Relations between India and Nepal took a turn for the worse last week when a leading Nepalese media company was unable to print its Friday supplements because of a shortage of paper.
The reason: 1,000 tonnes of newsprint imported from Canada and South Korea have been held up for a month at the Indian port of Kolkata, in what is widely seen as a politically motivated move by the Indian authorities.
This is the first time that any newsprint destined for Nepal has been held in the Indian port for "investigation" without any notice. Though India has now started to release the newsprint, there is as yet no official explanation for what appears to be a breach of the Nepal-India transit treaty.
The treaty, which is renewable every seven years, provides port facilities for Nepal at Kolkata and specifies 15 transit routes between Kolkata and the India-Nepal border. It was last renewed in March 2006 and, according to the treaty, the Indian authorities cannot hold Nepalese goods without a valid reason.
The intervention over newsprint raises serious questions about press freedom, and is a clear indication that India wants to expand its influence in the Nepalese media.
The company concerned, Kantipur Publications (for which I write) has also come under pressure from India in other ways. A month ago, Indian multinational companies stopped their advertorials, which comprise 20% of the advertisement market in Nepal.
Kantipur Publications has been in the frontline covering several contentious issues involving India. One was the granting of a contract to India – without a proper bidding process – for printing machine-readable passports (the contract was subsequently cancelled). Another issue was the ethnic cleansing of Nepali-speaking people from Meghalaya in India.
In the last few years, the Indian role in Nepal has been controversial. India, which helped to bring Maoists into the peace process in 2006, now seems eager to exclude them. In the case of current Nepalese government, India wants to sustain it against the Maoists. Meanwhile, Kantipur publications' editorials are demanding the formation of a new national unity government (which India believes would serve the Maoists' agenda).
In the recent 1 May uprising the Maoists intensified their anti-Indian campaign – they are tactically using the anti-Indian sentiment for their own political purposes. Indian diplomats in Kathmandu mistakenly believe that Kantipur Publications is supporting the Maoists.
In fact, Kantipur has repeatedly proved itself to be a true ally of the Nepalese people in fighting for democracy, human rights and freedom of speech. In the past, it has been attacked by the king, the Maoists, and by radical forces. The media company that always fought for democracy and freedom in Nepal is now facing a threat from India.
This Indian intervention in the Nepalese press will leave a deep impression on the young urban generation in Nepal. India must explain to the citizens of Nepal and India about the reasons for its seizure of Nepal's newsprint. If India is really concerned about the growing anti-Indian sentiment in Nepal, it should urgently change its bureaucratic and diplomatic attitudes – not attack the freedom of the Nepalese press.
Jagannath Lamichhane, a global mental health rights activist based on Kathmandu, Nepal.