Analysis

Cultural exchange for reviving Nepal-India relations

Sangita Bhandari

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As neighbouring nations, Nepal and modern day state of India share a unique relationship of friendship and cooperation that can be traced back to the Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950. The bedrock of relations can be characterised by open borders and deep-rooted people-to-people contacts of kinship and culture.

How can culture, religion and beliefs contribute to cooperation and cross-cultural understanding between nations? High-level visits taking place between Nepal and India have helped the close door neighbours mend their occasional discords and consolidate age-old relations.

The visit of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Nepal seems to be an attempt to bring the two nations’ relations to normalcy and gain positive impression from people of Nepal. Modi’s visit after the formation of leftist government in Nepal shows the clear picture that Nepal is strategically important for India. It is the best time for Nepal and India to utilise cultural diplomacy as an entity for both preservation and a celebration of our similarities as well as the richness of our cultural diversity.

Nepal shares a border of over 1,850 km in the east, south and west with five Indian States – Sikkim, West Bengal, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand – and in the north with the Tibet Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Nearly 6 million Nepali citizens live and work in India. Nepal and India are two independent sovereign nations but are so close that they share one civilisation unique in the global scenario. Cultural and religious values of Nepal can be a huge diplomatic tool whose applicability has not been brought to the maximum level yet. The relationship is based on natural geography and common social, religious and cultural heritage.

The constructivist theory in international relations considers how international structure is “socially constructed” and thus capable of being transformed by ideas, thoughts, beliefs and discourses. “Cultural diplomacy” for American political scientist and author Milton C Cummings is the exchange of ideas, values and information for ultimate goal to promote mutual understanding.

Universal characteristic of culture has unique capacity to express man’s deepest emotions. Cultural diplomacy and cultural relations are the best hope for transforming prejudices, mistrust and hatred into curiosity, tolerance and understanding for positive bridge between Nepal-India relations.

Religious and cultural aspects have been broadly ignored at the official level between the two nations although annually tens of thousands of Nepali and Indian people visit the religious sites of both the countries. Tourists from south India regard Muktinath as a main pilgrimage site along with Pashupatinath. General people from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh observe Janaki Temple as the main shrine as well as Pashupatinath. Visiting three important and significant Hindu spiritual shrines during his Nepal visit, Modi has highlighted religious dimension for tourism promotion and India’s close affinity. In addition, Modi has respected Kathmandu beyond the political centre as a spiritual location of Nepal.

Leo E Rose in his 1970’s book Nepal: Strategy for Survival has claimed that the relation of Nepal with India is a continuous process occurring at different levels and further stressed that some irritant issues is a but natural phenomenon. It is relevant even in today’s generation. Modi’s visit to Janakpur, Muktinath and Pashupatinath ought to turn instrument of cultural diplomacy to build people-to-people relations for the advancement of national interest on the basis of win-win outcome and promotion of religious tourism among two nations.

Nepal, endowed with plethora of cultural heritage, history, customs, religion and tradition, has various instruments to influence and win the hearts and minds of our neighbouring nationals. Modi’s much publicised two-day state visit to Nepal has represented the cultural and religious significance as both the PMs jointly inaugurated the Ramayana Circuit by flagging off Janakpur-Ayodhya bus service. Nepal’s expectations from India have been energised with Modi’s show of respect and value to language, literature, art, craft, culture, and religious beliefsin Nepal. Modi has touched people’s religious sentiments by saying “Ayodhya is incomplete without Janaki. India’s religious places (dhams) and Ram are incomplete without Nepal.”

Modi

Nepal acknowledges the challenge of dependence on agriculture and lag in industrialisation. The government can emphasise opportunities to use cultural tools to overcome them. Culture between Nepal and India can be an exemplary model and a grand strategy for peace, harmony, prosperity and dignity of nation. People from Mustang, Janakpur and Kathmandu in Nepal have projected culture, tradition, dressing, art, religion during Modi’s visit which has created a detailed picture of the country’s vision and development agenda.

Cultural interaction as part of people-to-people relations is designed to build on similarities, strengths and ultimately coordination and cooperation for the advancement in economic, social, political and cultural aspects. PMs Modi and Oli have agreed on the effective implementation of the bilateral initiatives in agriculture, railway linkages and inland waterways development to gain transformational impact. Cultural consideration takes into account national security strategy, commercial interests and regional priorities in this new paradigm.

However, it is difficult to measure the level of influence and effectiveness of Modi’s visit on hearts and minds of Nepali people. But it can be a golden opportunity for Nepal to embark on a shared, equitable and shared utilisation of culture and religious tourism for development. This cultural diplomacy tool places much emphasis on dialogue, consensus building, shared progress and mutual benefit and ignores zero sum political mentality.

The way forward for leftist government in Nepal is to hasten regional economic cooperation and integration through trade, augment collaborative infrastructure investments, increase connectivity and deepen bilateral cooperative partnership to tap all round cooperation potential and renew and prioritise historic people-to-people ties to promote exchanges and to enhance consultations on global issues of common interest.

The third visit of India’s Prime Minister Modi to Nepal has strengthened the age-long friendly relations between the two nations and has revived a fresh start for growing partnership and cooperation. A better knowledge of nation’s culture, beliefs and interests is the first step towards the improvement of international relations. As expressed by Villanueva Rivas, “a lasting and stable world order cannot rely merely on governments and power politics; it also depends on the free exchange of cultures among peoples in pursuing common intellectual and cultural interests via open cosmopolitan public and cultural diplomacies”.

Nepal accorded a warm welcome to Modi and asserted balanced relation with its neighbours. Understanding human dynamics is a prerequisite for intercultural dialogue and peace building with both neighbours – India and China.

The religious step of Modi has raised the hopes in Nepalis once again in the sector of trade, tourism, tradition, technology and transport and strengthened bilateral relations between two nations. This visit has buried recent differences and melted the icy relation for progress and positive change. It is hoped that religious tourism would boost with Modi’s visit and can be a potential for development of both nations. It can foster communication of human emotions and “connecting souls” that has the potential to transcend boundaries. The visit has conveyed the message that Nepal and India share unique relation in the globe with many commonalities. It is the right hour to reap the benefits and opportunities offered by India for Nepal’s development.

The writer is currently pursuing Masters in International Relations and Diplomacy at Tribhuvan University.

Published on 13 May 2018

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