Bollywood bash in Nepal cancelled amid anti-India rhetoric, and high-stake power plays by China
The proposed 20th edition of the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) awards ceremony in Nepal’s capital Kathmandu which had sparked a raging controversy in the Himalayan country has been cancelled. While the Nepal government was keen to host the ceremony in end-August, many ruling and opposition politicians, as well as others, had fiercely opposed it. And many suspect a Chinese hand behind this opposition and eventual cancellation of the Bollywood mega event.
While Nepal’s communist government led by K.P. Oli was keen on hosting the event, which would have cost the country USD $ 4 million (about 450 million Nepali Rupees), critics had said it was too expensive a deal and the country would hardly benefit from it. The Nepal Tourism Board, which was the lead agency to host the mega event, was to also bear the cost of air travel, hospitality (hotel stay and food), transportation and security for the Bollywood stars and their entourages, guests and others attending the ceremony.
Nepal, a poor country, can ill-afford such a huge expenditure to host what is essentially an ‘Indian’ event, contended the critics.
But the Nepal government had clarified that not a single Rupee would be spent from the national treasury. “The event (IIFA annual awards ceremony) will be a globally-publicised one that will attract more than 500 celebrities. Nepal’s tourism will get a big boost and we will be able to attract high-end Indian tourists. The tangible benefits far outweigh the costs,” Nepal communications and IT minister Gokul Baskota had said.
The Nepal Tourism Board would dip into its reserves to pay the organisers of the event– Wizcraft International – about $4 million and bear other costs, Baskota had clarified.
But, say those in Nepal who had supported or were involved in the event, the issue was hardly about money. “China is wary of the huge cultural influence that India has in Nepal, primarily due to Bollywood. That is why China was fuelling protests against this Bollywood mega event,” said a Rastriya Prajatantra Party (RPP) leader.
A Nepali Congress (NC) leader who supported the event and is known to be an India supporter said: “Immediately after the announcement of the event, known Chinese stooges and supporters in the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) as well as some other parties started their protests. Many pro-China elements in academia, Nepali film industry and media who China funds covertly also got active and started writing, blogging, issuing statements and organising protests against the IIFA ceremony. It was apparent that China was fuelling the protests and opposition”.
The Chinese mission in Kathmandu had, in the past, been suspected of fuelling and funding anti-India activities. In January 2001, rumours about an alleged anti-Nepal remark by Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan sparked riots on the streets of Kathmandu, even though the rumours turned out to be totally false.
Nepal’s Maoists, who are close to China and act at Beijing’s behest, were said to be behind the protests that time. “There have been many instances of anti-Indian protests in Nepal sparked by rumours or fake news circulated by pro-China elements. The Chinese mission in Nepal is very active in planting fake news against India and in whipping up anti-Indian sentiments,” said a prominent Nepali journalist who did not want to be named.
China, militarily and economically stronger than India, has successfully established a dominating influence in Nepal’s political establishment, bureaucracy, military, academia, media and the intellectual class. India, which once wielded a lot of influence over Nepal and its society, has been overshadowed in Nepal by China.
But India and Nepal have very close and indefeasible cultural and religious links and Bollywood (Hindi films) is a very strong bond between the two countries. China is trying its best to take over this space and weaken the cultural bonds between Nepal and India by organising mega Chinese cultural festivals, pushing schools in Nepal to teach Mandarin, funding the Nepali film industry and influencing the ruling communist government in Nepal to limit screening of foreign (Hindi) films.
Thus, said the NC leader, the Nepal government’s nod to host the IIFA awards ceremony had displeased Beijing. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu had gone on an overdrive to whip up sentiments against the event, which Beijing felt would have outshined all Chinese cultural initiatives in Nepal so far.
“An IIFA awards ceremony with a galaxy of Hindi film stars (who are extremely popular in Nepal) and other film personalities, as well as celebrities and industrialists in attendance, would have been the biggest cultural extravaganza in Nepal so far and would have given a huge boost to Nepal-India links. Obviously, that was anathema to China,” said the NC leader.
The Indian mission in Kathmandu had reportedly got into the act to facilitate the event and garner support for it. A few influential journalists had been privately briefed about the benefits that will accrue to Nepal from the event.
“Past IIFA award ceremonies in many countries across the globe have led to a rush of high-end Indian tourists to those destinations. Nepal will be able to showcase itself to Bollywood directors and producers and as a result, many Hindi films will be shot in Nepal in future. Since the event will be viewed widely by the huge Indian diaspora across the globe, the host country will obviously benefit. The gains in tangible terms for Nepal will be much more than what will be spent by the Nepal Tourism Board,” a journalist who attended a private and select briefing told Swarajya before the Nepal Tourism Board announced the cancellation of the event on Wednesday (3 July).
The Indian mission had also reached out to Nepal’s politicians, including Prime Minister Oli (who is otherwise close to China) and NCP co-chairman Pushpa Dahal (a.k.a Prachanda), besides other senior leaders of the NCP and NC. A large number of politicians and members of Nepal’s Parliament hailing from (Hindi-speaking) Madhes (the long swathe of plain land in Nepal bordering India) had thrown their weight behind the Bollywood event.
Oli and Prachanda, both Hindi film buffs, were also supporting the event and had committed themselves to Nepal hosting it. But China persisted, and successfully too. Knowing that Oli, Prachanda and some others in the NCP were backing the event, China reached out to some of its strongest supporters who happened to be members of Nepal Parliament’s International Relations and Human Rights Committee.
The committee, in a surprise move, met on Tuesday and asked the government to scrap the event. The committee said the event was against Nepal’s interests and the country’s “sovereignty, independence and prestige” and against “Nepali cultural and national interest”.
Beijing has also got its backers in the opposition Nepali Congress (NC) to speak out against the ceremony. One of them, Minendra Rijal, questioned the rationale behind hosting the ceremony and opposed holding it inside the Nepal Army cantonment.
The 20th edition of the IIFA annual awards ceremony has, thus, become a victim of China’s overarching ambition to establish its dominance over Nepal.
Published on Lokantar on 4 July 2019