Interviews | Diplomacy | South Asia

Ashok Swain on Tensions in India-Nepal Relations

Ashok Swain speaks on India’s increasingly fraught relationship with Nepal.

By Arun Budhathoki for
Ashok Swain on Tensions in India-Nepal Relations
Credit: Courtesy Ashok Swain

India and Nepal have long had close ties, but those have become strained in recent years. Recently, a road inauguration by India sparked a new round for an old border dispute between the two sides, adding to tensions.

Ashok Swain is an Indian-born academic and professor of peace and conflict research at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University. In 2017, he was appointed as the UNESCO Chair of International Water Cooperation and became the first UNESCO Chair of Uppsala University. Note:

The Diplomat’s Arun Budhathoki spoke with Swain about the recent skirmishes between Nepal and India and what the future holds for them.

The Diplomat: How do you perceive the recent land encroachment by India on Nepal’s claimed territory? Is this guided by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi or India’s foreign policy?

Ashok Swain: I don’t see any difference between Indian Prime Minister Modi’s idea and India’s foreign policy. It is true that India’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Nepal in particular and other South Asian countries, in general, have been big-brotherly and less consultative and often lack mutual respect. With time and changing geopolitics, the policy was going through a slow change, but the transition has stopped with Narendra Modi being the prime minister. Modi, after coming to power in 2014, has further reinforced India’s old neighborhood policy.

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Both countries have their claim, but India doesn’t adhere to the 1816 Suguali Treaty, which clearly says that Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhara belong to Nepal. Do you think Nepal should take the matter up with Britain?

I don’t see how going to Britain will help. Erstwhile colonial rulers have abdicated their historical responsibilities. Britain neither has the power or nor the policy to make any difference. There has been similar demand by some in Ethiopia for Egypt’s old colonial ruler Britain to engage in its dispute over a big dam with Egypt. That has not gone anywhere. The best available option is talks between the Indian and Nepali sides and arriving at a negotiated settlement. If not, the next option is to approach the International Court of Justice and get a legal verdict.

India is often seen as an expansionist or a regional bully in Nepal. There’s a continuous rhetoric in India that Nepal is merely a satellite or proxy state – and recently a communist or pro-China state. Is India’s intention to make Nepal the next Palestine?

India under a right-wing regime has been high on rhetoric and low on performance. Its economy has been in a terrible condition even before the COVID-19 crisis and its territorial security is increasingly being challenged from two fronts, Pakistan and China. The kind of hawkish voices one hears from India should not be taken seriously as they lack the basic understanding of changing global and regional geopolitics and carry a highly inflated view about India’s military and economic strength and global power position.

How do you view the rising tensions between Nepal and India? In 2015, India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal and now it has built a road in Lipulkeh. Nepalis fear that India is trying to occupy its territory illegally. Is India’s interest in Nepal only limited to water resources and its security?

I don’t think India wants to occupy Nepal’s territory. The real problem India suffers in dealing with Nepal is the lack of sensitivity and mutual respect. India has failed to realize that this approach has become counter-productive for its security and instead of doing a course correction, it is further cementing that path. There is lots to gain by both countries, particularly India, in maintaining a mutually beneficial approach while approaching water issues. The “me only” approach has never been beneficial and sustainable in any transboundary water-sharing arrangement.

Analysts in Nepal say that India has been interfering in Nepal’s political affairs since the 1950s and that they are only interested in maintaining the status quo of controlled instability in Nepal. What do you think India wants from Nepal?

I think India as a country and its people have an immense amount of goodwill for Nepal. But, if we are looking at the regime’s point of view, it has a myopic, short-term approach of one-upmanship. Controlled instability has its limits and playing that game, India has already lost a very major portion of its influence. Indian policy needs to be timely and mature if it wants to get back Nepal to its side, and that relationship needs to be developed as I have been saying based on mutual respect and cooperative engagements.

How can India and Nepal come to a mutual solution?

Talk, talk, and talk. There is no better solution than to talk to each other while trying to find a solution. However, that talk has to be based on finding a mutually agreed formula, not on one party dominating the agenda and conversation.

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Both countries have a lot in common: geography, history, culture, language, and religion. If they can’t talk and find a solution, who else can?

Nepalis don’t think that India will return the occupied territories and they also accuse Nepali politicians for being complacent and not acting on this. The Nepali government also recently announced that it would issue a new map that would include all the occupied territories. Nepal also has deployed Armed Polie Force (APF) next to the Lipulekh border and is setting up APF border outpost at Kalapani and other border areas. Should Nepal fence its borders?

Fencing the borders is not a solution and it has not been tried anywhere. If India and Bangladesh can mutually agree to address most of their border disputes, why can’t India and Nepal do the same? By bringing in security forces and highly securitizing the issue, it will be difficult for the country to negotiate in terms of giving while talking. I think Nepal should first work towards employing all its political and diplomatic capital on a bipartisan basis in asking India to reach a comprehensive agreement on all bilateral border disputes.

India often blames Nepal, saying that it plays the China card against it. But at the same time India plays the China card or Pakistan card to pinpoint anything anti-India happening in Nepal. Why do you think such an opposing and self-contradictory mentality exists in Delhi administration?

This is an easy way out as they very well know that their missteps have led to this situation.

Indian Chief of Army Staff General MM Naravane recently commented that Nepal protested the building of the road on Lipulekh at the behest of China. India also banned palm oil imports from Nepal. How do you view the general’s comments on Nepal?

India is increasingly worried about China’s rising influence in Nepal. But, instead of doing self-introspection, it has taken the easy route of blaming Nepal. Friendship is always based on friendship, not on coercion or covert operations.

Indian generals had a long tradition of keeping themselves away from commenting on politically and diplomatically sensitive matters. But, that has changed and a new trend has emerged in India, and generals are commenting on anything and everything. They are more eager to keep the ruling dispensation happy than adhering to the basic norms of their profession.

With the rise of China and vocal youths in Nepal, do you think India will be able to do that or it should start respecting Nepal’s sovereignty?

As I have been saying before, the world is not the same anymore as it used to be. Indian foreign policy needs to accept that as soon as possible and undertake a course correction as fast as possible.

What is the future of Nepal and India and its relations?

Mainland India can never think of economically developing as an island amid a sea of poverty and instability. Nepal and India’s relations have to be friendly and cooperative. There are so many areas for mutual gains. However, India has to play a very active role in keeping the relations that way. If India has the ambition to be a global power, it has to have a friendly neighborhood. If it can’t be a friend with Nepal, then with which other countries it can be.

This interview has been edited.