It is said sports bring out the best in us, but if we are not cautious enough, it may also bring out the worst.
Minutes after Nepal secured a resounding victory against India in a crucial group stage match of the ongoing SAFF Championship last Thursday, social networking and micro-blogging sites were abuzz with Nepali fans celebrating their team’s much deserved victory against a lackluster Indian team. (The six-time SAFF champions India turned its game around at the right time and has advanced to the final of the SAFF championship while Nepal has again crashed out of the tournament after going down against Afghanistan)
The facebook status updates and twitter posts were just a pure expression of joy by fans upon seeing the Nepali team clinch a fabulous victory against South Asian sporting powerhouse. Some were witty and humorous too, like this satirical post by one clever fan:
नेताहरुले इन्डिया फुन गरिसके होला, केटाहरुले बिराए माफ पाम भनेर (The politicians must have already called the Indian leaders asking for apology on behalf of the Nepali team).
The post’s timing, context as well as an innocent spoof at the ever-growing tendency of Nepali politicians to travel down to India to do the rounds of power corridors in New Delhi (probably asking to support them to become the next prime minister) was quite skittish and cause for some amusement.
But what was concerning, however, was a few number of them taking potshots at India and Indian-ness -- even serious barbs that were devoid of any sense of respect for a worthy opponent team of a neighbouring country which had trounced Nepal many times in previous installments of the game. This was sad for someone like me who is an ardent fan of Nepali football, but it was hardly surprising.
Looking at the emotions run high on Nepali social media that day and then the euphoria hog newspaper headlines the next morning – although the match results were hardly mentioned in the Indian media – reminded me of the David vs Goliath story I read in childhood. India, a huge country of 1.2 billion people, with one of world’s strongest military and fastest growing economy, fell to its knees against Nepal, an opponent much smaller in both show and size.
The reason why Nepalis are much more passionate when their team plays against India, more than with any other country – one of just few occasions Nepal finds itself competing head-to-head against its giant neighbour - is quite understandable.
And it also reminds me of the classic football rivalry that exists between England and Argentina. There’s a difference, however. While the latter may have to do with the vestiges of colonialism that took the two countries to a short-lived war and a long-standing diplomatic tussle, the former has more to do with the hurt Nepalis have taken against India’s perceived lack of regard and respect for Nepal and Nepalis.
Of course, no matter which part of the world you go, neigbouring countries always have a love-hate relationship between them. So, India having a narrow, stereotypical image of Nepalis as bungling watchmen (bahadurs) while Nepalis referring to them after a certain clothe the majority of impoverished India (and Nepal) wear ought to be brushed aside as harmless antagonism, and hence tame.
However, that would be trying to simplify a very complex relationship between the two countries.
During that football match against India, it was hard not to miss a large banner that proclaimed: “Let it be understood, Buddha was Born in Nepal”, an assertion social media, discussions forum has been abuzz with since the past couple of years.
Nepali people have time and again been annoyed and angered by Indian media’s lack of historic sense: Its erroneous assertion that Buddha was born in India by going against the known fact that he was born in Lumbini, which is in present day Nepal.
On September 8, this website reported that about 300 cable television networks in Nepal blocked India’s Zee TV for an hour as the news channel aired the first episode of its new show ‘Buddha’. A cast of the show had commented at its launch Buddha was born in India.
Following a public outrage in Nepal – of course started in social media – Zee TV was forced to accept the factually incorrect claim in its advertisements of the new serial and apologise to Nepali people who form a tiny but significant portion of its audience.
This is not the first such instance. On many occasions in the past such mendacity coupled with careless and sometimes even misquoted remarks by Indian movie stars about Nepal have ignited huge public furor in Nepal. Often it is true to the phrase “making a mountain out of a molehill” but it is again hastily and wrongly described as “anti-Indian” sentiments by the Indian media.
But there are more serious matters in hand. The long-standing allegation of encroachment of Nepal’s territories by India made worse by plethora of criminal activities, rise in human trafficking and even terrorism activities along the porous Nepal-India border time and again take the Nepal-India relationship to its new low.
And then there are disputes over dams constructed by India close to its border with Nepal. Question is who controls the rivers that floods thousands of Nepali and Indian villages every monsoon, take lives of thousands and displace millions? This issue has been a sore point in Nepal-India relations. There is also a general feeling that India hasn’t invested even a tiny fraction of its vast resources in developing these bordering areas with Nepal, which could have helped cross-border trade to boom.
However, the relationship between Nepal and India is not all that gloomy. Though accused of a big-brotherly attitude towards Nepal, interfering in its internal affairs, India has always helped Nepal during crucial phases and junctures through difficult political transitional phases.
In February 1951, a heavily garlanded king Tribhuvan returned home from his short political exile in New Delhi aboard the Dakota plane to usher in a new dawn in Nepal’s history after the fall of the 104-year-long Rana oligarchy.
Since that historic day which is etched in the national psyche as the country’s first (but brief) tryst with democracy, India has actively facilitated two democratic changes in Nepal -- first in 1990 as Nepal transformed itself from a party-less absolute monarchy into a multi-party democracy, and then in 2006 when India helped broker a historic peace treaty between the Maoist rebels and parliamentary parties. This ended the royal regime led by then-king Gyanendra and kick started the peace process which would eventually see Nepal abolish the 240-year-old monarchy for a republic Nepal. India has indeed played an important role in Nepal’s long and difficult journey from autocracy to democratic republicanism, but at the same time it has caused fear among the Nepali people regarding their own sense of nationalism, sovereignty and territorial integrity.
India is also an important development partner of Nepal, making important contributions in latter’s bid to expand its infrastructural base including key sectors like health and education.
However, it’s the people to people interaction between India and Nepal and bond we share that is worth praising. The Nepali and Indian people living alongside the open border share the same language, culture and beliefs which they augment through cross-border marriages. There is a large community of Indians of Nepali origin in India – although a tiny fraction of country’s population - who have contributed greatly to India’s pluralistic, multilingual, multi-ethnic society and its sense of diversity.
Concurrently, Nepal is also home to a large Hindi speaking group. The Marwari mercantile community have established themselves as prominent and influential industrialists and businessmen contributing substantially to the Nepali economy. Thousands of Indians are also employed in manual and skilled jobs including various professional sectors in Nepal while large number of Nepalis travel to India to further their studies or in search of work. But the special relationship enjoyed by Nepal and India is clear from the fact that the army chiefs of the two countries are honorary general in each other’s armies. And most importantly, the 42,000 strong Gurkha contingents comprising mainly of Nepali citizens have established themselves as vital part of Indian Army, one of the world’s strongest armies. India is Nepal’s strongest trade partner, and a funding ally for development projects.
The two countries share a long and complex relationship, bordering on cordiality, affability to even mutual-distrust. They say Britain and America may be two nations divided by a common language. But Nepal and India could be two nations divided by common culture, heritage and similar way of thinking and apprehending.
And this is what comes into play whenever Nepal is pitted against India in regional football tournaments.
Although it is not always sensible to try to see too much into a simple game of football (or any sports for that matter) between two nations, but the great passion and devotion seen in Nepali players and fans that day which ultimately saw Nepal victorious against India seemed to be a honest endeavor and wish -- as per the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu -- of a small state (Nepal) to be acknowledged and received by a great state (India).
It is important to recognize that there are ups and downs in every relationship, and the historic ties between Nepal and India is also not without its share of problems. It would not be wrong to say that India has had a patronizing attitude and this apathy towards Nepal has always been unnerving and hence alienating. No Indian PM has visited Nepal since I.K Gujral’s visit in 1997 while the first port of call for any Nepali prime minister is New Delhi. This has resulted in a very lop-sided relationship between India and Nepal. And India, too, time and again feels annoyed by what it perceives as Nepal’s own lack of regard and insensitivity to its genuine security concerns (that is so apparent in the two country’s inefficiency in regulating the open border that is feeding terrorism-related acts in India).
India’s growing political and economic might that the world is slowly coming to terms with will surely see it alongside global superpowers like China and America. Nepal would do well if its heeds to Lao Tzu’s advice: That small states, by abasing themselves to a great state, gains their favour.”
But the great state must also learn to abase itself, and that by being deferential rather than condescending to a small state, it will also win it over to them.
There will be more people cheering for India in the stands of Dashrath Stadium than for Afghanistan in SAFF’s final match today, and many of them will of course be Nepalis. Still, may the better team win and may football help the South Asian region shed away false differences and divisions that has hindered its great potential and promote the brotherhood (and sisterhood) that connects us all to the beautiful game.