At a function on July 13 in Kathmandu to mark the birth anniversary of Nepal’s great poet scholar Bhanubhakta Acharya, known for his translation of the Valmiki Ramayana from Sanskrit into Nepali, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli made the sensational claim that Lord Ram was a Nepali prince and that the real Ayodhya was near Birganj in Nepal.
He said that in ancient times there were no means of transportation and communication and it was impossible for someone to have travelled all the way from Uttar Pradesh to the famed capital of Mithila in Janakpur, Nepal, to marry Lady Sita. He said India had distorted ancient cultural and historical facts to deceive Nepal.
In normal circumstances, one would have laughed away these utterances but coming as they did from Nepal PM, they cannot be ignored. Senior leaders from Nepal, including former PM Baburam Bhattarai, former deputy PM Kamal Thapa and the deputy head of the foreign affairs cell of Oli’s Nepal Communist Party (NCP), have criticised Oli for further harming relations with India by making absurdclaims relating to the non-temporal realm of tradition and religious belief.
Former foreign minister Ramesh Nath Pandey asked if Lord Ram was from Birganj, where was the Sarayu river? Oli’s comments have been the butt of sarcasm and caustic humour in his own country, especially on social media. In India, leaders from both the BJP and Congress have condemned Oli’s remarks.
Observers of Nepal are scratching their heads to figure out why Oli is creating further friction in what is already a fraught relationship with India. It is as if Nepalese cartographical aggression showing some areas of Indian Kumaon as part of Nepal and Oli’s public allegations that India was out to have him ousted from power are not enough.
There could be several reasons for Oli’s behaviour. First, he is expressing his anger and hitting out at India for the scurrilous stories telecast on some of our television channels suggesting that Oli has been honeytrapped by the Chinese ambassador in Nepal. Deeply suspicious, Oli somehow feels there is aforeign hand behind these reports. One of the main channels has since publicly expressed regret.
Second, Oli is questioning the ancient cultural traditions and beliefs that conjoin Nepal with India. He is claiming that such links do not exist, that India has deviously created these connections to make Nepal dependent on India for its identity.
Indeed, it reflects a view held among some of those of a communist persuasion that Nepal’s identity should be non-Indian, it should be based on a denial of those attributes that link it with India.
If Nepalese culture is a sub-set of Bharatiya sabhyata (Indian culture), what is it that makes Nepal a unique separate nation with its own identity? Hence, the assertion that Lord Ram belonged to the physical territory that comprises present-day Nepal, not to India, even though the events that Oli is referring to happened in the hoary past when the present boundaries of India and Nepal did not exist. The description of the roti-beti rishta, the ancient connections of kinship and marriage, as irrelevant to contemporary times by representatives of NCP falls into a similar framework.
Finally, Oli is not in the best of health. He has undergone two kidney transplants. His political fortunes hang in balance. He has become reckless. His desire is to be remembered in history as the greatest Nepali nationalist leader ever, who stood up to India.
Oli is clearly trying to provoke India by his outrageous comments. For India, it would be best to wait for a more conducive environment in which to reset her relations with Nepal.
In any event the ties between the two countries are much larger than those at the level of the governments since they rest on the solid foundations of people-to-people interaction and should hopefully not be damaged by false remarks of a capricious political leader.
Meanwhile, the Nepalese foreign ministry has issued a statement, which does not directly contradict what PM Oli said but refers to the Vivaha Panchami wedding procession from Ayodhya to Janakpur every year as well as the Ramayana Circuit jointly launched by the Prime Ministers of India and Nepal in May 2018 with the start of a direct bus service between the two cities.
(The writer is former Indian ambassador to Nepal)