Pick up the lost thread

Published: September 30, 2009 - 17:43 Updated: July 3, 2015 - 16:10

Instead of clichéd nationalism and official discourse, the people of Nepal and India can creatively redefine their relations

Anil Bhattarai Kathmandu/Toronto

The official Nepal-India relations have become very narrow in focus and truncated in vision. This is ironical given the fact that these relations could be vastly expanded beyond the often sterile discussions about investments in a few mega projects, the empty nationalist posturing, and hawkish scare-mongering about the clichéd threat of extremism across the border. Obviously, this demands expanding the scope of trans- border dialogue to include the diverse range of actors beyond the currently dominant narrow circle of South Block diplomats, top political leaders, big media houses, big NGOs, mainstream security experts and big business houses.

To be more precise, small farmers, artisans, journalists, women, vernacular poets, theatre artistes, small businessmen, teachers, paramedics, and fruit vendors, to name a few, have genuine stakes in building relations based on respect, equity, justice and mutual exchange of practical ideas. Interactions among them, especially along open borders, occur on a daily basis through myriad forms. It is only by involving them and further strengthening these existing exchanges and also building novel ones that genuine people-to-people relations could be established between Nepal and India. This will also go a long way in transcending the narrow nationalist posturing on both sides. In the long run, it will be effective in dealing with the potential threats of a variety of extremism. This would enable both the States to spend less on killing machines and more on improving the lives of their people.

It has become a standard practice that when a Nepali prime minister makes an official visit to India, his/ her entourage includes political elites, owners of a few big business houses, international relations experts, top-level bureaucrats and media people. Predictably, the focus is on a few set of macro issues such as trade and transit, the curtailing of extremist activities, and investment promotion. Bihar's chief minister might add Kosi dam or UP's Mayawati might share concerns about cross-border crimes to the agenda. Needless to say, wheeling dealing often happens behind closed doors. Yet, the assumption is that these people would be able to represent Nepal's interests. But what we consider as Nepal's interest is in fact the interest of a small clique of Kathmandu elite, and what goes in the name of Nepal-India relation is in reality restricted to Kathmandu and Delhi.

The civil society interactions between these two countries have expanded the constituency a bit, but they still represent Kathmandu's politically savvy but narrow elites whose encounter with their counterparts occurs mostly in Delhi in the form of India International Center seminars and official tours (junkets) organised by the Indian Embassy. Much of the interactions that actually happen through our open borders are usually not part of the official discourse. It is here that a vast potential lies to transcend the truncated official vision.

Kathmandu and Delhi's bureaucrats and politicians obviously know that there is a more than 1600km of open border between Nepal and India. But they have shown little interest in exploring the vast potential this provides for genuinely building trans-border connections. In fact, especially on the Nepali side, the hard posturing on open border problems has become debilitating in exploring these potentials.

The Nepali political class, both the Left and the Right - repeatedly raised the issue of border-encroachment by the 'Indian side'. The Dusgaja pillars (the pillars on the no-man's land) apparently have gone missing in hundreds of places. But the general response has been, especially among the Left and the hill intellectuals, a call for constructing a border wall or secure barbed-wire fences. What these elites do not consider is that this will disrupt everyday interactions across these borders. Nor do they tell us where they will get the money to spend on this massive construction project when they don't even have the resources to provide emergency food security and health services to citizens suffering from chronic hunger, epidemics and sudden floods.

There are some genuine issues involved such as harassment at border-crossings; unscientific and haphazard dam constructions that inundate land and villages in Nepal. But these are mostly issues of law and order and corruption rather than of national level aggression.

The most far-sighted and feasible way forward is to expand the circle of engagements. This can occur in many ways. For example, the 'Mithilabasis' (people of Mithila) of both the countries can organise annual Mithila Mela in which they can have story-telling sessions; songs and dances; cultural narratives; exhibition of exquisite Mithila paintings, arts, craft; Mithila poetry sessions or theatre festivals in and around border towns. And who can deny this rich cultural inheritance, and the beautiful, nuanced language of Mithila. This can go a long way in reviving folk cultures that are dying out. Many of these already happen. The challenge is to mark them as important pillars of people-to-people relations.

Joint action research is a good way to provide healthcare in villages and towns along the border. Nepal announced free healthcare in December 2006 and a few media reports showed that people from across the border in Bihar and UP also came in to avail of the services. The Nepali media, however, portrayed this as "Indians, the stealer of our services". Wouldn't it be innovative if the state governments of Bihar and UP along with the Nepali government find a mechanism to publicly finance joint healthcare projects along the border areas? Instead of nationalist posturing, this can authentically help in establishing a renewed sense of mutual respect and cooperation.

Or, how about organising regular interactions between farmers of the two countries? Such exchanges are now increasingly recognised as the best way to innovate in agriculture as the expert-led energy and chemical intensive green revolution agriculture has resulted in marginalisation for majority of the farming communities. In the face of continuing decline of soil fertility, destruction of water resources, dwindling bio-diversity and disappearing seed varieties, there are increasingly large number of farmers who have begun practising highly productive, low-input, sustainable food production practices on both sides of the border. Annual farmers' fairs along the border can be meaningfully productive.

Also, can our feminists venture out of the Kathmandu-Delhi seminar circuits and organise women's collectives along border towns? You might have to brave the heat, dust and grime but it will pay off in the end. It will at least highlight the plight of women in a patriarchal land. This could also help in tackling violence against women, and trafficking.

On the Nepali side, we have to accept that the anti-India nationalism in the past has often been targeted against a vast group of people in our plains. Their struggle for dignity and participation currently is also a process of undoing the past so that we can redefine nationalism in a more inclusive manner. Indeed, both the people of Nepal and India have a stake in creatively redefining the agenda. All they need is an imaginative and compassionate realm of sharing and interaction.

The writer is a PhD scholar at the University of Toronto, Canada and a columnist with The Kathmandu Post, Kathmandu

Instead of clichéd nationalism and official discourse, the people of Nepal and India can creatively redefine their relations Anil Bhattarai Kathmandu/Toronto

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