By DHAIRYA MAHESHWARI for National Herald (6 May 2018) – Nepal wants to do away with a clause in the 1950 Treaty that requires it to seek India’s permission to import arms from third countries, among other changes that the Himalayan country wants
One of the members of the Eminent Persons Group formed in 2014, Mahendra Lama, who also holds the distinction of being the youngest Vice-Chancellor of an Indian central university, speaks about the current state of bilateral relations. Excerpts from his conversation with Dhairya Maheshwari
Which country between India and Nepal needs the other more?
I believe no two other sovereign countries interact in the way Nepal and India do. Then you have an open border, allowing for free flow of goods, services, technology and people. The European Union had to work for 40-50 years to reach this state of economic union. India and Nepal, on the other hand, have had the same system in place for more than 70 years now.
But because of India’s size, population and its location, there are certain areas where Nepal couldn’t do without India’s help. For instance, Nepal needs India to get access to the sea ports. India is crucial for Nepal to supply building materials, pharmaceuticals and some other essential supplies. Then, Nepalese students regularly attend Indian educational and professional institutions and Nepalese patients use Indian healthcare facilities.
But over the years, Nepalese have started travelling to other countries, particularly in the west. The young Nepalese today are fairly exposed to other countries, besides India. As a result of this exposure, the Nepalese have become very sensitive on two fronts – sovereignty and their interactions with India
What are Nepal’s main reservations about the Treaty of Peace and Friendship which it signed with India in 1950?
The treaty of 1950 was signed when Nepal was under the autocratic regime. The Rana regime was demolished soon after the treaty was signed. The context back then was very different from what it is now.
Secondly, several provisions of the treaty have become obsolete over the years, such as Article 2 and Article 3. (Article 2 states that the two governments have an obligation to “inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighbouring State likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two Governments.”)
Thirdly, there are several clauses in the treaty that Nepal has always wanted to amend, if not repealed. Additionally, several countries expressed their displeasure about the treaty since it brought India and Nepal as close as two countries could get.
While the Nepalese have always wanted to renegotiate the treaty, there were no concrete suggestions from successive Nepal governments as to how to go about it. They themselves weren’t sure until now about what they wanted. But after the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was established in 2014 under the leaderships of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Prime Minister KP Oli in 2014, there have been very frank discussions on the treaty. I think that we now are in a comfortable position to give new shape to this treaty.
What are some of the specific issues that Nepal wants addressed?
A major concern of Nepalese side was the agreement on arms imports. According to the treaty, Nepal must seek India’s permission if it wants to import arms from a third country. The clause served well until a point of time, when Nepal was still underdeveloped and needed India’s military assistance to defend itself from within and outside. But things have changed now.
Nowhere in the world you have such a provision. So, Nepal, as a sovereign country, is justified in asking for the clause to be dropped from the new treaty.
Another reservation is the reciprocity clause in the treaty, which allows Indians to travel visa-free to Nepal and have property rights there, the same way Nepalese enjoy the same privileges in India. Since India is a much bigger country in terms of population, the Nepalese have always felt that they are at the risk of being swamped by Indians. It is a very legitimate concern which we are working on addressing.
How badly did the economic blockade of 2015 affect India’s reputation in the eyes of the Nepalese people?
The economic blockade was a serious diplomatic failure. It was a wrong action taken at the wrong moment. Nepal was just starting to recover from the earthquake that had hit it six months before. And to make matters worse, Nepal’s best friend India stopped allowing the passage of essential supplies like fuel, medicines and food when the people needed them the most.
The action triggered a massive anti-India sentiment in Nepal. Whatever may have been the reason for imposing the blockade, India forgot that our past experiences with the blockade hadn’t given the desired results – be it in 1969-70 or late 1980s. They were rather counterproductive.
However, the worst outcome from the blockade was the negative image of India created in the eyes of the younger Nepalese. In one go, we made them completely anti-India. Building trust and confidence among Nepalese people is hard, since there is no guarantee that India won’t do a similar thing in Nepal again.
Under the present circumstances, how could we improve our relations with Nepal?
There are four layers of India-Nepal relations: government-to-government, people-to-people ties, business-to-business relations and lastly the ties between both country’s civil societies. The people-to-people ties are the most important part of India-Nepal relations. However, India Nepal relations have mostly been driven by both country’s governments till now. Change in political systems and leaderships in Nepal have failed to affect people-to-people relationship between the two countries which have stood the test of time.
Governments of both the countries should only play a facilitating role, and ensure that peoples and businesses of both the countries interact even more. Since, at present, the bilateral relations are primarily government-driven, any misunderstanding between the two countries’ regimes have adverse consequences for the all the other layers.
Secondly, India needs to intervene in Nepal in a big way. We must back our words with actions. For instance, we must ask ourselves if we could have three different highways in Nepal linking its south to its north, right up to its border with China. The building of such highways should be accompanied by developing infrastructure corridors, comprising of transmission lines, gas and oil pipelines, power projects, industries and so on. That’s how some of the other countries are thinking. We must think big in Nepal to salvage the situation.It’s sad that the Detailed Project Report (DPR) for the Mahakali hydel agreement, sealed back in 1996, hasn’t been signed yet.
To think big, the political leadership and the Indian bureaucracy have to change their mindsets. Our leaders must understand that Nepal of 1950s and 60s is very different from contemporary Nepal.
How has Nepal changed over the years, more so since the Constitution came into effect?
As things stand today, Nepal has a stable government after a long time. Nobody would have thought during the tumultuous years of Maoist insurgency that Nepal would so quickly and smoothly transition into a constitutional democratic form of government. All the major elections, the rural, state and national levels, were held successfully and simultaneously in a peaceful manner.
I would say that Nepal has now entered a take-off phase. If the political system works well and people’s aspirations are taken care of, Nepal can really achieve its true potential. And that is where, I think, that India could play a critical role.
Have people of the plains, or the Madhesis, reconciled themselves to the new Constitution?’
The very fact that they have a new Constitution bears testament to the fact that each stakeholder has been taken on board. Before the new Constitution came into effect, we had a system in place, dating back hundreds of years, in which the Madhesis, Dalits, Muslims and other minorities had no representation at all. The new Constitution defines the role of these communities, which is an achievement of sorts.
The new Constitution may not have met the deeprooted aspirations of the people, but I would say that that process has just begun. As in case of India, Nepal’s Constitution could also undergo amendments as and when the need arises.
Over a long part of its recent history, Nepal identified itself as a Hindu country. What’s the current role of religion in Nepalese politics?
By majority, Nepal is a Hindu country. But after the demolition of monarchy, Nepal no longer remained a Hindu kingdom. There was no need to declare Hinduism as a state religion. On top, there were Muslims, Christians and Buddhists, who felt marginalised in such a political system. I believe that the Constitution and its framers have done well to not declare Hinduism as a state religion. The new Constitution gives all religions, not only Hinduism, to play a more active role in Nepalese politics. So far, that wasn’t the case.
(This is the first part of the interview, which first appeared in this week’s edition of NH on Sunday).