On the first Sunday of 2016, my wife entreated of me to visit the Pashupatinath Temple just northeast of Kathmandu with our son. She wanted blessings from Lord Shiva to protect our four-year-old, who suffers from asthma, from the extreme cold of January.
This innocent maternal request was made during an outrageous national predicament – a petroleum shortage triggered by the Indian economic blockade in response to Nepal having promulgated a new constitution on September 20, 2015.
We had almost given up hope that we could shield our asthmatic child from the extreme cold of the winter with no liquefied petroleum gas or electricity. He was only surviving with the help of salbutamol and montelukast sodium that our pediatrician had advised us to administer, for the whole of the winter, to protect him from the cold. But montelukast sodium was running out of stock because of high demand. To make matters worse, we couldn’t even provide warm milk and food regularly because of the shortage of energy.
Despite being an agnostic who has profound qualms about God’s existence, I honor everyone’s religious faith. Respecting my wife’s conviction, I took her and our son to visit Lord Pasupatinath. After her worship and prayers, we exited the temple through the east gate to the Aryaghat, where dead bodies are cremated.
When I approached the Aryaghat, a heart-rending scene flabbergasted me. About 30 dead bodies were in the queue for cremation. The pyres were burning in all 11 cremation spaces of the ghat. The nearby electric crematory also appeared to be busy, as the chimney was full of smoke.
On the ghat there were more than 10 small bodies of children and three tiny bodies of infants clad in white cloth. These bodies were also in the queue for the final sleep for a while at the brahmnal, a place where the dead are kept for a while as it is the belief that because of this the deceased gets salvation, and they were being buried in the forest across from the temple.
I found myself in a situation similar to a famous Bollywood soundtrack “Duniya Me Kinta Gum Hai, Mera Gum Kitna Kam Hai” (The World Is Full of Agony and My Suffering Is Consequently Much Less). This doleful panorama broke my heart and I, as any father would, realized that my son’s asthma was my gravest suffering. In the fleeting glimpses of death, I realized that I was lucky enough to have been capable of keeping my son alive while there were many ill-fated fathers who could not.
The economic blockade was counterproductive and was devastating the lives of the innocent, the helpless and the poor, much more than it ever could harm the ruling class in Kathmandu
Before I witnessed these ghat scenes, I truly believed that India’s pressure on Kathmandu was right. Now I realized that the economic blockade was counterproductive and was devastating the lives of the innocent, the helpless and the poor, much more than it ever could harm the ruling class in Kathmandu. It was then that I realized that the Indian blockade had turned into a lamentable catalogue of human carnage.
The glimpses at the Aryaghat at Pashupatinath played a precursory role to my reconnaissance of the number of people who had lost their lives because of that blockade. I inquired at all of the hospitals in the Kathmandu Valley and visited the major cremation centers of Teku Dobhan, Sovabhagawati and Sankhamul to count that many people had died.
The timeline of my focus was from November 16, 2015, to February 20, 2016. I found that some 2,400 people died in the Kathmandu Valley alone during this period. The highest number of deceased were from the age group of greater than 70 and less than two years old, while these children were mostly asthmatic or pneumonic. I was devastated to find that some 967 children under the age of five and 1,023 people over 70 died of pneumonia and asthma during that time.
My study concluded that among the deceased, more than 80% of those aged over 70 and 90% of those less than five would definitely have lived for at least a few more years if there had been an adequate supply of fuel and necessary utilities. I realized that nearly two-thirds of those who had died by virtue of the Indian economic blockade did not know exactly what a constitution is, and they probably didn’t have anything to do with its promulgation either.
After the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and World Health Organization issued a warning of a serious humanitarian crisis due to the shortfall of medical supplies, Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj assured the upper house of Parliament that India would airlift essential drugs if the Nepalese government formally requested it.
Against this backdrop of the blockade, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wrapped up his two-day formal trip to Nepal on May 12. It was his third visit to the country since became prime minister on May 26, 2014, and more significantly, it was his first visit since India imposed an economic blockade on Nepal for more than five months.
Before June 2017, India had been pressuring Kathmandu to amend the constitution to recognize the Indian origins of Nepal’s lowland people, the Madheshis, who India thinks are marginalized people. However, Modi spoke very little about the Madeshis at the reception hosted by provincial and local governments at Janakpur.
On the contrary, in his rhetorical speech at the reception, Modi expressed in poetic style in his native language that India and Nepal have a cherished relationship, which reads as follows:
Nepal ke bina Bharat ka Astha Adhura
Nepal ke Bina Bharat ka Biswas Adhura
Nepal ke bina Bharatka Dham Adhura
Nepal ke Bina Bharat ka Ram Adhura.
A crude translation of his speech goes like this: Devoid of Nepal, India’s faith is incomplete. Devoid of Nepal, India’s trust is incomplete. Devoid of Nepal, India’s history is incomplete. Devoid of Nepal, India’s pilgrimages are incomplete and devoid of Nepal, India’s Ram is incomplete.
The reason behind Modi being forced to invert the course of India-Nepal relations from such “muscular diplomacy” to “pilgrimage diplomacy” is the Doklam standoff between China and India that started on June 16, 2017.
As a result of the Indian economic blockade, more than 90% of Nepali hill people became anti-Indian, and in the same way after the Doklam standoff, the majority of Bhutanese became anti-Indian. Modi later realized that visiting Nepal would be a way to appease the anti-Indian sentiment of Nepali people.