The Nepalese prime minister accused New Delhi of appropriating its heritage and distorting history in the latest rift between the South Asian neighbours.
A controversial claim by Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli that the disputed religious site of Ayodhya was in Nepal, and that the Hindu deity Lord Ram was Nepalese, has inflamed tensions between India and Nepal.
On July 13, Oli accused India of cultural aggression and historical distortion while addressing a function to mark the 206th anniversary of the birth of Nepalese poet, Bhanubakta Acharya, who translated the Hindu epic Ramayana from Sanskrit to Nepali.
“We have been suppressed culturally. Facts have been twisted. Even today, we believe that Sita was married to an Indian prince, Ram. We gave her not to an Indian, but to the one from Ayodhya. Ayodhya is a village that lies to the west of Birgunj,” Oli said from his official residence in Baluwatar.
“India has created a disputed Ayodhya, a fake Ayodhya. Lord Ram’s kingdom was not in Uttar Pradesh but in Nepal, near Balmiki Ashram.”
His statement garnered critical response from leaders within his own ruling party, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), and those from India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On Tuesday, Nepal’s foreign ministry issued a press note in an effort at damage control.
“The remarks made by the prime minister are not linked to any political subject and have no intention at all to hurt the feeling and sentiment of anyone,” adding that Oli’s words were a call for further research into the Ramayana’s “cultural geography”.
While both countries are majority Hindu, Nepal has always been sensitive to maintaining a separate cultural identity from its larger neighbour in the south.
Politics of mythical proportions
The feud over the site of Ayodhya being the birthplace of Ram goes back centuries, and is shrouded in mythology, with countless stories and claims over the historical figure of Ram.
More recently, the city of Ayodhya has been an important touchstone in India’s political map since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, which led to an outburst of religious violence and rioting across the country.
Nearly 30 years later, the legacy of that event continues to influence India’s secular fabric and the politics around communal identity.
Leading up to that act of communal violence, Ram had transformed from a beloved and tragic figure in the Ramayana epic, to a symbol of resurgent Hindu identity to fuel a muscular Indian nationalism.
Since the partition of India in 1947, Hindu nationalist forces worked to historicise mythology for political gain. The allegation that the Babri mosque was built on the ruins of a temple that marked Ram’s birth, became a lightning rod for Hindu nationalist fervour.
After the mosque was destroyed, the BJP’s manifesto had promised to build a temple for Ram at the disputed religious site since 1996.
Last November, the Indian Supreme Court gave a controversial final judgment that awarded the disputed territory for construction of the temple.
Simmering bilateral tensions
Oli’s comments come at a time when Indo-Nepalese relations have hit an all-time low over boundary issues.
Ties between the two have been strained since November last year when New Delhi published a new political map claiming disputed territory as its own.
The crisis between the neighbours – who share more than 1,800 km of border territory – reached a peak on May 8 when New Delhi announced the inauguration of a Himalayan road link which passes through the disputed area of Kalapani.
Oli, who came to power on an ultra-nationalist platform in the wake of the Indian border blockade in 2015, has been grappling with a crisis within his own party as criticism mounts against his government’s failure to keep a lid on the Covid-19 crisis.
He is currently also mired in a diplomatic quagmire between China, India and the United States.
One flashpoint has been the US government’s Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact, according to which Nepal would receive $500 million in grants to build roads and transmission lines.
Oli had given his go-ahead on the plan, even as many of his NCP colleagues were determined to foil what they saw as evidence of an Indo-Pacific Strategy to contain China. The Chinese Communist Party and the NCP enjoy a close relationship, and Beijing considers Kathmandu an “all weather” ally.
Among many quarters of the Indian media, Oli is viewed as the primary hurdle towards fostering smoother bilateral relations. One channel even aired a 16-minute section about Oli being ‘honey trapped’ by the Chinese envoy to Kathmandu, leading to a ban by Nepali cable distributors on Indian news channels.
As and when Oli felt besieged, an anti-India narrative has proved domestically useful, evidenced by frequently upping the ante against New Delhi.
The prime minister has accused India of encroaching upon Nepali territory, and his government decided to publish a new political map depicting Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limipiyadhura as parts of Nepal. The decision increased the Indian media’s hostility towards him.
He even took a jibe at India’s national emblem.
Recently, Oli accused the Indian embassy of being behind the factional crisis in his ruling party. He indicated that India is manipulating political machinations as New Delhi was unhappy with Kathmandu over the constitutional amendment updating the outline of Nepal’s political map, which now includes territories claimed by India.
The timing of Oli’s remarks on Ayodhya, however, could have a counter effect when it comes to negotiating the cartographic war the two states are currently embroiled in, and potentially increase the deadlock and stifle dialogue from taking place.
The latest dispute, particularly given its highly sensitive religious claims, appears to be another sign of deteriorating relations between the two countries, one which could have a serious impact on South Asia’s geopolitical landscape.