NEW DELHI — Although world attention is invariably riveted on India-Pakistan hostility, New Delhi’s ties with its other neighbors have been uneasy in the best of times.
Take the cases of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. New Delhi’s relationship with Colombo nosedived after the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s blunder a little over a decade ago of sending in his troops to help government forces on the island fight the rebel Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, demanding a separate homeland for the minority Tamil community.
That this relationship is still difficult is apparent from the fact that Sri Lanka now relies on distant Norway for solace in its ethnic crisis.
New Delhi may have helped Sheikh Mujibur Rahman liberate Bangladesh from Pakistan in the 1970s, but since the leader’s assassination a few years later, India has been viewed with a degree of suspicion in Dhaka.
Bhabani Sengupta, a close adviser to former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, says, “This attitude of not bothering about our immediate neighbors, of letting small sores fester is a relic of our imperial mind set, inherited from the British,” he contends.
With a population of 1 billion people and a gross national product much higher than its neighbors, India has, somehow, created the impression that it is a big bully.
New Delhi refuses to see the image problem as a failure of its foreign policy, but when riots — provoked by a statement allegedly made by popular Indian film star Hrithik Roshan late last month — literally tore apart the small Himalayan kingdom of Nepal (whose population is predominantly Hindu), it was not difficult to read into the unrest a strong dislike for India, brought on largely by New Delhi’s casual treatment of problems with its smaller neighbors.
Katmandu-New Delhi links have suffered major jolts in the past, and the latest riots proved to be even more damaging than the December 1999 hijack incident. On its way from Katmandu to New Delhi, an Indian plane was hijacked by Kashmiri (read Pakistani-Afghan) militants to Kandahar in Afghanistan.
New Delhi feels — and perhaps rightly — that Nepal has allowed its territory to be used by Pakistan’s ISI agents to carry on their nefarious operations against India.
There have been any number of other irritants between India and Nepal: some relate to territorial encroachment by New Delhi, some to trade.
Katmandu has been turning a blind eye to the smuggling of Chinese goods into Indian markets. Nepal’s open borders with India facilitate such Chinese dumping, a problem that has worsened in recent weeks.
Nepal, sandwiched between China and India, has never really been able to make up its mind as to where its priorities lie. But the feeling in New Delhi is that Katmandu has a far better equation with Beijing than it has with the Indian government.
And, the utterances of a senior politician from India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party earlier this week have merely made matters worse. He called Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, the nation’s first prime minister, a fool for having declined Nepal’s offer in the 1950s to accede to India.
Nobody is sure who provoked the Roshan controversy, but there are some analysts who aver that the whole incident was the handiwork of the Nepali Communists, who want to dislodge the pro-India Nepali Congress Party from power.
The Congress has had to grapple with major problems during the past few months: a Maoist insurgency and a hotel industry strike that crippled the country’s biggest revenue earner, tourism.
With the Communists seemingly having an upper hand in the kingdom, Nepal’s ties with India may well hit bottom. It is no secret whom the Communists favor, and in their eagerness to appease Beijing, they have even let Pakistan’s notorious ISI have a free run of their country.
While the government of Girija Prasad Koirala has been procrastinating over important issues, the common feeling is that his party, the Nepalese Congress, will fare poorly in the event of an election now.
All this does not augur well for New Delhi, but it must also take a fair share of the blame for letting its relationships with neighbors like Nepal sour to this extent.
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