SPEAKING FREELY Nepal as India's alter ego
by Michael Patrao
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click hereif you are interested in contributing.
BANGALORE - Nepal, a 200-kilometer by 700-km tamarind-shaped country, and its larger-sized neighbor, India, have had a symbiotic relationship for several centuries. There have been ups and downs, and the political upheaval in Nepal in recent times has put this relationship in jeopardy.
The Communist Party of Nepal-Maoist has been repeatedly provoking India. This relationship comes particularly in focus now that a Constituent Assembly is going to be formed in Nepal following election on November 19.
In recent years, the increasing dominance of Maoism in Nepal's domestic politics, along with the strengthening economic and political influence of China, has led the Nepalese government to
gradually distance itself from India. But given the past history of the two nations it will not be too easy to break these ties.
Culturally, both the nations are part of the "Indic" civilization deriving from the river Indus. After India's independence in 1947, it appropriated the name "India" originating from the Indus valley civilization.
In terms of pop culture, both the language Hindi and Hindi films are quite popular in Nepal. The late actor Dev Anand became popular for always rendering a positive image of Nepal - its people and physical beauty. He brought Kathmandu to the Indian film screen with films like Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971). The film is remembered most for its hedonistic hit song, "Dum maaro dum" shot in Kathmandu at a when hippie culture was at its zenith. Dev also shot the film Ishq, Ishq, Ishq here and had announced his plans to make a film on the royal massacre.
In June 2001, Gyanendra's brother King Birendra was shot dead along with his wife and two children at Narayanhity Palace by his own son crown prince Dipendra. Dev's film was never made and the royal massacre has remained a mystery to this day. Years later the movie, Gharwali Baharwali (1998) was shot at Kathmandu's landmark, the Hotel Yak and Yeti, which served as the actor Anil Kapoor's hotel in Nepal.
While Hindi songs are universally popular in Nepal, the same cannot be said of Nepali songs in India, although Nepali is a recognized language in India, being the state language of Sikkim. The territory of Sikkim, which borders Nepal to the West, was merged with India in 1975 after a referendum which abolished the Sikkimese monarchy.
Indian pop singer Remo, however, recorded a Nepalese folk tune, played on a flute on one of his album. He had learnt it from his Nepalese room-mate in Bombay as a student. In more recent times singer Shaan sang a line in Nepali in a Hindi song recorded for the movie Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi (1999). The line "musu Musu Hasi, deu malai lai" which means "give me a small smile" in Nepali.
Hindi is widely understood and spoken in Nepal. "Hindi has become the second link language of South Asia. Let us use it rather than denigrate it with terms like Bollywood films," says Kanak Mani Dixit, Editor of Himal South Asia.
India and Nepal's diplomatic relationship in the 20th century was cemented with the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. This agreement defined security relations between the two countries as well as bilateral trade.
Relations between India and Nepal were further strengthened in 1985 when the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) was founded with the governments of Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. The SAARC has its secretariat in Nepal.
In terms of religion, both countries have a large Hindu population. In India, Nepali priests are appointed at the shrines of Kedarnath, Badrinath and Kashi and in Nepal Indian priests perform this duty at the Pashupathinath temple. For nearly 300 years, Indian priests have been appointed at the shrine as they are regarded as being well-versed in intricate Vedic rituals.
But religion has become a bone of contention in Nepal in recent times. For years, Nepal, a Hindu country had provided sanctuary for Tibetan refugees until politics became a hindrance.
After the fall of Nepal's last Hindu King Gyanendra and the government's decision to declare Nepal a secular state in 2006, there were growing allegations that the Indian priests as well as royalists controlling the Pashupatinath Area Development Trust (PADT) had misappropriated millions of rupees and other priceless treasures offered by devotees.
Indian priests from Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra had been serving the temple for the last 300 years. There are no records to say exactly when priests started coming from India to Kathmandu. The kings (of Nepal) had given full powers to the chief priest, who used to recruit priests from India.
Legend has it that Shankaracharya challenged a Buddhist priest to a debate that he later won. His reward - only priests from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh would preside over the rites at Pashupatinath temple and it should be done in Vedic tradition. Though priests from all three states are allowed to officiate at the Pashupatinath temple, it has been priests from Karnataka who have had the honor of officiating.
The temple had been the center of a row when the Prachanda-led Maoist coalition government in 2008 sacked the chief priest and other Brahmins from South India, and appointed Nepalese priests to replace them. Later, Nepal's Supreme Court had stayed the government regulation aimed at ending the 300-year old monopoly of Indian priests.
However, the court had given a green signal to the government's move to make the functioning, including the offerings and incomes at the shrine, more transparent. In April 2012, it was decided that Indian priests at Pashupatinath temple will get a fixed salary instead of a share of the offerings.
Buddhism is another common factor between the two countries. While Buddha was born at Lumbini in Nepal, he became enlightened in Bodh Gaya, Bihar in India. But both countries have neglected their rich Buddhist architectural and historical heritage.
"Lumbini, which was the birth place of the historical Buddha is today an area where the poorest Terai Dalits live," says Dixit. "During the time of the Buddha, it had a vibrant economy. Lumbini is converted into a nationalistic symbol and is being used a tool. It has become a Disneyland with Chinese, Taiwanese and Korean concrete structures coming up. Let us keep it spiritual."
The epithet, "the only Hindu state in the world" is not good for Nepal, says Dixit. "Until recently, Nepal was described as a Hindu kingdom ruled by a Hindu king. But Nepal is a nation of micro-communities such as Bonpo, a pre-Buddhist religion, hill Muslims known as Churaute, or bangle-sellers, Newar Christians and Kashmiri Muslims who speak Newari. Nepal made a mistake by going the way of Hindu rashtra. What will happen in Nepal with the rise of [Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra] Modi in India?" he asks.
However, writing in the Kathmandu Post in September 22, freelance political analyst Khagendra N Sharma, was more optimistic, "Whether you like it or not India will remain our best neighbor until a miraculous technological advance can enable Nepal to stand fully on its own feet."
Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say.Please click hereif you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.
Michael Patrao is an independent journalist based in Bangalore with a reporting and editing experience of over 20 years in a mainstream regional English paper in Bangalore. He covers politics, religion, culture, travel and human rights in India and South Asia.