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Hrithik Roshan and Nepal: One Year later
By Sreeram Sundar Chaulia
December 2001 brought to memory a most unsavoury row that erupted a year ago over alleged anti-Nepalese remarks made by the reigning superstar of Bollywood, Hrithik Roshan, an altercation having wider ramifications than those that immediately met the eye. The incident not only revealed the unholy talons of Mumbai’s criminal underworld over film financing and terrorism, but also resuscitated deeply entrenched neighbourly suspicions which have prevented any meaningful cooperation among South Asian nations, SAARC being a prime example of a defunct and moribund international regional organisation. This essay endeavours to decipher and reconstruct the dramatic script behind the Roshan controversy and link it to issues souring Nepal-India relations.
Flashback to ‘Black December’
To put matters in perspective, angry student demonstrations began in Kathmandu on 26th December, 2000, after strong rumours that Roshan stated in a Star TV interview that he “hated Nepal and the Nepalese people.” As many as five thousand pro-Left students blocked traffic, ransacked movie theatres and forced closure of commercial establishments. They demanded no less than an apology from the actor and threatened “to bury Hrithik alive if he ever came to Nepal.” Five or more demonstrators lost their lives. From media descriptions of the highly charged tension in the Nepalese capital, it appeared no less than a national outpouring of anguish and protest, roping in children and older people who recalled similar bad blood over personal faux pas of yesteryear stars like Dharmendra and Nanda. In 1999, actress Madhuri Dixit apparently displayed colossal ignorance by telling an interviewer she believed Nepal was a province of India! Roshan’s ostensible indiscretions were portrayed by some as a continuation of this trend, enraging a fiercely independent small nation that permanently lives under the shadow of ‘big brother’ India. We shall come back to the Indo-Nepalese equation shortly.
The case against Roshan was dubious and fishy owing to the anonymity of the rumourmonger and the absence of any audio-visual evidence of the insinuating comments. Who was the real author of these baseless canards? By strange coincidence, a noted producer Nazim Rizvi was remanded around the same time to police custody on charges of close links with the notorious don Chhota Shakeel, who made headlines earlier in the year for attempting to assassinate Hrithik’s father over a financing dispute of the mega-hit, ‘Kaho Na Pyar Hain’. Rakesh Roshan survived with bullet wounds on a shoulder. At his star son’s high-profile wedding, Z category security was employed owing to endless death threats the family had been receiving from the Chhota Shakeel gang. Numerous film journalists were of the opinion that the Nepalese rumour was the handiwork of the same lot, frustrated at the Roshans’ defiance of their clout and with the desperate intention of besmirching Hrithik’s rise to fame. But the vested interest of the underworld does not stop at this. Film financing is only the tip of the iceberg as far as the scope of the Mumbai mafia’s activity is concerned.
The choice of Nepal for this trumped up drama came as yet another corroboration of the Indian intelligence claim that Kathmandu has become a safe haven for Pakistani ISI activities since the early nineties. As an alternative entry-point for Mujahideen and smuggling of illegal drugs and arms into India, Nepal is a favoured corridor in ‘narco-terrorism’ today. Pokhara (central Nepal) is known particularly for being a crucial transit point in the lucrative business of contraband commodities that involves Mumbai and Dubai based dons such as Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Shakeel, hand in glove with the ISI. One-third of Kathmandu’s hotels, guesthouses, restaurants and travel agencies are owned by Dawood, who uses his transport monopoly in an unholy alliance with not only the ISI but also even the CIA in its China directed activities. Among the five hijackers of the IC814 aircraft (December 1999) was a Nepalese militant who sneaked in with ample assistance from Dawood, a souring point that has bedevilled Indo-Nepalese relations ever since. It was even surmised in intelligence circles that officials at Kathmandu’s Tribhuvan Airport deliberately connived in letting through the hijackers without appropriate security checks. What a sorry state of affairs considering that Indian engineers built this airport with Indian development aid in 1954!
Add the internal Nepalese politics angle to this collusion of interests and the conspiracy theory attained completion. The hate-Roshan campaign was waged under the banner of the All Nepal National Free Students Union (ANNFSU), a Leftist student organisation famous for rabid xenophobia. Security organisations believe that the ISI in Nepal has “penetrated frontal organisations of the Left” and has been using bodies like the ANNFSU for anti-India propaganda. The anti-India stance eminently suits the Nepalese Communist Party’s (CPN-UML) image of being traditionally pro-Chinese and a government-baiter whenever any significant accord is reached with New Delhi. The garb showcased for this criminal nexus is often in terms of an assertion of Nepal’s sovereignty, which is allegedly under threat from its larger neighbour (as if China isn’t predatorial or large!!). Communists conveniently forget that a far more menacing and unpredictable “colossus of the north” needs to be held at bay for Nepal to have any modicum of independence and that China could be the power that benefits the most from a national tragedy like the royal family shoot-out, be it a conspiracy or an accident. The anti-Hrithik agitation may thus have been a crude instrumentalist attempt at dislodging the Nepali Congress government of G.P.Koirala on grounds of failure to maintain internal security. It is worth remembering that just prior to the Hrithik controversy, the ante had been upped in Maoist violence that left dozens of policemen and civilians dead, and the Bollywood-centred commotion appeared to be part and parcel of a concerted plan to create a Mussolini-style artificial crisis of governance and law-and-order to enable a take-over. Carrying strong déjà vu reverberations, the present-day breakdown of the ceasefire between the Deuba government and the renewed Maoist push for arson and killings include a visible anti-India element, what with a bus belonging to Delhi Public School, Dharan, being torched on November 25th in protest against the singing of the Indian national anthem. Prachanda, kingpin of the Maoists, has corroborated by declaring, “for us this (struggle) has to do mainly with India, Indian expansionism.”
India and Nepal: Anatomy of an Uneasy Relationship
How much of the paternalism and expansionism allegation against India is valid? In other words, was the ruckus over Roshan a plot of the Mumbai mafiosi, Maoists and the ISI alone or a grudge of the whole Nepalese nation pouncing upon a fictional utterance to give vent to a genuine grievance? Nepal has always enjoyed close cultural and linguistic affinity with India. Bollywood films are a prominent indicator of what Marxists term as “Indian cultural invasion” of Nepal. Indo-Nepalese trade is almost inter-regional owing to the lack of border, immigration, passport, customs or foreign exchange controls. Nepal’s economy is virtually tied to India’s, more than 35 % of both the former’s imports and exports being to the latter. Much like Chinese domination of South East Asian economies, India strides over Nepal like a colossus. Such a virtual client-patron relationship has had spillovers into the political and diplomatic arenas. Between 1960 and 1962, Nehru actively encouraged Nepali Congress dissidents against King Mahendra’s assumption of ‘Personal Rule’. In 1989, Rajiv Gandhi imposed an economic blockade on Nepal for importing arms from China. Thanks to such overt actions, Nepalis of all shades deemed Indo-Nepalese power-sharing agreements on Tanakpur and water-sharing arrangements on the Gandak-Kosi and Mahakali rivers as one-sided and coercive impositions. Ironically, this image has not been altered by the so-called ‘Gujral Doctrine’ (1996-98) adopted by India, whereby Goliath made greater concessions than warranted to its David-like neighbours and did not insist on reciprocity (i.e. the largest country in the region was the most generous). One of the highlights of the short-lived Gujral premiership was the ratification of the Mahakali Treaty (June 1997) declaring, “water requirements of Nepal will be given prime consideration” (Article 5). Yet, there are leftist Nepalis who condemn it as the ‘Traitor Mahakali Treaty’.
According to strategic pundit, Brahma Chellaney, BJP-led India has displayed a coherent ‘Asian Policy’ oriented at countering China, but whatever happened to the Asian Policy of seeking friendliest possible relations with neighbours, particularly the cis-Himalayan ones? The “good neighbour” onus was very marked in its earlier avatar, the Jana Sangh. Between 1977 and 1980. Vajpayee as Foreign Minister expended many efforts toward reassuring South Asian neighbours of non-interventionism and inauguration of suspicion-free relations with India. Observers of foreign policy credited the Janata period for ushering in a positive change in South Asian regional dynamics and offering pragmatic emollients to outstanding rifts with Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan and Burma. But the current BJP government seems to have jettisoned some old baggage and acquired broader objectives in foreign policy, whereby India’s power is projected on a much wider scale than merely within the Himalayan or South Asian region, taking the focus away from ‘trifles’ like Nepal. It is my personal opinion that Nepal, Burma and Bangladesh have not received adequate attention. That the government has no option but to increase the number of Army units posted in Assam or repeatedly consider President’s Rule in Manipur as if they were solutions is a telling failure of diplomacy with bordering countries, not to mention handling of internal dissent. Similarly, the failure of the BJP government to prevent long-predicted atrocities and expulsions against Hindu minorities in Bangladesh after the Muslim fundamentalist BNP’s return to power may be a function of sheer negligence of smaller neighbours on the part of New Delhi.
Anti-Hrithik Roshan violence and arson in Nepal came as warnings to the Indian government to mend fences and once again walk the diplomatic tightrope of ensuring that Nepal does not become a permanent ISI haven and simultaneously allaying Kathmandu’s fears of Indian intervention and unfair treatment. But as diplomat Howard Schaffer observes, “over the years, New Delhi has shown little interest in cultivating the smaller South Asian countries and relieving their fears of their giant neighbour and their sense of vulnerability to Indian military and economic pressures.” This regional indifference remains a major problem and challenge to Indian foreign policy in the new millennium. However, considering that even the Gujral Doctrine failed to inspire adequate confidence in the Cassandras of the Nepali Left, normalising Indo-Nepal relations appears an uphill task, made no easier by a more general air of hurtful contempt for India that was reported during the anti-Hrithik ferment, largely in protest against post-IC 814 irresponsible growling in some Indian quarters that all Nepalis were terrorists. Worth highlighting from the verbal barrage of previous December is this statement by rabble-rousers in Kathmandu: “It is not only Hrithik Roshan who is against us, it is the whole of India and its bossy attitude we are protesting against.” Although the Nepalese tourism ministry issued an invitation to Hrithik in March 2001 to bury the unhappiness of the past, anti-India sentiments continued to simmer there during the Indian foreign minister’s visit in August 2001. When emotional rancour dissolves at the popular level, no more scapegoats like Hrithik will be manufactured and no more instances of Nepal being used by India’s enemies will recur. Jaswant Singh, and indeed every Indian who visits Nepal as a tourist or businessman, or interacts with Nepalis abroad, has an onerous responsibility of patiently and gradually dousing inflamed egos and nipping the potential for new December 2000s.
As senior political commentator Inder Malhotra advises time and again, “handle Nepal with care”!
Sundar Chaulia studied History at St.Stephen’s College, Delhi, and
took a Second BA in Modern History at University
College, Oxford. He researched the BJP’s foreign policy at the London
School of Economics and is currently analyzing the impact of conflict on
Afghan refugees at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse, NY.]