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Modi in Lumbini: Buddhism provides India a cultural inroad in Nepal – it may not be enough to counter China

Yubaraj Ghimire writes: Modi’s visit to Lumbini and laying the foundation of its monastery may give India a foothold and cultural space. But there’s little guarantee that it will be able to outdo its competitors, including the West and China

Written by Yubaraj Ghimire |
Updated: May 17, 2022 2:07:49 pm
PM Modi and Nepal PM Deuba hold bilateral talks in Lumbini. (Photo: Twitter)

For long, Lumbini and its people felt uncomfortable, even angry, over the projection of the Buddha as Indian. There was also the feeling that it was being treated unfairly by Indian tour handlers. Package deals for tourists and pilgrims from across the world would only make a fleeting visit to the Buddha’s birth place, before being herded back to Buddhist shrines in India, denying Nepal its due economic gain.

Nearly eight years ago, Prime Minister Narendra Modi tried to address this issue when he told Nepal’s Constituent Assembly that the Buddha was born in Nepal. On Buddha Poornima on Monday, Modi made a trip to Lumbini, becoming the first Indian PM to do so. He offered prayers at the Mayadevi temple, believed to be the Buddha’s birthplace, in the company of highly-respected Buddhist masters, and then laid the foundation for the International Buddhist Conference and Meditation Centre.

The trip, a month after Nepali Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba visited India, is being projected as a “cultural visit” but there are many who call it India’s late awakening from a deep diplomatic slumber. Delhi has been indifferent to the deep inroads China has been making in Nepal. Modi landed at a newly-built helipad close to the Mayadevi temple, avoiding the Gautam Buddha International Airport, built with a soft loan from China and co-incidentally inaugurated by his host earlier in the morning on the auspicious day.

China first offered to spend $3 billion to build up Lumbini as the world peace city under the aegis of its NGO – Asia Pacific Exchange and Foundation – co-opting Maoist leader Prachanda as its vice chairman. China has also built a monastery in the core area of the Lumbini Development Project. China’s offer to develop it as the World Peace Centre and construct a railway line connecting Tibet and Kathmandu is as yet in abeyance, but not completely given up.

The increased presence and influence of the US and the European Union, along with India, has become more pronounced in Nepal’s domestic politics – especially following the political changes of 2005-06. China retaliated with a matching presence and economic investments. This has had an impact on internal politics and policy-making in Nepal. But unlike its competitors, China’s outlook had depth and took into account multiple dimensions. Lumbini, thanks largely to China, has now become sort of a microcosm of the competing international forces in the country.

India first reacted to the Chinese presence in Lumbini on November 8, 2011, in the wake of enthusiastic publicity by the Chinese about the World City initiative. At a dinner table, Dr Karan Singh’s discomfort was palpable. The senior Congress leader was then in Nepal. “How far is Lumbini from the Indian border?” he asked. “Not even 10 km away,” former King Gyanendra Shah had responded. Singh, apparently under instructions from the government in Delhi, told the media the next day that India was keen to undertake the project with the promise of bestowing upon Lumbini the status it deserved.

How much Modi’s visit to Lumbini will make up for Delhi’s indifference is yet to be gauged. The two sides agreed to develop a Buddhist circuit, linking shrines located in the two countries with Lumbini occupying a prime position. India also agreed to set up the Dr B R Ambedkar Chair in Lumbini University, with around 1,000 students, including from China, enrolled.

Modi, by befriending Deuba, has made an effective attempt to repair the damage in bilateral ties that took place between 2016 and 2021 when he and his then Nepali counterpart K P Oli fell out. India not only refused to welcome Nepal’s constitution promulgated in September 2015, but also launched an economic blockade for 134 days. Deuba, who is also the chairman of the Nepali Congress, recently accepted Modi’s invitation for his party and the BJP to establish fraternal relations — something the Chinese Communist Party tried with the unified Communist party of Nepal. Modi’s visit to Lumbini and the laying of the monastery’s foundation may give India a foothold and cultural space. But that provides zero guarantee that it will be able to outdo its competitors, including the West and China, who are already deeply entrenched in Nepal.

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This column first appeared in the print edition on May 17, 2022, under the title ‘Bridge to the Buddha’

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