The Boundary between Nepal and India is nothing more than a brick and lime masonry structure built during the days of the Empire. Its ‘Das Gaja’ of no-man’sland serves as the playground for both village urchins and petty smugglers. Closing this border is something of an obsession with the Nepali hill elites, who raise the issue from time to time. Across, on the other side of the open border, we are witness to the arrogance of the political elite of New Delhi’s South Block, which periodically tries to dictate the terms of the “special relationship” between Nepal and India. This cat-and-mouse game has been going on for decades, and seems to break out with virulence every time a matter sensitive to either side is being negotiated.
In the light of such an ambiguous relationship, CK Lal’s “Cultural flows across a blurred boundary” (Himal February 2002) is timely and bold. Lal has been writing with sensitivity about many social and political issues concerning both India and Nepal, but in this essay we encounter a hitherto unknown aspect of his public persona. The hidden urban regional planner in him has come to light. He has given us a new vista to mull over – the Ganga Rectangle, which encompasses the Nepal Tarai, north-eastern Uttar Pradesh and north Bihar. These three areas together make up a common cultural entity with a potentially shared future – either of resurgence or dissent into oblivion, depending on how the tide turns.
Daniel, as planner, has come to judgement and Nepal’s planning apparatchiks will do well to heed his advice in formulating the forthcoming Tenth Plan. The tarai can, as CK Lal argues, take the lead in the development of the larger region on the strength of its many advantages, but for its potential to be realised, much has to be done by way of preparing the foundations, including the acceptance of many ground realities.
India is the natural market for Nepali manufactures, since for the present, the domestic economy’s capacity to absorb its own productive output is limited. On the other hand, India is still over-protective about its home market. Perhaps the global trend towards liberalisation will in the future ease the situation and provide Nepal with more export opportunities.
For the market opportunity to be capitalised on, however, there must be a compatibility in the equation between the two countries so that an economic interaction will evolve to mutual benefit. Since neither side can change the attitude of the other through compulsion, from Nepal’s point of view it is best for Nepalis to change their attitude so as to induce a reasonable response from the Indians.
This is where hard realities must be squarely faced. It is only through a clear evaluation of strengths and weaknesses, assets and liabilities that a pragmatic solution can be found. There is no denying that India has treated Nepal shabbily in the past, but the past can be rectified in the future. The distribution of benefits between the two countries in bilateral relations has certainly been to Nepal’s disadvantage. These can be corrected in new arrangements because these do not arise from insurmountable differences.
The differences that do exist do not lie at the mass level on either side. It is the handiwork of a few professional Indian Brown Sahibs, who are by instinct prone to asserting and displaying their ‘superiority’. This attitude on their part provokes an equal and contrary reaction among some Nepalis. This tendency reached its climax during the heyday of the Panchayat, when a lobby arose within the body politic of Nepal which took pleasure in further vitiating an already clouded atmosphere. Any anti-Indian posture was deemed to be valourous. The obvious point was overlooked — that this neither solved the bilateral problem nor did anything for the development of Nepal. When such deadlocks happen, it is the weaker side that loses, as the terms of the unequal relationship become less liberal.
Once the climate of mistrust is dispelled and attitudes-of-mind shed, it is possible to get on with the task along the lines suggested by CK Lal. The tarai can be made the engine of growth even if the economies of scale favour the Indian side and despite the commercial protectionism south of the border. The tarai, for instance, can become a very profitable entrepot for trade between India and Tibet. During Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji’s recent visit to New Delhi, the Indian government had proposed trade access to China through the Chumbi Valley. But the fact is that Nepal still has a comparative advantage if the access through the passes at Rasuwa and Kodari improved.
There are aspects of CK Lal’s argument some of which I want to supplement and others I will join issue with.
Present-day Nepal is the aggregate of various entities. The writer has mentioned the contributions by Shakyamuni Buddha and Adi Sankara to the enrichment of Nepal’s heritage. The places where Buddha and Sita were born happen to be in modern-day Nepal. But quite surprisingly, he has omitted to mention the other religious luminary, Mahavira, who was born just a short distance from Nepal.
Lal is very critical of Rana Jung Bahadur, particularly his support for the British during the Indian Mutiny. But it must not be forgotten that it was because of Jang Bahadur that Nepal became the proud inheritor of Lumbini, the birthplace of the apostle of peace. Lal has failed to consider this positive aspect of Jung Bahadur’s India policy. The real discoverer of Lumbini was not his nephew Khadga Shumshere but Jung Bahadur himself. The British Indian government of the day had no inkling of the importance of the site; else this parcel of land would not have been repatriated to Nepal. Vincent Smith, the historian, was to weep over that loss!
Lal’s other point of criticism is that the Rana hired hagiographers to claim Rajput ancestry. While that may be true, the fact is that Thakuris can be of any caste. “Thakur” simply means “chief” or raja of a locality or region. A thakur can be a Magar, Chhetri, or any other caste. In India, a Thakur is Brahman in Bengal, barber in Bihar, Rajput in UP. It will be well worth remembering that the Parmars of Rajasthan themselves are Agni Kula Chhetria, a latter day entrant into the clan of Rajput rulers inducted as Kshatriyas about 1500 years ago at Mount Abu after ritual purification.
Lal has aptly designated. the relationship across the border be-tween the northern and southern plains, between the ‘tarailis’ and the people of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar as a rotibeti (bride and bread) relationship. But he has left out a significant factor, i.e. the lure of the dowry that is liberally provided by the parents of Indian girls to the advantage of Nepali grooms.
On the more developmental aspects of his argument, the monsoon flooding is an illustration of how dealing with the central government in New Delhi acts to the detriment of both Bihar and Nepal. The classic case is that of the Narayani irrigation project. When the canals are breached in Bihar, Nepal does not get the allocated amount of water. Each year Kathmandu approaches New Delhi, but repair work is never undertaken in time and hence Nepal loses a fair amount of irrigation water. Trans-valley tunneling and a more uniform distribution of water, groundwater renewal projects and flood control will be of greater mutual benefit, but the opportunities are unnecessarily being squandered.
Lal writes, “Nepal Tarai is emerging as a dynamic region in its own right and will before long be creating reverberations along the entire Gangetic belt.” There are aspects of Nepal’s economic and infrastructural planning and policy that have not been conducive to exploiting this potential. The obsession with diver sifying trade though a Bangladesh corridor has been so strong in the past that it ignored other realistic possibilities like building an east-west railway or linking Kathmandu with the Indian railway network. Even tiny Costa Rica has built railways linking its capital with the seaport, something that Nepal could emulate since the conditions in the two countries are very similar.
Moreover, Lal needs to be reminded that the East- West Highway, conceived of during the short premiership of BP Koirala (and not when King Mahendra took over) was finally completed during the reign of King Birendra. How could Lal, the highwayman, have missed the history of the highways and the Soviet connection? (The survey was completed with Soviet assistance already before Mahendra’s reign began in earnest.) Perhaps he was more occupied with regional planning.
In the context of the comparative advantage that the tarai has over the hills, Lal mentions schools, hospitals, industry, agriculture and so on. To this I would like to add tropical horticulture to cater to the expanding Indian market. Thailand is a good model to follow.
In the last section of his essay, Lal refers to the resurgence of the vernacular dialects of the Ganga Rectangle that is taking place in the Nepal Tarai. The development of local languages is a healthy phenomenon. Cultural and linguistic diversity is a strength and not a weakness. Nepal, though a Hindu kingdom under its Constitution, is a secular country, and it should avoid the bad habits of the southern neighbour’s northern parts — the communalised, caste-based vote bank politics and its criminalised accessories.
Though CK Lal dwells at some length on Mithila, he has overlooked its contribution to enriching the Gorkha royals since the time of King Girbana. Is it not a corollary of the history of Sita repeated in the 19th century, with Mithila providing the queen to the Nepal Durbar? Let us also not forget that Kulachandra Gautam, a resident of Mithila, has provided the Nepali version of the Tulisdas Ramayana.
As a kid I remember passing through Darbhanga (a corruption of Dhanur-bhanga – i.e., the breaking of the bow of Lord Siva by Rama at King Janak’s court at Mithila) on the way to Chhapki in Saptari District. I remember this area before it was annihilated by the Kosi 60 years ago. I also remember someone giving me an alternative etymology – that it is called Dwar Bangala, the gateway to Bengal. The poet Vidyapati was indeed a great master of Mithila and his writings influenced early Bengali literature too. It should be made available to the rest of Nepal as well.
CK Lal should be thanked for reminding us about the glory of the Ganga Rectangle. Let Mithila, Kapib vastu, Lichhavi and Vaishali herald the future with the glory of their past. Come Vidyapati Come! Speak Gandaki speak!