Ranjit Rae is former Indian Ambassador to Hungary, Vietnam and Nepal. With over 30 years of experience in the Indian Foreign Service, he held various positions in international and state organizations/bodies. In his past role as a Joint Secretary (North) at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Ambassador Rae had a ringside view of the 12-point agreement signed in 2005 in New Delhi between the then Seven-party Alliance of Nepal and the CPN (Maoist). The pact initiated the peace process in Nepal, encouraged Maoist rebels to join the peace process and made the first Constituent Assembly elections a reality. Those efforts culminated in the Comprehensive Peace Agreement in 2006. Nepalkhabar talked to Ambassador Ranjit Rae for his personal experiences in Nepal. Excerpts:
How have you kept yourself busy after the end of your tenure with the Indian Foreign Service?
Let me say it was a relief. You know retirement means freedom. You are no longer bound by the shackles of being in government, and you become a free person. So, there was one year of a great feeling of liberation and freedom, which was nice. Secondly, I had decided that I will not do any job after I retire, but I could do small projects, mentor some people, or be on some committees and boards. So I joined the board of an Indian Public Sector Company called BHEL. They make turbines and electrical machinery, and they have been active in Nepal; also supplying equipment to some of the hydro projects. I was appointed by the Commonwealth Secretary General to a high-level group on Commonwealth Governance.Similarly I am on the Peace Advisory Board of an organization called United Nations Institute for Training and Research. Previously, I was associated with peace keeping operations of the United Nations. During COVID-19, everything was shut down, so I used that opportunity to write a book on Nepal called “Kathmandu Dilemma: Resetting India-Nepal Ties”, which took up some of my time. I enjoyed traveling. I am quite busy and happy and free.
When was your first visit to Nepal? What was your perception about Nepal then and later as the Ambassador to Nepal? Was there any remarkable change in your understanding of this mystic country?
Well, of course, Nepal has changed a lot. I remember, I was a student then, and I had come with some friends and we stayed at a very small hotel near the Yak and Yeti Hotel in Durbar Marg, and it was a very enjoyable experience. Kathmandu, in particular, has an excellent climate. In those days, if you remember, you could not buy imported goods in India because of its closed economy. So to buy Levis Jeans, people used to come to Nepal and to all the border haats (markets). I have wonderful memories of that time. A lot of young people were also influenced by a very famous film called “Hare Rama Hare Krishna”by Dev Anand. Those are some of my memories. The mountains are also very attractive; just as I sit here, I can see a partial view of the Ganesh Himal. Nepal is such a beautiful country.
When I came back as Ambassador, of course, things changed and particularly on the political side. This country has seen so much turmoil and so many political changes. What is really remarkable is that Nepal emerged stronger through this process. Change is always disruptive, and it’s not an easy process to go through. So in retrospect, when I look at Nepal, you know, from the period of the Rana autocracy to republican multi-party democracy, huge changes have taken place, and that is, truly impressive.
Can you remember any interesting or memorable time you had in Kathmandu while serving as the Ambassador?
Well, one of the most difficult moments, was during the earthquake. I was here, and it was a Saturday, 25 April 2015. We had this tremendous earthquake. My mother was in a wheelchair (sadly, she passed away) and she had to be on oxygen. On Saturdays, I used to take her out for coffee. We had got ready and were planning to go. Then, this earthquake happened, and it was a horrible experience, and it went on for a long time. The duration of 56-58 seconds of seismic waves seemed like an eternity. After that, we were completely preoccupied with providing relief and assistance not just to the Indian community but also to the Nepalis. So, that was certainly one of the most memorable times. It was not a happy memory, but certainly one of the most difficult and one of the most challenging times that I have seen in Nepal.
You served as the Ambassador to Hungary in Europe, Vietnam in South East Asia and Nepal, India’s next door. What different was your experience serving at all these countries?
First, let me say that a neighbouring country, on the priority list of the government (of India), is way up. And especially a country like Nepal for India, I would say has the highest priority in foreign policy. So I don't think you can compare Nepal to any other country. You could, at most, compare Nepal with some of its (India’s) other neighbours but not with European countries or countries in Southeast Asia. Hungary is a beautiful country, and you know they have this nostalgia somewhere deeply embedded in the psyche that they have come from somewhere in the east, so they are fond of India, Indian culture, and Indian languages. So, Hungary was a fantastic experience, and the focus was more on cultural diplomacy, which I did and was very enjoyable. Vietnam is an extremely dynamic country, totally focused on its economic development and India-Vietnam relations are on the upswing. So, Vietnam was a very interesting experience, and the whole effort was to step up defense cooperation and develop our economic ties. So, it was very interesting and challenging in a different way.
Nepal, of course, has a vast spectrum of relationships with a huge number of factors that determine the relationship, both governmental and non-governmental. You are dealing not only with the central government but also with the state governments. Nepal was going through a huge political process at the end of the Maoist insurgency, the drafting of the Constitution, and the problems in that process. So, it was a very challenging posting. I personally feel that for an Indian diplomat, no other posting is as challenging as Nepali or as productive or as enriching and rewarding. I think this is also one country where you can contribute a lot. So very exciting. I think, Nepal has been my best posting in that sense.
What are the different places that you have visited in Nepal during your stay as Ambassador? If you have to remember one most amazing place in Nepal, what would it be?
I have been to many provinces, from the high Himalayas, Hills, to Tarai, and each place is unique. I have had a lot of experiences, but I think one memorable experience, of course, is the Bala Tripura Sundari temple in Dolpa. Dolpa is not accessible, and you have to fly there or walk. At that time, there was no road connectivity between Jajarkot and Dolpa. I think the road has come up to Jajarkot. So, I went to Dolpa. We had renovated this beautiful temple on a high hillside. What was amazing was the number of people who came for this event, like all villagers and elderly people, and they were also happy, so that was certainly one. What a beautiful setting! It is in a very remote part of Nepal. That was one fantastic experience.
The other one was the visit to Upper Mustang, where you can see how Tibetan culture is preserved over there, and it was really a wonderful experience. I have also been to many parts of Tarai, and I think the warmth of the people is something fantastic. I remember going to Jaleshwar for some projects. A number of people turned up to meet me, holding their hands in Namaste, touching me and saying a few words. A moving experience.
I heard that you are vegetarian. But Nepal, especially the hilly region is known as paradise for non-veg eaters. Did you have any problems with your food habits while traveling to Nepal? How was your experience with Nepali cuisine?
It was wonderful. I have tried Nepali cuisine, and I love Newari cuisine. It is very different and interesting. As a vegetarian, absolutely no problem; as you have dal bhat and saag everywhere. I have never faced any problems in Nepal. In Vietnam, I used to have a problem. The concept of vegetarianism does not exist there, but in Nepal, there was absolutely no problem. I have also been to Newari families for Mha Puja celebrations, and of course, I have been traveling a little bit, both before I became as an ambassador and after. So, I am very familiar with all the hill villages, and I think the food was never a problem.
How do you see overall Nepal’s tourism industry? How can Nepal capitalize on the Tourism Industry for holistic economic development? What steps can Nepal take to attract more Indian tourists?
Nepal is blessed with immense natural beauty and an excellent climate. I think the service sector holds huge potential for Nepal. When I talk about the service sectors, it’s not only tourism but health and educational facilities, sports, and tourism. So, I think the service sector has great opportunities, and of course, tourism is a very important segment in Nepal. A lot of people are not aware of the great diversity of Nepal. It is not only the mountains and the Himalayan valleys, it is the culture, your iconic architecture and temples, the World Heritage Sites of the Kathmandu valley, the beauty of the Tarai and the famous Janaki Temple and of course, the wild life at the Chitwan reserve sanctuary. So, I think more people need to know, and tourism should become one of the most significant foreign income earners for Nepal.
Another advantage of tourism is that it’s a very labor-intensive sector, so it employs a large number of people. So, I know tourism in its diverse forms is absolutely critical, and I know a lot is being done. Just yesterday, I met the Director of the Nepal Tourism Board at dinner, and she told me about all the campaigns, that 2020-30 is going to be the tourism decade and all the promotions that are being done now. You have both private and public airlines flying to many foreign countries. So, I think there are huge opportunities, and I also feel that Nepal needs to be rebranded as a high-value tourism destination. Somehow there is this perception that it’s a low-value and backpacker’s paradise, and I think it’s very important to rebrand Nepal as a high-value tourist destination. So that you get tourists who spend and stay in luxury resorts. So, I think some work needs to be done there, not to say that low-value tourists shouldn’t come. But, I think Nepal needs to be branded.
Secondly, as far as India is concerned, in my book I also said that, we have this leave travel concession scheme for all Indian government servants under which you can travel anywhere in the country, and the government pays you the air ticket to go to some places within India. Now with Nepal, we have very close relations. We don’t need passports and visas. So, if we can extend this leave travel concession scheme to Nepal, many Indians would want to come here. Everybody wants to go to Pashupatinath, Muktinath, Swargadwari, and Janakpur (Ramayan circuit). So, Nepal has huge opportunities for religious tourism. There is a big potential for adventure tourism, this is one. Second, of course, India and Nepal are working together is the development of these circuits: the Ramayan circuit connecting Ayodhya-Janakpur with other places, the Buddhist circuit connecting Lumbini with Bodhgaya, Sarnath, and Kushinagar. So, these are works in progress, and I hope very much that these circuits develop well and infrastructures develop well so that there is seamless movement between these various pilgrimage sites.
Many times, there were discussions of developing Buddhist circuits between India and Nepal. What is the potential of this initiative?
Huge Potential. For the Muslims, you have Mecca. Many Hindus from India and Nepal go to Kashi at least once in a lifetime. For the Buddhists, I think, the places of Lord Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and the first sermon, are very important. I was in Vietnam, and it’s a communist country, and there was huge admiration. In Hindi, we say ‘shraddha’ (admiration). There is a lot of ‘shraddha’ for Buddhism, and everybody wants to visit these places. The same thing is there in Sri Lanka and other Buddhist countries. So, there are big opportunities and if we can develop the infrastructure well; have good roads, good immigration facilities, good facilities for tourists as some may go by road, air and so forth; there is a huge opportunity not just within a region but also for tourists from Southeast Asia, China, and many other countries. So, we should focus on the Buddhist circuit.
Not only the Buddha circuit, but Hindu circuit as well. People know about Buddhism in Southeast Asia, but there is a huge influence of Rama as well. You see this when you go to any of the South East Asian countries such as Indonesia or Thailand. Ramayan circuit is another one that can bring these countries together and strengthen people to people diplomacy. So, this is the best way of strengthening the relationship and awareness amongst the people of each other’s cultures and traditions. There are big opportunities, and I am very happy not only with the governments, because governments can do only to a certain extent, but the private sector is also involved in policy formulation, conception and implementation.
If you had to introduce Nepal to 1.4 billion Indians, how would you do that?
Well, that’s a tough question to respond, because there’s so much I can say. But, in one sentence, as you are asking me for a tagline for Nepal, I hope it’s not a cliché, but maybe - To visit Shangri-la, Come to Nepal.