Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two-day visit to Nepal, starting Sunday, is likely to draw much diplomatic and political attention to the profound religious intimacy between India and the world’s only other nation with a majority of Hindus. There are many countries, with different religious denominations, with which India celebrates shared history, culture and civilisation. But the spiritual affinity between the people of India and Nepal is intense and lived every day. Yet religion has not been of policy consequence in the diplomatic engagement between Delhi and Kathmandu. Until now.
A number of new factors make religion quite relevant to the current discourse on India-Nepal relations. On Monday, in Kathmandu, Modi will head to the Pashupatinath temple on the banks of the Bagmati river and offer prayers. Most Indian leaders travelling to Kathmandu do make it a point to visit the Pashupatinath temple. What lends some special significance to Modi’s visit is the explicit religiosity of the new Indian leadership and the extraordinary resonance it is likely to get in Nepal.
When he returned to Varanasi after being elected prime minister, Modi offered prayers at the Vishwanath temple and joined the “Ganga aarti” at Dashashwamedh Ghat. During her visit to Dhaka last month, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj went to pray at the Dhakeshwari temple. It is no secret that the dates for Modi’s visit were finalised with the awareness that visiting Pashupatinath on a Monday of the current lunar month, Shravan, is considered especially auspicious. There is no escaping the fact that India’s new leadership is now more in sync with the deep religiosity of the subcontinent.
For most leaders from Pakistan and Bangladesh, an official visit to India would be incomplete without a pilgrimage to Ajmer Sharif. For leaders from Myanmar, Sri Lanka and many other nations in Asia, visiting Bodh Gaya would be an important part of their itinerary. Indian godmen, of course, have long attracted visiting heads of government and state from around the world.
Nepalese leaders across the political spectrum think it is entirely appropriate that Modi visit the Pashupatinath shrine. Many in Nepal are hoping that Modi will find time to visit Lumbini, the birthplace of Gautama Buddha, and Janakpur, Sita’s birthplace. Logistics, however, are likely to stop the prime minister from visiting either place during the current trip to Nepal.
For Delhi, the policy issue is not about Modi visiting temples in Nepal. The potential danger is about India crossing the line between celebrating the shared religious heritage and blundering into Nepal’s domestic debate on the role of Hinduism in the construction of the post-monarchical state. At the turn of the 1960s, King Mahendra declared Nepal a Hindu state and used religion to legitimise the monarchy’s power. In 2008, the constituent assembly abolished the monarchy and declared Nepal a democratic, secular and federal republic.
Gyanendra, the ousted monarch, and his royalist supporters are hoping that the BJP’s ascent to power in Delhi might bring about a change in India’s approach to Nepal. Their hopes have been boosted by the RSS affiliated groups in Nepal that support the notion of a “Hindu Rashtra”.
Given the deep unpopularity of the monarchy and the perceived link between monarchy and the Hindu state, Modi must unambiguously put down all royalist efforts at claiming a “special relationship” with the BJP government in Delhi. To avoid any misperception, Modi must clearly support the current draft constitution’s identification of Nepal as a “federal, secular democratic republic”.
Once he steps away from the minefield of Nepal’s domestic discourse on the Hindu state, Modi will find the shared Hindu and Buddhist heritage a solid foundation on which to build a new and lasting edifice of bilateral cooperation. As an MP from Varanasi, it would be surprising if Modi did not highlight the enduring links between Pashupatinath and Kashi Vishawanth. There are multiple other religious connections between the holy shrines of India and Nepal: Lumbini and Sarnath, Janakpur and Ayodhya, Guhyeshwari and Kamakhya to name a few.
In publicly highlighting these spiritual bonds, Modi will be able to directly touch millions of Nepalese hearts. Modi should also acknowledge Nepal’s historic contribution to the development of two great religions and in preserving many of their traditions over the last two and a half millennia.
While the Nepalis are proud of their religious heritage, they are also thirsting for economic development. Modi is in a happy situation where he can combine the celebration of the shared spiritual heritage with a development strategy that can benefit the people of both nations.
For example, the modernisation of the Buddhist circuit in India can be combined with the development of Lumbini and other holy places in Nepal. Similarly, pilgrimage networks centred on Ayodhya and Janakpur can be brought up to world standards. Connectivity has long been a buzz word in India’s regional diplomacy. In the case of India’s frontier with Nepal, a serious pursuit of connectivity could be simply transformative. Improving connectivity, modernising infrastructure, preserving cultural heritage and promoting tourism are central to Modi’s economic programme at home. They are also at the heart of all of Kathmandu’s plans to accelerate Nepal’s economic growth.
The East Asian countries have always been interested in developing and promoting religious tourism in India and Nepal. The growing middle classes in China and India are crying out for better facilities at the priceless holy sites on the Gangetic plains.
If Delhi and Kathmandu can get their act together, millions of pilgrims from around the world will pour into the Hindu and Buddhist holy lands, and help promote the development of one of the world’s poorest regions. In Kathmandu, then, Modi must firm India’s readiness to act quickly and in partnership with Nepal, to develop and connect the multiple pilgrimage centres and heritage sites scattered all across the India-Nepal border.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’