means to divert people’s attention away from his government’s failure, notably the failed attempt to contain the spread of Coronavirus. Dinesh Bhattarai, former foreign policy adviser and ambassador, added that bilateral relations between Nepal and the southern neighbour has become ‘dangerous’.
Additionally, ahead of Oli’s remarks, analysts had already condemned Oli’s foreign policy following the deteriorating relations with India. Experts and opposition party termed Oli’s foreign policy as ‘disarray and disoriented’. Nepali Congress and the Janata Samajbadi Party concluded that Oli government’s foreign policy is decreasing Nepal’s credibility in the international sphere. Besides, the oppositions opined that the ruling NCP’s policy is a double standard. Oli is regularly found baffled in a geopolitical ‘quagmire’ between China, India, and the United States.
With proven electoral success using the ‘anti-India’ narrative in 2015, Oli is now often conveniently seen turning towards it when he feels besieged and is, therefore, vastly responsible for smothering the old cultural ties with India. Oli’s unsubstantiated claim over Ayodhya was just one of his many comments and actions which has pushed India away while strengthening relations with China. India already suspects that Oli has been acting at the ‘behest’ of someone else, pointing to China. Nonetheless, these childish remarks can weigh heavy on Nepal. Nepal must strictly abide by its ‘non-alignment’ foreign policy as both the neighbours are equally important. Only from a balanced relationship with these two neighbouring countries can Nepal take the most advantage, prioritising its national interest. The Nepali Prime Minister must call for a dialogue with India to resolve the much-heated border dispute which might help in some damage control.
Author: Shraddha More