Indian movie star Hrithik Roshan sparked riots in Nepal last month after he allegedly expressed dislike for the country and its people in an interview. He later denied making the remarks, but five people had already died in the violence, several Indian businesses in Kathmandu were destroyed, and relations between the two countries took a turn for the worse. India's former foreign secretary, Salman Haidar, who has been involved in important negotiations with Nepal in the past, spoke recently to TIME contributor Maseeh Rahman about the peculiar nature of relations between the two South Asian nations. Edited excerpts:
TIME: Did the intensity of the violence in Nepal surprise you?
Haidar: It came out of a clear blue sky, so it was bound to be a surprise. But it does illustrate the touchiness of Nepalese opinion over any sense of big brotherly treatment from India, any expression of disdain or a lack of regard and respect. It shows how easily a situation can heat up even when the evidence [of Indian disregard] is so shaky.
TIME: How does one try and understand such a reaction from the Nepalese?
Haidar: Our neighbors see us more clearly than we see them. This is natural, since India is a very large country, and our neighbors are much smaller. A great deal of Nepal's day-to-day activity, economic or otherwise, is tied up with India. Given the disproportionate sizes of the two countries, they have to keep a constant focus on what's going on in India. Nepal is very close to us -- it is closer culturally than any other neighbor. But it is also a very proud country with its own tradition of independence, which is older than India's. They feel that India is not sufficiently mindful of their feelings and their interests.
TIME: India has supported Nepal's pro-democracy movement in the past. But despite the historic links, there are strong anti-Indian lobbyists within Nepalese political parties.
Haidar: It's a curious matter, but democratization of politics in Nepal has increased the possibility of misunderstanding. There are a number of political parties in Nepal, and quite a few groups within these parties, all of which have ample scope to air their views and mobilize public opinion in their favor.
TIME: India and Nepal have a special relationship. With millions of Nepalese working in India, and Indians active in business in Nepal, shouldn't ordinary Nepalese feel less suspicion and hostility toward India?
Haidar: For exactly this reason the suspicion has increased. The inequality of size and capacity gets emphasized because of these realities [of dependence], and increases the Nepalese sense of vulnerability. You use the word "special." I recall more than 30 years ago an Indian delegation that had gone to Nepal, and came back empty-handed because of this word "special." The Indian delegation felt some reference to a "special" relationship had to be included in the final communique. For Nepal, this was unacceptable. Sovereign equals have normal relations. A special relationship implies a certain inequality. That's not acceptable as a concept for Nepal.
TIME: But wouldn't Nepal lose a lot if the two countries had a "normal relationship?"
Haidar: Their perception is that certain realities are irreversible. For example, there are so many Nepalese living in India that you cannot suddenly clamp down on them and say you can't live here anymore. [Nepalese are free to live and work in India without visas or permits, and around four million do so.]
TIME: For decades India and Nepal have been in negotiations over the use of their common boundary river, the Mahakali. You were involved in the 1996 Mahakali River agreement, but it still has not been implemented. What's happening?
Haidar: Natural resources by their very nature are a very sensitive matter politically. We agreed to help develop the area, and we envisage there will be more such agreements allowing both countries to jointly exploit the tremendous hydroelectric and water resources that Nepal has.
TIME: Yet Nepal's parliament has still not ratified the agreement.
Haidar: The issue was deliberately politicized by a group within the UML [United Marxists-Leninists] party that felt uneasy with this kind of linkage between India and Nepal. The UML supported the Mahakali agreement when it was in the ruling coalition, but by the time the agreement came up for ratification before parliament, the party was in opposition. And under the influence of a group within the party, the UML took a contrary view. This demonstrates how in a democracy, groups that are very much a part of the political system are capable of having a disproportionate impact on events. It's not very different from what you see in India, where quite often, small pressure groups can have a huge impact. The agreement is not dead though and may well get implemented.
TIME: Historically, New Delhi has been wary of China's influence in Kathmandu. How far does that account for problems in India-Nepal relations?
Haidar: After the India-China border war in 1962, there was extreme sensitivity on India's part and great reluctance to see Nepal as just another neighbor with whom normal relations could develop. We felt that for India's security, a special relationship needed to be affirmed. This provided an opening for China, and Beijing made a determined attempt to wean Nepal away from a dependence on India for its economic growth and political structures. But as relations between India and China have taken on a different character, the sense of Nepal being able to play one against the other has faded. Today, I don't think that Beijing is a decisive factor in India-Nepal relations.
TIME: There's a lot of talk about Pakistan, especially its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, fishing in Nepal's troubled waters.
Haidar: Let's not lose perspective. On the whole relations between India and Nepal are very good. Communication between the two governments is excellent. But problems are bound to crop up due to the imbalance [between the two countries]. Organizations like the ISI can fish in the troubled parts of Nepal's waters -- there will be groups that are susceptible to ISI influence, but these are not groups that dominate or control Nepalese policy. They can and do make trouble for India, and we know that some politicians are very close to the ISI and are ready to do their bidding. But let that not be seen as evidence of the ISI dominating Nepalese policy.
TIME: So it would be simplistic to say that the latest anti-India riots were organized, as some commentators insist, by either the Bombay underworld or the ISI?
Haidar: The match could have been lit by anyone, but what is more significant is that the tinder is there. There is uneasiness among various Nepalese over how India can dominate them, and violate their sentiments and their rights.
TIME: So what can India do to try and improve this "big brother" image it has in Nepal?
Haidar: India has to tread with care and show some genuine respect. It has to understand that Nepal is a sovereign country that will not move at India's bidding, even in matters where India will be touchy. Nepal may not want to get absorbed into an Indian pattern of economic growth, and may want to pursue a different path. A greater respect on India's side for Nepalese sentiment and independence, for autonomous processes of growth and development, would be helpful. But even if India adopts a sensitive policy, the risk of an accident remains due to the imbalance in size and capacity of the two neighbors.
TIME: Around 100,000 people of Nepali origin who were thrown out of Bhutan continue to live in refugee camps in Nepal without much hope of going home. Can't India do more to help Nepal overcome this problem?
Haidar: Nepal and Bhutan are friendly neighbors, and if we get involved, we'd be blamed by both. President Clinton expressed hope recently that this issue would be settled. And there have been some high-level American visitors [to South Asia] also trying to find a solution. There's an expectation now that the stalled process of identifying those refugees eligible for repatriation back to Bhutan will be resumed. This is a matter in which India's good offices should be made available to both sides, but so far New Delhi has chosen not to intervene.