Win over thy neighbour

Given the freeze in the relations between India and Nepal, it is time for New Delhi to engage with Naya Nepal in a way that it is assured of the sincerity of its words

Soon after the peaceful conclusion of the civil war in Nepal in 2006, several political observers were of the view that it be referred to as “Naya Nepal.” Naya, a Hindi-Nepali term, refers to a “new” nation that emerged at the cost of 17,000 lives after a decade-long civil war. Changes primarily included the ouster of the centuries-old monarchy and Nepal’s transition into a democratic State, where the king was no more considered to be the sole administrator/protector, the restructuring of the country from a Hindu State to a secular one, the inclusion of the Maoist guerrilla fighters into the mainstream political process, reinstating of the multi-party political system and providing political freedom and adult franchise to the people.

Naya Nepal also faced the challenge of writing a democratic Constitution, giving justice to families who had lost their loved ones during the civil war, maintaining political stability, narrowing the thaw between the Pahadi and Madhesi groups and improving the state of the economy, which was in a shambles due to the war. While the civil war affected the internal structure of the country, it had an enormous impact on its foreign policy, especially towards India. It is often believed that Nepal, a country that falls between the two Asian giants, India and China, has been a ground for competition between them to strengthen their influence, precisely due to its strategic location. While China aims to focus on protecting its interests in Tibet, India wants a stable neighbour. Traditionally, India has been a friend of Nepal. The India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed in 1950, recognises the “special relationship” shared between them. The uniqueness of this pact is characterised by open borders, free movement of people, deeply rooted socio-cultural ties and people-to-people relations.

However, with a change in its internal structure, there has been a change in the thought process of the new regime. Today, Nepal’s narrative is so-called nationalistic, extreme and abhors pro-India sentiments. The anti-India tirade among the Nepalese population is not new. Despite all efforts to improve bilateral relations, distances have only grown. It is here that sincere engagement is essential to reduce differences.

Need for a template: The anti-India sentiment is acutely “political” and has become a part of everyday life, where a daily dose of dislike is being given to the Nepalese population, based on selective information. While in the past, several attempts were made to isolate Nepal from India, in the last five years, differences have become grave.

During several democratic movements in Nepal, in 1960, 1990 and 2006, India played the role of a well-wisher to bridge the gap between the erstwhile monarchy and the democratic forces. Amid these natural ties, a fallout in the relations is not unnatural, considering the nature of interaction between the two countries in the last five years.

The beginning: The year 2014 was promising for India-Nepal relations for two reasons. One, Nepal was the second neighbouring country Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited after taking charge in August 2014. This was also the first bilateral trip by an Indian Prime Minister to the Himalayan nation in 17 years. This signalled the priority the new Government accorded to better the strained relationship with Nepal. Then again, the Prime Minister returned to Kathmandu in November 2014, to attend the 18th Annual Summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). This summit was another opportunity for India to minimise the existing trust deficit with Nepal and other regional neighbours.

Second, the two countries revised their diplomatic channels of communication. This was indeed a strong message for other competitive powers that India would continue to maintain its goodwill and developmental works in Nepal. India’s swift despatch of the National Disaster Response Force (NDRF) teams to Nepal during the 2015 earthquake to carry out rescue operations in affected areas was a major friendly operation. Later, India’s financial assistance to Nepal for relief and reconstruction of the damaged property showcased the “naturalness” of its relation with Nepal.

Blockade: In September 2015, the Constituent Assembly of Nepal promulgated a new democratic-republican Constitution. This happened seven years after Nepal’s transformation into a democracy. While Kathmandu rejoiced the hasty completion of a new Constitution, issues like the rights of women, demarcation of the federal boundaries and marginalisation of the Madhesis took a violent turn. As a result, movement of goods and people were obstructed due to violence and arson at the India-Nepal border.

Nepal was quick to call it an India-imposed blockade, which was outrightly rejected by the latter. This saw a heated discussion in the Upper House of the Indian Parliament and was categorised as the biggest national emergency in Nepal. The alleged blockade was used as a tool to influence masses in Nepal during the 2017 local and 2018 national elections, too. Since then, the blockade has become an issue of national emergency in the neighbouring country.

Threat perception: In 2016, Nepal implemented its first National Security Policy (NSP). While the then Nepali Congress-led Government hesitated to use blockade as a national security threat, the present KP Oli-led Government has amended the NSP and categorised “blockade” as a national security threat. It needs to be mentioned here that through the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, New Delhi had assured Kathmandu that it would not face any external aggression on its part. In the past 65 years of diplomatic interactions, Nepal has felt secure. Therefore, Kathmandu’s sudden change on matters of mutual security is worrying because it has more political connotations rather than a will to resolve issues.

Cutting people-to-people ties: The updated National Security Policy 2019 under the Communist regime in Nepal has not yet been made public and it is believed that it is the use of the term “blockade” that has ruffled feathers in New Delhi. Meanwhile, during an interaction, an advisor to the Nepalese Prime Minister indicated that Nepal intends to regulate its borders. The word “regulate” incorporates limiting the transit points at what has been a largely open border, establishing a dedicated Border Security Force and treating travelling through land routes at par with air routes in terms of document requirements for citizens of the two countries.

Nepal may well cite security reasons for these upcoming upgradations but this will impact the movement of people from the bordering regions. Notably, people-to-people contact cannot be established between the two countries, a move that seems to be acceding to  China’s request. While India and Nepal enjoy natural people-to-people relations, restrictions on the free movement will come at a cost to India.

Border disputes: Last November, Nepal objected to the release of a new map of India. It said that the boundaries in the Kalapani region were shown wrongly and sent diplomatic notes to New Delhi. India clarified that in no way does “the new map revisit boundaries with Nepal.” It still maintains this position on the issue. The two countries have resolved 98 per cent of border disputes. The Indian side believes that an objection on Kalapani, too, can be resolved diplomatically. However, this does not seem to be the case in Nepal.

Eminent persons group: In 2016, the two countries appointed an Eminent Persons Group (EPG), consisting of relevant experts from India and Nepal, to review bilateral treaties and agreements between the two countries, including the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. While the group has submitted its report with recommendations to both Governments, it remains under wraps. Reasons are unknown but it stands as a ticking bomb for India. The EPG report may not be a critical issue for us but it is a matter of national prestige for Nepal. Not making it public will put all the blame on India.

In international relations, diplomacy is considered to be the first and the last best resort to resolve bilateral or multilateral issues. India may have assured full diplomatic support to Nepal. However, until these issues are part of the political mandate, the present challenges cannot be resolved. From a foreign policy perspective, Naya Nepal is more challenging and complex for India. The alleged border blockade, the Madhesi movement and now the Kalapani dispute have all become part of our neighbour’s  national narrative which is undoubtedly hateful and extreme. While all is not lost for the two countries, the increasing presence of China in Nepal and pending bilateral issues between New Delhi and Kathmandu require the best  efforts from India’s side.

(The writer is doctoral candidate, Centre for South Asian Studies, JNU)

The Pioneer