Modi in Lumbini: Banking on the ‘Buddha’ Link to Counter China

The visit was significant in strengthening the age-old socio-religious ties between the people of the two countries.

5 min read
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s one-day visit to Lumbini in Nepal on the occasion of the 2566th birth anniversary of Gautam Buddha was spectacular in terms of political and cultural outreach towards a neighbouring country enmeshed in political instability and with whom it has an outstanding border dispute in Kalapani and Susta regions. It was as important as special in not only resetting Indo-Nepal ties, but also strengthening the age-old socio-religious contacts between the people of the two countries.

The message was one of peace, prosperity and brotherhood through enhanced connectivity between the two close neighbours. PM Modi said at a function organised by Nepal’s Lumbini Development Trust that Nepal and India share common beliefs and cultural legacy, which are their biggest assets.

“Together, we can send the message of Buddha to the world and give direction to the world,” he said, stressing that a strong bond between Nepal and India can benefit humanity in the emerging world scenario.

This was Modi’s first visit to Nepal post-2019 and fifth since 2014.


Modi Is the First Indian PM to Visit Lumbini

Given the historical significance of Lumbini, where Buddha was born as a prince in Shakya dynasty, a point repeatedly stressed by PM Modi in his speech on Monday, the Indian government recently approved a project for constructing a centre that would provide a world-class facility to pilgrims and tourists. In this regard, Modi laid the foundation stone for building the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage, which will be constructed by the International Buddhist Confederation of India in the Lumbini Monastic Zone. It is designed to be a modern building and will be ‘net zero’ compliant in terms of energy, water and waste handling.

It must be noted that in the 74-years of Indo-Nepal bilateral ties, no Indian Prime Minister had visited Lumbini, although it is in the heart of the Buddhist circuit, with Sarnath and Bodh Gaya in India completing Buddha’s life chakra. The narratives surrounding the birthplace of Lord Buddha, an emotive issue in Nepal, have often created tensions between the two countries as Indian scholars unnecessarily deliberated over the matter. In as late as August 2020, a controversy erupted when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar referred to Buddha as one of the “two greatest Indians” apart from Gandhi.

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had to then clarify the matter through a statement after protest from the Nepal government, stating that Jaishankar's comment on the founder of Buddhism was on a “shared Buddhist heritage” and that there is no doubt that Lord Buddha was born in Lumbini, Nepal.

Thus, PM Modi’s 16 May visit could now end the debate surrounding Buddha’s birthplace, once and for all. In fact, he had also mentioned during his speech to Nepal’s Parliament in 2014 that “Nepal is the country where the apostle of peace in the world, Buddha, was born”. Modi’s message this time was one of respect for Buddha, which he said ties the two countries together. Such messages have the potential to touch the hearts of millions of Nepalese and significantly reduce the anti-India sentiment that skyrocketed after the 2015 unofficial blockade from India over the Madhesi movement along the Tarai plains and the map row during Nepal Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s reign.


Several Projects in the Pipeline

Modi’s Lumbini visit was a reciprocal one after Nepal’s PM Sher Bahadur Deuba visited Delhi from 1-3 April 2022. During Deuba’s visit, significant progress was made in the bilateral power sector cooperation that covers power trade, development of generation projects and power transmission infrastructure. Since India is reluctant to purchase hydroelectricity from projects built on Chinese grants in Nepal, the Nepali side is inviting Indian investments and builders to take over mega hydro projects in order to export surplus power to Indian states bordering Nepal.

Interestingly, the West Seti hydro project, which was to be built first under Australian and then Chinese assistance in Nepal, has now been offered to Indian developers. During this visit, an agreement was signed between SJVN ltd and Nepal Electricity Authority for the development and implementation of the Arun 4 hydro project. SJVN is already engaged in a 900 MW Arun 3 project in Nepal.

The two Prime Ministers have also talked about expediting the Pancheshwar multi-purpose project, signed as part of the Mahakali Treaty in 1996. This is a step in the right direction as India now recognises the potential that Nepal has in contributing to help meet the rising power demand in India.

Nepal has already signed the Framework Agreement of the International Solar Alliance and thus can enter a partnership in renewable energy development with India.

Earlier, the river treaties between the two neighbours were mired in controversy, especially in Nepal, where many view them as being discriminatory towards Nepalese.


Cementing Education Ties

Also, three MoUs were signed between the ICCR (Indian Council of Cultural Relations) and Lumbini Buddhist University, Tribhuwan University and Kathmandu University (KU) to set up ICCR chairs of Indian studies. In addition, there was an MoU between KU and IIT-Madras.

Many such collaborations are expected in the field of science and technology that could provide opportunities to Nepali students to pursue higher education in India, which, at the moment, is not the most favoured destination for them, as against in the past when most Nepali youth travelled to India for education.

India is also strengthening border infrastructure and building integrated check posts (ICPs) for easy facilitation of passenger goods and services. Since 2012, India has inaugurated seven ICPs along the Indo-Nepal border and is building four more. PM Modi said on Monday that there will be an ICP built at the Bhairawa-Sunauli border point at the earliest.


Border Row on the Backburner?

Modi’s visit to Lumbini has thrown open many opportunities, those that could be fulfilled if there is political will on both sides. This would give a huge boost to the tourism sector in Nepal, which is reeling under an acute economic crisis currently due to post-COVID impact. The two sides must keep the momentum alive to work on building tourism circuits and immediately commission research works that could be carried out jointly by the think tanks of the two nations. PM Deuba’s visit to the Vishwanath temple of Varanasi last month was part of that vision to connect devotees with the Pashupatinath temple of Kathmandu.

This must not be lost, as was witnessed after Modi’s visit to Janakpur in May 2018. The much-hyped collaborations on the Ramayan circuit were lost in the midst of political issues and bureaucratic wrangling. Even then, Modi had undertaken the visit within weeks of the then-Nepali PM Oli’s visit to India.

It would also be most appropriate to expedite dialogues and make use of the over-two-dozen bilateral mechanisms existing between Nepal and India. PM Deuba is keen on settling the border row through foreign secretary-level talks, which have not come through as India is against the politicisation of the border row in Nepal by parties there.

Fortunately, in the local election campaigns this time around (Nepal has just concluded local body elections and results are awaited), the border row did not find any space. With the EPG (Eminent Persons’ Group) report now being archived by India, it is only appropriate to activate these mechanisms, starting with the initiative on border talks.

Given the change of guard in both Barakhamba and Lainchor (where diplomatic missions of the two countries are located in New Delhi and Kathmandu, respectively), the new envoys could build on the achievements of the latest engagements between the two prime ministers of Nepal and India.

(The author is a Nepali journalist and researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Narendra Modi   Nepal   Indo-Nepal Ties 

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