Tripura is one of India’s most linguistically, culturally, and ethnically diverse states, yet it is seldom the subject of high-profile news and very few outsiders know much about what happens there. Nevertheless, the small and humble state capital of Agartala might well be the epicenter of a major diplomatic victory for the International Buddhist Confederation (IBC). After the city hosted the IBC’s seminar on Buddhism in India’s northeast from 18–20 December, a thawing of diplomatic relations between Nepal and India, which have recently been at their frostiest in decades, might well be at hand.
To understand the reason, we need to look at the factors behind the current diplomatic impasse between the two neighbors. Nepal’s ongoing constitutional crisis has certainly been a major headache for both sides. Ethnic Tharu and Madhesi communities rose up in protest at a new constitution that was promulgated in the autumn of 2015, perceiving that certain laws in the document disenfranchised and discriminated against them. According to Vishal Arora, who wrote about the unfolding disaster for The Diplomat on 25 November last year, “New Delhi had told Kathmandu, through a leaked document, that it wanted Nepal’s constitution to address the concerns of the Madhesi people [the Madhesh region in southern Nepal is home to many Indian-born people with communities still in India].” Unrealistically, India also wanted Nepal’s constitution to reinstate the country as a Hindu nation, or at least to de-emphasize its current secular status, which was introduced with the Interim Constitution of 2007.
Because Kathmandu rebuffed those demands, New Delhi did nothing to stop, to all intents and purposes, a blockade of Nepal’s border with India by Madhesi protestors. This blockade prevented overland trade in staple goods and supplies such as fuel, food, clothing, and medicine from reaching impoverished Nepal—a rather harsh move given the devastating earthquakes that rocked the country earlier last year. The political repercussions for India have been covered in Indian and Nepalese media, but suffice it to say that this “diplomatic suicide” was completely counterproductive, mobilizing anti-Indian sentiment among Nepalese constituencies and pushing Nepal closer to the rival neighboring superpower of China.
Nepal’s delicate balancing act between its larger neighbors is an integral piece in the Buddhist Great Game currently being played out between China and India. Ask Indians and Nepalese where the heartland of the Buddhist world is and they will give different answers: India unsurprisingly asserts Bodh Gaya’s importance as the place where Siddhartha Gautama achieved enlightenment, while Nepal has consistently argued for the superiority of Lumbini, where the prince-turned-sage was born. Quick to perceive the deadlock of opinion on this matter of national pride and religious legitimation, China has deftly leveraged the situation to its own advantage. In July 2011, the Chinese government-backed Asia Pacific Exchange and Co-operation Foundation (APECF) declared in Beijing its intention to transform sleepy, tumbledown Lumbini into a world-class Mecca for Buddhists with an investment plan amounting to US$3 billion.
APECF is no ordinary non-profit. It is jointly chaired by powerful figures, including Beijing-born executive vice chairman Xiao Wunan, Steven Clark Rockefeller Jr., Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, and Leon Charney, a real estate magnate and ex-US presidential adviser. APECF’s move could therefore be read as a play for soft power and influence aimed at dislodging Nepal from New Delhi’s orbit and bringing it within Beijing’s. Despite repeated delays to APECF’s plan over the past few years (Mr. Xiao himself admitted to Republica in May 2014 that the geopolitics of Nepal have complicated Lumbini’s development), Beijing’s favoring of Lumbini has served to drive a carefully calculated wedge between India and Nepal.
It is against this backdrop that Nepal’s minister of tourism and aviation, Ananda Prasad Pokharel, accepted the IBC’s invitation to be chief guest of the conference in Tripura. The presence of Mr. Pokharel might have seemed symbolic or ceremonial had he not, in his address on the second and last day of the conference on 19 December, made an impassioned plea to Venerable Lama Lobzang, secretary general of the IBC, to co-host festivities to mark Buddhajayanti—the birth of the Buddha—in Lumbini this May with the Nepalese government, the Lumbini Development Trust, and Lumbini Buddhist University. To the chagrin of many Indians and others in the audience, Mr. Pokharel then embarked on a rambling tangent about Nepal being the rightful center of the Buddhist world. Under normal circumstances, the IBC might have been disinclined to entertain Mr. Pokharel’s suggestion; yet it not only accepted the appeal, but as of now is actively negotiating with the Nepalese government to host the event. Whether the proposal succeeds is another matter, but goodwill has been generated and will not dissipate as long as the IBC continues negotiations.
Agreeing to host this most important Buddhist festival in Lumbini is an incredible concession by the IBC, which is not only based in New Delhi but also partially funded by the Indian government. The IBC’s willingness to accede to Mr. Pokharel’s suggestion clearly signals a change in strategy: rather than talking up Bodh Gaya, India now also wants a stake in Lumbini, perhaps with China in mind. Allowing the IBC, which is perhaps Asia’s largest Buddhist powerbroker, to front this concession was perhaps almost too attractive an option for New Delhi. Although it will still have its own celebrations for Buddhajayanti, India has effectively given ground to Nepal to “win” its claim on Lumbini as Buddhism’s heartland. Many other outstanding issues—in particular the border blockade—need to be resolved for Indian-Nepalese relations to be mended, but New Delhi should now also be able to expect an improvement in goodwill from Kathmandu. Mr. Pokharel will very likely play an important role in the IBC’s maneuvers this year.
This conference marks a possible watershed for warmer Indo-Nepalese relations thanks to the efforts of Buddhist interests. It is even more fascinating to ponder what the Chinese response might be. After all, Beijing has also gotten what it wanted, and Lumbini may indeed be the center of the Buddhist world, at least for this year. Might it be time for those who favor a stronger Chinese influence in Nepal to adjust their strategies in this Buddhist Great Game? This, however, is religious politics for another day.
R.I.P., India’s Influence on Nepal (The Diplomat)
Nepal’s Government Considers Amendment to Resolve Constitutional Crisis (The Diplomat)
APEC Foundation ready to launch Lumbini project: Xiao (Republica)