Writing IR in Nepal

Writing about the issues and affairs deeply associated with International Relations (IR) of Nepal is not a very fresh enterprise. Still, writings on IR issues in Nepal are not free from slips and skids. Despite having an oldest foreign policy institution in South Asia, known asJaisikotha, which was established by King Prithivi Narayan Shah to deal with Tibetan affairs in the 18thCentury, Nepal’s writings in IR remained confined to diplomatic notes, treaties and agreements, at least until the visit of Nepal’s first Rana Prime Minister Jung Bahadur to Britain that has been variously documented and interpreted in history by both Nepali and non-Nepali scholars. Exchanges of letters remained at the heart of Nepal’s diplomatic history until the political change of 1950. Not only because of the diversification of Nepal’s foreign policy under King Mahendra Shah, but more because of the country’s increasing literacy rate, Kathmandu started to produce different kinds of writings on Nepali IR, including books, commentaries, articles, reviews and interviews. Despite the new changes in the nature and scope of international relations, writings on Nepali IR have not developed much, as most of the writing that this article aims to highlight is swayed by repetition and hyperboles.

Not only the president, ministers, political leaders write IR. As the issues of IR lure columnists, journalists, reviewers, authors, think tanks, and bloggers, they have been writing IR in their own ways. While the former group writes IR in statements, press releases, agreements, treaties and MoUs, the latter analyzes the activities of the former group. In the Nepali context, such analyses are heavily stamped by the paraphernalia of repetition and hyperboles.

While journalists report daily occurrences in Nepali IR, columnists weigh the nature and impacts of such episodes; book writers, however, struggle to offer fresh perspectives by compiling such events as supporting details. Think tanks are busy amassing data and publishing reports to espouse the beliefs they prescribe. Whilst different actors and agencies have been reporting, evaluating and analyzing Nepali IR, they end up in duplication.

Geopolitics is the key source of duplication in writing Nepali IR, whose perennial use has made Nepal’s worldview appear more suspicious and superfluous. Squeezed between two big civilizations, powerful economies, divergent political institutions and a colossal population, Kathmandu’s worldview has become apprehensive. Persistent emphasis on the same has made Kathmandu’s view of the world and its view for the world superfluous.

Throughout the cold war, primacy over geopolitics was understandable. At present, the constitutional objectives of Nepali IR—panchasheel, UN Charter, world peace, non-alignment—which need more study and scrutiny, rarely appeal Nepali authors and commentators. Fascination of retired military generals towards geopolitics has only encouraged replications. American Political Scientist Leo E. Rose’s book “Nepal, Strategy for Survival,” has been a bible for them. They may try to justify their acts of replications citing the challenges triggered by the rise of China. Even the young aspiring Nepali authors perceive China only as a balancer to Indian influence in Nepal, which, however is not a new claim than the cold war narratives offered by Rose back in 1971.

While news reports and articles are fundamentally responsible in informing and updating the public, their endorsement of cold war world views and state-centric narratives have provided further impetus to the geopolitical lens and suspicious world view.

In the name of being academic, writing IR in the university is triflingly constrained to ease one’s promotion by getting published in the ranked journals. Precisely, when they come to realize that writings on China sell instantly in Western world during the time of Sino-US contestation, strands of geopolitics attract them more than any efforts directed to fulfill policy and knowledge gaps.

Unusual refuge that Nepal has taken in the realm of geopolitics since the days of P.N.Shah has plausibly thwarted Nepal from considering assorted factors while writing Nepali IR. As such, no attempts have been made in understanding what is international for Nepal. To an aging grandmother visiting her daughter in the United States, internationally may be something that she struggles linguistically and culturally throughout her journey and stay. To the Nepali labor migrants toiling in the parching heat of GCC countries, international may signify something different from the Nepali students pursuing their studies in the American and Australian universities.  To those crossing Nepal’s open borders with India, the idea of international may vary. Therefore, without paying heed to the multiple idea of international, the overemphasis on geopolitics has made the writings on Nepali IR superfluous and redundant.

Representation of Nepal’s open border with India is an apt example. The corpus of research that is currently available on the Nepal-India border centers around border security, encroachment, and the removal of border pillars.  While debates on closed borders and controlled borders are underway in Nepal, writings that divulge the narratives of the working-class people on borderlands are largely missing. While the open border between Nepal and India is the appropriate site to generate discourse on people’s centric IR, the existing writings on Nepali IR have largely failed to counter the political culture of exploiting territorial borders as an electoral rhetoric to fulfill Machiavellian ambitions.

The perennial problem of Nepali IR is its ceaseless stress on the neighborhood. Various metaphors suggesting Nepal’s geographical location, be it “entrepôt,” “yam,” “buffer,” or “bridge” have methodically shaped Nepali authors’ worldviews. In the pre-unification era, Kathmandu remained an entrepôt between Tibet and Indian princely states. P.N. Shah, however, identified Nepal as a yam between the Chinese Empire and British India. To the colonizers in India, Nepal remained as a buffer. But, with the economic rise of India and China, decision makers in Kathmandu emphasized on revitalizing the entrepôt status of Kathmandu through bridge metaphor by encouraging multidimensional connectivity with both neighbors in Nepal’s developmental and infrastructural policies. While numerous writings on China’s Belt and Road Initiatives (BRI) and proposed Nepal-China trans-Himalayan railways are concentrated on the same, there is a dearth of literature willing to identify the reason behind India’s reluctance to the proposal of China-Nepal- India trilateral partnership. Being limited to discourse, the focus on neighborhood is pretentious and pompous.

Ideologically, a neighborhood is characterized by the presence of trust, harmony and confidence building measure. Gauging writings on Nepal’s neighborhood, Sino-Indian interactions are either presented as a threat or an opportunity. Besides the politics of high optimism and deep depression emanating from its gigantic neighborhood, there is a noticeable absence of the other kinds of narratives, particularly people-centric.

Also, Nepal lacks its own perspective on the rise of China. Either it is shaped by the West like the issue of “debt trap” or by China itself through aid and assistance to Nepal. Despite putting so much emphasis on neighborhood, studies on the neighborhood are limited to analyzing high-level visits and identification of strategic and economic interests of the neighboring countries. Trivial Chinese speaking population of its own, and not having even one India Study Center in Nepal indicates the level and extent of Nepal’s neighborhood studies.

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