Narendra Modi greets Sher Bahadur Deuba and his wife Arzu Rana Deuba at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Thursday. Picture by Prem Singh
New Delhi, Aug. 24: Nepal Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba today publicly committed that his government would "never allow" anti-India activities, but senior officials said Narendra Modi and his counterpart from Kathmandu did not discuss the India-China standoff in Doklam when they met earlier in the day.
The broad assurance that Nepal wouldn't allow its territory to be used against India, coupled with the reluctance to specifically take sides on the Doklam spat, underscored Kathmandu's balancing effort between Asia's two giants at a particularly tense moment for the region.
Nepal has long said it will not allow its territory to be used against either India or China, but its deepening ties with Beijing coinciding with challenges in relations with New Delhi over the past two years have sparked concerns in India's strategic establishment.
Deuba's visit to India caps a frenetic diplomatic fortnight for Nepal, with Indian and Chinese leaders wooing the country as their troops stand locked in a two-month-long face-off in the Doklam plateau that is claimed by both Thimphu and Beijing.
Foreign minister Sushma Swaraj visited Nepal on August 10, formally for a meeting of the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (Bimstec). But she had met her counterparts from Nepal and Bhutan - the two countries sandwiched between India and China - on the margins of the Bimstec meeting.
Sushma's visit was followed by a trip by China's vice-premier Wang Yang to Kathmandu, before Deuba flew into New Delhi yesterday.
"I would like to assure you that Nepal will never allow any activities against its friendly neighbour India and there will be every support, every cooperation, every help from our side," Deuba said, looking at Modi, before repeating his commitment. "I would like to assure you."
India and Nepal share an open border and later on Thursday evening, foreign secretary S. Jaishankar said Deuba's assurance "should be seen in that context".
But Jaishankar clarified that Modi and Deuba had not discussed the Doklam spat either today - over two hours of discussions at the British-era Hyderabad House - or yesterday, during an informal chat soon after the Nepal Prime Minister landed in New Delhi. "They did not discuss it today, and they did not discuss it yesterday," Jaishankar said, an amused smile on his face.
Nepal's efforts at balancing relations between New Delhi and Beijing are not new or unknown for either India or China.
China's foreign ministry had yesterday said it was "happy to see the development of sound and healthy relations between Nepal and India". India too has long accepted the reality of Nepal's juggle.
But if indeed Modi and Deuba did not even discuss the Doklam dispute, India, another diplomat said, may also have lost a chance to gauge where an important neighbour stood on the broader challenge New Delhi faces: of a China increasingly assertive in India's immediate neighbourhood.
Opportunities to discuss all shared concerns are rarely given the go-by at meetings between important leaders, this diplomat said.
The failure of India and Nepal to discuss the dispute during a meeting of their Prime Ministers may well be interpreted by many as a signal that China's actions in a region contested by Bhutan too are not a matter of concern for Kathmandu, the diplomat said.
Earlier this month, Nepal's deputy Prime Minister Krishna Bahadur Mahara had said in Kathmandu that his country did not want to choose sides on the Doklam spat.
"Nepal will not get dragged into this or that side on the border dispute," Mahara had said.
On Thursday, Deuba did, however, renew the Nepal government's promise to try and bring amendments to the country's Constitution that Madhesi groups insist are critical to safeguard their political rights.
Deuba's government did attempt to bring amendments to the Constitution to redraw provincial boundaries in a manner that would increase Madhesi political influence in proportion with their population. But those amendments were defeated in Nepal's parliament.
"I hope, in the future, we will have two-thirds majority and we will amend the Constitution so that people from the southern side... all people, will accept the Constitution as their Constitution," Deuba said. "One day, I am hopeful that the Constitution will be supported by all."
Minutes earlier, Modi had said he had "full faith" that under Deuba, Nepal would continue "the process of talking to all sections of society" and would "successfully implement its Constitution keeping the interests of all sections of its population in mind".
The Modi government has faced criticism from Madhesi groups in recent months for pressing them to seek compromises with the government in Kathmandu, after backing their demands for amendments more assertively in the weeks after the Constitution was initially adopted in 2015.