An unsubstantiated claim about Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli by a pro-government Indian channel seems to have triggered a ban on some Indian news channels in the country.
Indian channel Zee News, which often takes positions supporting the Indian government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recently aired a claim that Oli was honey-trapped by the Chinese ambassador to Nepal.
The claim—and the ban—represents a new nadir in the fast-deteriorating relationship between Nepal and India. Experts on both sides of the border agree that events of the last five years have squandered away a relationship so comfortable that the international border between the two countries was one of the most porous in the world.
The ban on Indian news channels has not been announced officially by the Nepali government. In a press conference, the country’s Minister of Information and Communications Yuba Raj Khatiwada said the Indian media was showing Nepal in a bad light.
Even though Zee News called it an “investigative” report, the story was short on verified facts. It was called “Oli ki Ishqiya (Oli’s Love)” and attributed the “bitterness” between Nepal and India to Chinese ambassador Hou Yanqi. The video called her a Chinese spy and a vishkanya (a poisonous woman), and was interspersed with Bollywood songs and dramatised readings of their alleged correspondence.
"Nepal may seek political and legal remedies and also mobilise diplomatic channels against reports of Indian media attacking Nepal's sovereignty and dignity," said Khatiwada.
Soon after, most Indian news channels except the state-funded Doordarshan and NDTV 24x7, were taken off-air by the country’s various cable networks. Dhruv Sharma, vice-president of Mega Max TV cable network in Nepal, said that he banned the channels because of these “exaggerated and uncontrolled propaganda”.
Nepalis have also taken to social media against pro-government Indian media, trending #BackOffIndianMedia on Twitter.
The hashtag campaign was a callback to April 2015, when the India-Nepal relationship took a nosedive in part due to the insensitive coverage by Indian news channels of the devastating earthquake which killed over 7,000 people and left over 14,000 injured in Nepal. At that time, Nepalis on social media had trended #GoHomeIndianMedia.
“Your media and media personnel are acting like they are shooting some kind of family serial,” wrote Sunita Shakya, a Nepalese research analyst, in an open letter.
What made the situation worse was the unofficial economic blockade at Nepal-India border that began in September 2015, imposed at a time when the former needed essential relief material post-earthquake. The Nepalese government believed that the blockade was supported by India for ignoring their recommended Amendments in Nepal’s new Constitution. Indian authorities have denied these allegations.
“I feel concerned because hostility of this sort could have been avoided from both sides,” Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, former Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nepal, told VICE News. “There have been difficulties in the past, despite different regimes and political structures, but the leaderships have found a way out.”
In June, PM Oli accused India of plotting to destabilise his government. “In recent months, the distance has expanded and no architects on either side are influencing the course,” Thapa added.
The ongoing scuffle began in November 2019, when India published a new political map that incorporated some of the territories disputed with Nepal inside India’s border. By doing so, it revived a 60-year-old rivalry over the region.
In May 2020, Nepal published a revised map that incorporated the disputed territories within its borders.
“It’s always been a people-to-people relationship, and not just political,” Happymon Jacob, a professor at New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University and an expert on international relations of South Asia, told VICE News.
The Nepal-India border spanning 1,690 kms is one of the world’s most porous, allowing for free trade and movement. However, that is under threat now: this June, the Nepali Armed Police Force opened fire on a group of Indians crossing the border.
Last month, Nepal proposed an amendment to its citizenship law for foreigners - including Indians - where a woman marrying a Nepalese citizen will get citizenship only after seven years.
India, on its part, has also been wary of China’s growing influence in its neighbour for the last decade. Apart from pumping millions of yuan into infrastructure and hydropower projects in Nepal, China reportedly has over 90 percent of foreign direct investment in the current fiscal year. The two countries also opened their borders to each other for trade. Some private schools in Nepal made Mandarin lessons mandatory.
Experts in Nepal added that the Indian media’s claims of China’s hand in the current event is not true. “China may be benefiting from the discord, but it’s not the one encouraging this,” Amish Mulmi, a senior journalist from Kathmandu, told VICE News.
Jacob added that the current scenario is a culmination of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) approach towards Nepal. “Things deteriorated in the last six-seven years because the BJP’s policy towards Nepal is influenced by its own ideological baggage [of Hindu nationalism] , which makes it difficult for them to appreciate the geopolitical nuances of dealing with Kathmandu,” he said.
For long, Nepal was important in the mindspace of India’s Hindu nationalist ideologues because of its status as the world’s only Hindu Kingdom. However, that has changed since the 2008 abolition of monarchy in the country, turning it into a secular republic.
However, all may not be lost yet. While Thapa believes that the “hesitation to open dialogue” needs to be broken on both sides, Jacob said there’s too much at stake to not do so. “Unlike India and Pakistan, where neither side has any major stakes in each other, Nepal and India are too close to simply break up and move on as if nothing happened,” he said. “There are family connections, and trade and transit across borders. We even have thousands of Nepali soldiers in the Indian Army.”
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