By Ritu Raj Subedi ( KATHMANDU, 4 August 2019) – More than two months have elapsed since India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his second term with an overwhelming popular mandate but he ironically could not spare a moment to accept a report that the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India relations had prepared last year. While in office, PM Modi was reluctant to own the report to avoid its ‘negative impacts’ on his electoral politics for a sizable number of hardliners holding sway in Indian politics, bureaucracy and intelligence mistakenly think the bilateral dossier has given much leeway to the Nepali side.
On the other hand, Nepal considers the EPG report as a valid instrument to redefine and put Nepal-India relations on equal footing based on the changed bilateral and geopolitical dynamics. Apparently, Nepal expects more reconciliatory approach from Modi who has been pushing through his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy to enhance India’s image and influence in the region. His Nepali counterpart KP Sharma Oli is determined to reset Nepal-India ties by drawing on recommendations of the document prepared by eight veteran politicians and former diplomats – four each from Nepal and India. Formed in January 2016, the two-year term of EPG team expired in mid-July last year. As per agreement, Indian PM Modi will receive it first and then PM Oli will reciprocate.
Gamut of issues
The EPG report encompasses a wide gamut of bilateral issues, including trade, economic and cultural cooperation, investment in water resources and people-to-people exchanges, among others. It suggests for revision or replacement of the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty between Nepal and India, the regulation of the border through the issuance of smart cards for the people crossing either side of the border and controlling terrorism, smuggling of fake currency notes, human trafficking and other illegal activities.
In Nepal, there is a unanimous voice, except a few Madhes-based leaders, that EPG should be implemented in order to buttress social, political, economic and cultural bonds the two neighbours have been sharing for centuries. Sadly, this sort of confidence is lacking on the other side of the border. India’s political and bureaucratic realms are divided on how to deal with the report – some argue that India should implement it while others show their strong reservations about its contents. “Indian PM Modi will receive the report soon. As both Modi and Oli share good chemistry, they will work in close coordination to take India-Nepal bond to as high as Mt Everest,” India’s coordinator of EPG team and BJP former vice-president Bhagat Singh Koshyari said in an interview to a Nepali TV channel.
But Koshyari’s assertion clashes with the stand of his External Affairs Ministry. Its spokesman Rabish Kumar told a press meet on July 4 that PM Modi would receive it only after it was submitted to the government. “Then only can we mull over its implementation.” He indicated that Modi would receive it through the External Affairs Ministry.
It is no secret that the Indian establishment is unwilling to review the controversial 1950 Treaty and regulate the open border. The Treaty has been dismissed as unequal, with many past governments, political parties, civil society organisations and media demanding its immediate abrogation or replacement by a new one. The Treaty had caused a sea of controversy when it was inked between the new leadership of free India and autocratic Rana regime of Nepal some seven decades ago. The then Rana rulers were desperate to secure Indian PM Jawaharlal Nehru’s backing to cling on to power in the wake of rising revolts of Nepalis against their repressive family rule. So the accord, struck in haste, has granted many concessions to the Indian side.
In the EPG report, Indian experts had agreed to address Nepal’s demand for the revision of the Treaty as raised by the Nepali side. Nepali side wants to revise Article 5 of the Treaty that states; ‘the Government of Nepal shall be free to import, from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunitions or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal. The procedure for giving effect to this arrangement shall be worked out by the two Governments acting in consultation.’
The 1965 Letter of Exchange between Nepal and India has made India’s involvement in Nepal’s security almost mandatory. Even if this provision has not been abided by Nepali side in letter and spirit, it clearly suggests that Nepal should consult India while procuring arms from abroad. India had invoked this Article while enforcing an economic embargo on Nepal in 1988, accusing the latter of purchasing weapons from China.
Nepal is also for removing Article 6 that says: ‘each Government undertakes, in token of the neighbourly friendship between India and Nepal, to give to the nationals of the other, in its territory, national treatment with regard to participation in industrial and economic development of such territory and to the grant of concessions and contracts, relating to such development.’ In fact, this Article has not been followed by either side. Because of its small-size population, geography and economy, Nepal thinks the provision disfavours its economic development.
Article 7 says: “The Governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on a reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.” The Letter of Exchange of the Treaty states that Nepal should give priority to Indian government or its citizens to harness the natural resources and open industrial estate here. Given a great dichotomy of demography and topography between the two nations, this provision hardly promotes Nepal’s trade, commerce and economic prosperity as seen in its soaring trade deficit with the southern neighbour.
As far as the provision of border regulation is concerned, it does not hurt the roti-beti (bread and daughter) relations among the citizens of the two countries. If both the governments introduce the smart ID card system, obliging the people to carry e-cards while travelling to and fro, terrorist activities, smuggling of goods and fake currencies, and human trafficking will undoubtedly be curbed. India has been frequently victimised by the terrorist activities, and strict regulation of the movements of people and goods across the border will enable both neighbours to defuse serious security threat and promote harmony and peace between the two peoples.
The EPG report suggests that the people should cross the border through fixed entry points equipped with card readable machines. There are over 70 entry points along 1,880-km-long open, porous border between the two nations. India has already deployed 45,000 border security guards known as Sima Suraksha Bal to control illegal and terrorist activities along the border. Besides, it has demanded passports from Nepali citizens who enter India from third country or use it as transit to fly to other destinations.Genuine concerns
It is high time that India shunned its past colonial mindset and addressed the genuine concerns of Nepalis in the spirit of 21st century consciousness and reality. It must not shy away from brushing aside the parochial geopolitical narratives which have only caused tension between the two governments and the peoples.
(Deputy Executive Editor of this daily, Subedi writes on politics, foreign affairs and other contemporary issues. He can be reached at [email protected])