Buddha and the neighbourhood: How Modi’s Lumbini visit aims to curb Dragon’s growing shadow over Nepal

Buddha and the neighbourhood: How Modi’s Lumbini visit aims to curb Dragon’s growing shadow over Nepal

Buddha and the neighbourhood: How Modi’s Lumbini visit aims to curb Dragon’s growing shadow over Nepal

India’s foreign relations are changing fast and for the better. During the last few months, Delhi witnessed a flurry of visits by dignitaries from Japan, US, UN, UK, etc, and the successful trip of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Europe where he met the top leadership of Germany, Nordic countries and France.

India is today able to assert its own foreign policy, its own priorities, and its own interests. While being ready to work for the global good, Delhi kept a balanced view of the unfolding events in the world, particularly in Ukraine. But neighbours remain neighbours, and their importance needs to be emphasised again and again. Prime Minister Modi’s one-day trip to Lumbini should be seen in this context.

The Lumbini visit

Lumbini is located a couple of kilometres from the Indian border; the border town of Sonauli in Maharajganj district of Uttar Pradesh is hardly a one-hour drive from Lumbini and the Nautanwa railway station just a few kilometres away. Nothing could illustrate more the 'Neighbourhood First' policy than a visit to the Buddha’s birthplace.

PM Modi holds bilateral talks with Nepal PM in Lumbini. Twitter/@MEAIndia

A few years ago, to a question in the Rajya Sabha, the Minister of State in the Ministry of External Affairs, V Muraleedharan, explained the policy of his government: “[The] Government is committed to developing friendly and mutually beneficial relations with all its neighbours… Our engagement with these countries is based on a consultative, non-reciprocal and outcome-oriented approach, which focuses on delivering benefits like greater connectivity, improved infrastructure, stronger development cooperation in various sectors, security and broader people-to-people contacts.”

Nepal is important to India in the above domains, but also strategically and spiritually.

The importance of Nepal

Remember, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel’s prophetic letter on Tibet written in November 1950, a month after the invasion of the Roof of the World (and less than five weeks before the Sardar passed away). The then Deputy Prime Minister wrote: “I am sure the Chinese and their source of inspiration, the Soviet Union would not miss any opportunity of exploiting these weak spots [Bhutan and Nepal], partly in support of their ideology and partly in support of their ambitions. In my judgment, the situation is one which we cannot afford either to be complacent or to be vacillating. We must have a clear idea of what we wish to achieve and also of the methods by which we should achieve it. Any faltering or lack of decisiveness in formulating our objectives or in pursuing our policies to attain those objectives is bound to weaken us and increase the threats which are so evident.”

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India had/has no choice but to be close to Nepal and Bhutan, despite difficulties surging from time to time (i.e. the recent redrawing by Nepal of the map of the trijunction with Tibet, near Lipulekh is an example).

An article in Mother India, a publication based in Mumbai, appeared at the same time. KD Sethna, the editor, wrote (after Sri Aurobindo checked and corrected the draft): “Let us not blink at the fact that Tibet is principally useful to China as a gate of entry into India. Sooner or later, the attempt will be made to threaten us. Where exactly along the 1,300 miles of the new frontier the thrust will come it is too early to say. But Nepal, with sixteen railroads leading directly into India from her borders, appears to be the most likely objective. There may not be a direct attack at first, for the Gurkhas are great fighters though their fighting ability may not weigh against overwhelming numbers and better equipment. What is more likely is a communist penetration of existing popular movements, a further working up of internal disturbances dividing the political structure as well as the soldiery, and then the call by one party to China for aid.”

This is precisely what happened through the years, so much so that when an Indian political leader was recently seen in a pub in Kathmandu, many thought that his companion was the Chinese ambassador because, in recent times, most observers believed that Beijing had become Nepal’s real ruler.

It is also this unbalance that Modi sought to change by restoring Nepal as India’s closest neighbour and friend and Gautam Buddha was the best linkage to exemplify this.

Religious importance

Apart from the strategic importance of Nepal, the prime minister’s visit has a deeply religious significance. In a tweet, the prime minister said; “On Buddha Purnima, we recall the principles of Lord Buddha and reiterate our commitment to fulfilling them. The thoughts of Lord Buddha can make our planet more peaceful, harmonious and sustainable.”

The prime minister, accompanied by the prime minister of Nepal, Bahadur Deuba, and his wife, attended the 2566th Buddha Jayanti Celebration at the International Convention Centre and Meditation Hall at Lumbini.

A PIB communiqué says: “Both Prime Ministers addressed the nearly 2,500 attendees, which included monks, Buddhist scholars and international participants.”

PM Modi offers prayers at Maya Devi Temple, Lumbini. Twitter/@narendramodi

Modi had earlier offered prayers at the Mahaparinirvana Stupa at Kushinagar, Uttar Pradesh, from where he boarded a helicopter for a short trip to Lumbini. In a tweet, the Prime Minister said: “Our government is making numerous efforts to boost infrastructure in Kushinagar so that more tourists and pilgrims can come here.”

While in Lumbini, the two prime ministers performed the shilanyaas ceremony for the construction of the India International Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage in the Lumbini Monastic Zone.

With communist China, an atheist country, trying to become the leader of the Buddhist world while at the same time persecuting the Buddhist population in Tibet, it is good news that India and Nepal are coming together. “I have had the privilege of visiting Lumbini, the holy birthplace of Lord Buddha, in Nepal, a friend of India,” noted Modi who called his experience unforgettable: “The place where Lord Buddha himself was born, the energy there, the consciousness there, it is a different feeling.”

He specifically addressed India’s neighbour: “Nepal means, the country of the world's highest mountain — Sagarmatha [Mt Everest]! Nepal means, the country of many holy pilgrimages, temples and monasteries of the world! Nepal means the country that preserves the ancient civilisational culture of the world! When I come to Nepal, I have a different spiritual experience than any other political visit.”

Modi concluded by speaking of the common heritage, common culture, common faith and common love: “This is our greatest asset. And, the richer this asset is, the more effectively together we can bring the message of Lord Buddha to the world and give direction to the world.”

The prime minister called this message special “because [Lord Buddha] did not only preach, but he made humanity feel knowledge. He dared to abandon the great glorious kingdom and comforts. Certainly, he was not born as an ordinary child. But he made us realise that sacrifice is more important than attainment. Realisation is complete only by renunciation… Lord Buddha showed us the path which he himself had lived.”

This was definitely a message to communist China.

China’s Attempt to lead the Buddhist World

A few days before the prime minister’s visit was announced, news circulated on the social media that China-selected Panchen Lama, Gyaltsen Norbu would visit Lumbini.

The information sounded fake, as it was doubtful that China would bring its protégé to Nepal (and especially in Lumbini) at the time of Modi’s visit, but it is symptomatic of Beijing trying by any means to lead the global Buddhist movement.

Already in May 2019, Gyaltsen Norbu made a trip outside China, attending religious events in Thailand. Reuters had then reported: “Although officially atheist, China selected Gyaltsen Norbu as the 11th Panchen Lama in 1995 in a drive to win the hearts and minds of Tibetans. Tibet's current spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, whom Beijing brands a dangerous separatist, had announced his own choice of a six-year-old boy, but he was taken away by authorities and has since vanished from public view.”

China News Service noted that China's Panchen Lama had arrived in Thailand and during his stay in Bangkok, “he gave a speech at a Buddhist university and attended other Buddhist events and religious exchanges. The visit made him even more aware of the greatness of the motherland [China] and the Chinese Communist Party”.

This time, China did not take the risk to expose the young lama to the world media. One never knows, he could have defected to Nepal, being probably unsatisfied with the treatment of his own countrymen in Tibet.

Despite China’s generous promises to invest $3 billion in Lumbini, the funding of the Gautam Buddha International Airport nearby (Modi refused to land on this airport constructed by Northwest Civil Aviation Airport Construction Group of China), and the pledge to bring a railway line to Lumbini, it is impossible for China to rival the ancient kinship between Nepal and India. Modi’s visit was about that.

And from Nepal’s side, Kathmandu does not want to be caught in a Sri Lankan-type financial crisis. India’s friendship is, therefore, all the more important.

The writer is a noted author, journalist, historian, Tibetologist and China expert. The views expressed are personal.

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