August 15, 2020
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The Marked Of The Twain

Nepal's youth tend to be more openly anti-Indian but for the most part, many of them say they're hostile to officialdom and the Delhi media, not individuals.

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The Marked Of The Twain
The Marked Of The Twain
As a Canadian, I've more than an inkling of how Nepalis feel about India. I too come from a land with a small population, cheek by jowl with a neighbour not just larger, but louder, richer, far more well-armed and aggressive. No matter how hard you try to live with the noise from across the fence, you're bound to be affected. As a citizen of the smaller neighbour, you take comfort from imperceptible things like the success of fellow countrymen who've "gone south to the big time". There's an almost painful adherence to politeness and quiet courtesy, at least compared to neighbouring habits. You relish the way your native land is well-regarded by third countries, when it's regarded at all. A Nepali sports official once told me: "Others find the Indians difficult to work with, very sticky and quick to take offence. We're not like that, so we get the good international jobs."

Yet none of this helps explain the violent reaction to the non-comments by Hrithik Roshan. A government inquiry is looking into the affair but a full, frank explanation of events isn't likely. And the question has to be asked: do Nepalis dislike, even hate, Indians? I think not, but there're many contradictions at the heart of this necessary but oft-strained relationship. There is, at the very least, strong distrust of the motives of the Indian authorities vis-a-vis Nepal. The aftermath of the IC 814 hijacking with suspended Indian Airlines flights and the Delhi media promiscuously labelling Nepal as an "isi hotbed" still resonates here. Primarily though, I worry about the generation gap.

Nepalis in their '40s and '50s have mixed feelings about India. In general, they recognise that the largest state in south Asia has overarching economic and national interests, if not the de facto right to pursue them at all costs. There's a belief that getting along with India is crucial to Nepal's prosperity and stability. A good relationship with such a neighbour is usually worth the perseverance necessary in moments of crisis. And they remember with sad fondness the late, lamented Gujral doctrine of disproportionate reciprocity.

But the young see things more in black and white. And their contradictions are equally stark. In conversation, they evince profound mistrust of the motives of India's government, even as they cheer on Sachin Tendulkar or enjoy Bollywood's latest blockbusters. A few may be unabashedly anti-Indian but for the most part, ordinary youngsters say they're hostile to officialdom and what they see of the Delhi media—largely satellite TV news—not individuals. Small comfort, I know, to those Indians and Nepalis of Indian descent who suffered during the December riots. A cultured and intelligent retired government official put it this way: "People my age looked to India to inspire our freedom struggle during the panchayat years. They went to school there, college, university—many worked there too, and developed an understanding of the place. That's simply not so anymore. Our young generation is very, very nationalistic, and that can lead to anti-India feelings. Unfortunate, but even I can see where they're coming from."

Young, urban Nepalis have evolved very differently from their parents. Campuses here are as politicised as those in India and the student unions that dominate debate at university take a dim view of India. Then there's the media. A free press flourishes in democratic Nepal, but few newspapers report events across the border in any detail.Young men and women in search of definitively Nepali culture have much to choose from, and these days Bollywood does have strong competition from a thriving Nepali film industry. There are seven private FM radio stations in Kathmandu alone. Some play only Nepali pop and folk music. As yet, there's no alternative to Star and Zee on the small screen but there'll be, and soon. In short, young Nepalis are proud of their culture and they're fiercely protective of it.

An article in the Kathmandu Post spoke of the frustration of many young educated Nepalis during the violence. "On the one hand, we know violence is wrong," the author wrote, "but there was a general feeling that people were standing up for their country and we felt proud of them." Canvassing young friends, I shopped around for direct opinions on such questions. I found that the young don't hate India, or even really dislike it. But there seems to be little understanding of modern India in all her stresses, strains, guises and aspirations. Among a small number of youngsters, there's a willingness to be manipulated by forces that traditionally use innate small country mistrust of a large, powerful neighbour to whip up anger against New Delhi as part of anti-democratic agenda. Overall though, the young here are still struggling to balance their understandable nationalism for Nepal with what they see and hear about India.

If I were sitting in South Block, I'd be worried. Consider this: there's a huge Indian business community here. There are still opportunities for Indian-Nepali joint ventures in many sectors. The country remains stunningly attractive and inexpensive for Indian tourists, and as safe as anywhere else. Then there's water, hydro and security. But in the end, India needs to ask itself: what has Nepal ever done to thwart India? The answer is nothing. Equally, if I were influencing events in Nepal, I'd work on the young. I'd say India is its people, not the lapses or mistaken policies of its governments. I'd try to explain how many of the jobs so badly needed here could come from Indian investment, or even the Indian job market. I'd tell them that I know from my Canada-US experience that the onus is on the smaller country to manage a relationship with a large neighbour. Then speaking to both sides, I'd probably paraphrase the words of Mark Twain, a great American. You can change history but geography has a habit of hanging around.

(Daniel Lak is the bbc and Outlook correspondent in Kathmandu)
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