Tucked away in a remote corner of the world, Nepal is perhaps easy to miss amongst a long list of struggling, underdeveloped nations, especially when looking with American eyes. On the surface, its story is all too familiar: a narrative of political unrest, newfound democracy, and an undereducated, underserved, mostly rural population. Yet, its global significance is far greater than its underdevelopment would suggest. Nepal forms a significant stretch of the border between India and China, and frequently becomes involved in political scuffles between the two giants. Its geopolitical position ironically became all the more evident and powerful after the country was rocked by a natural disaster.
On April 25th, 2015, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck the center of Nepal, followed by over 400 substantial aftershocks including another 7.3 magnitude quake on May 12th. 9,000 Nepalese lost their lives, over eight million were displaced, and the damage since has totaled near $10 billion, which is over half of the annual Nepalese GDP. Just days after the disaster, Chinese Red Cross tents and Indian search-and-rescue teams popped up across the capital Kathmandu, and continued to be a major presence even after international attention (and aid) began to slip away. As the world turned its eyes elsewhere, Nepal jump-started political change, and with it strong opposition, while India and China remained eager spectators.
Six months after the earthquake, Nepal finds itself frozen. Its publically elected Constituent Assembly leapt into uncharacteristic action over the summer and produced, pushed through, and ratified a constitution on September 20th that has been over fifty years in the making. Protests by marginalized ethnic groups in the south, the Madhesis, over the new system of federalism left 40 dead including a 2-year-old shot at the hands of the Nepalese riot police. Curfews and strikes have shut down the capital for long stretches, and an unofficial trade blockade from India has lead to a crippling fuel shortage. As the blockade persists, it has begun to severely affect other imports like food staples and even emergency medication. Nepal’s April disaster may have faded from the international headlines, but for the Nepalese people the suffering has become even more intense. In the eyes of many enduring skyrocketing prices and shortages of basic necessities, blame lies not with the aftershocks but with India.
India and Nepal share a close and storied history. Cultural ties between the two nations, including religion, language, and value systems bind their populations together particularly along their border. Indian involvement in the Nepalese political system has been a given for decades and the Nepalese Army and the Indian Armed Forces are known to share common blood. Even Maoist rebels in the two nations have rallied together for support, particularly during Nepal’s Civil War from 1996 to 2006. After Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s landslide election victory last year, one of the first countries he chose to visit was Nepal. India has long been comfortable with its relationship with its northern neighbor, playing the role of political big brother and dominant trade partner with little opposition.
Little opposition, that is, until recently. Indian earthquake relief supplies and the presence of the Indian Army in the spring turned into more and more statements from the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu, as well as whisperings of Indian diplomats fighting for the ear of Prime Minister Sushil Koirala as the constitution picked up steam. Indian Foreign Secretary Jaishankar repeatedly expressed concerns that a constitution that does not sit well with all of Nepal’s ethnic groups (particular Madhesis) would be “unfavorable.” As the constitutional debate heated up through August of 2015 and it became clear that India did not want this constitution pushed through, the hashtags “#backoffIndia” and “#modigohome” appeared on Twitter, the former even trending worldwide after the constitution’s promulgation on September 20th. Madhesi ethnic groups, long excluded from the Nepalese political establishment and linked closely to populations in northern India, launched mass protests against a constitution they called exclusive. In late September, Indian trucks carrying oil, gas, and other goods stopped at the border, claiming safety concerns in what the Nepalese public has decried as an unofficial blockade in retaliation for India being shut out of the constitution drafting process.
While China has been “skittish” about intervening directly in Nepalese politics, its presence since the earthquake has not gone unnoticed, even if only as the public begins to search for alternatives to India’s perceived encroachments. India’s official response to the constitution was merely to “note” its passage, while China actively congratulated Nepal on a historic step towards stability. While the constitution is far from universally supported in Nepal, its passage brought a sense of relief and unity, particularly in the face of April’s devastating earthquake. China’s recognition and appreciation, though seemingly small, did not go unnoticed by the public. In comparison to China’s mostly invisible influence on Nepalese politics, India’s parental intervention, however storied, is even more starkly apparent. Both nations contributed substantially to earthquake relief efforts, yet only India is demanding political leverage in return. International analysts have been eager to identify this crisis as a turning point in Nepal’s complex relationship with India, even suggesting that India is quickly pushing Nepal into China’s waiting arms. Yet, the undeniably strong connection between the populations of India and Nepal may eventually trump China’s more enabling approach. A recent Washington Post article criticized analyst buzz about China stealing away Nepal from India’s clutches when it would be naive to see China so actively involved in Nepal’s domestic policy. Rather than signaling a Nepalese political shift towards China, these rumblings clearly relay a message to India from the Nepalese population: back off.
Where does this leave Nepal in the context of South Asia? Pinned between two giants, awash in political upheaval, crippled by a devastating earthquake, and running out of time as well as petrol. Unfortunately, the question that will undoubtedly draw more international attention is, where will this struggle leave India? Nepal’s geopolitical influence may seem small, but this tension is hardly India or Prime Minister Modi’s first scuffle with domestic policy in South Asia’s smaller nations. Pakistan and India have long had a difficult relationship, but tensions have trended to new highs under the Modi administration. In the past year, India has cancelled multiple foreign office talks and a landmark meeting between the two nations’ national security advisors in a shut-out that will be quite familiar to Nepalese citizens.
Nepal and India share a complex relationship with bemusing elements of fraternity as well as deeply rooted distrust between their peoples, which would be impossible to destroy on a very deep, cultural level. It is a dramatization to say that Nepal has irrevocably shifted away from its southern neighbor, or that it has become China’s new partner in the region. However, there is little doubt that this relationship is undergoing change. The To India, Nepal is a cultural sister, a customer for everything from electricity to Indian serial television, and the representation of the boundary between China and South Asia. With recent constitutional protests as well as Nepal’s perceived shift towards China, that border has begun to shift. Though India holds the power, as crudely seen in its fuel blockade, Nepal has the power to disrupt any of those bonds. Nepal matters, both in South Asia and to the political West, because of its power to shift, and perhaps threaten, India’s regional dominance.