The open India-Nepal border best reflects the strength of ties between these two nations but their lackluster management reveals the compromised benefits that proper handling could have achieved. With the passage of time, the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which broadly defines bilateral strategic and trade relations between the two countries, now needs an overhaul.
The 1950 treaty mandates that “neither Government shall tolerate any threat to the security of the other by a foreign aggressor” and made mandatory to both sides “to inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighbouring state likely to cause any breach in friendly relations subsisting between the two Governments.”
Primarily, these accords were meant to strengthen ties between the two countries, give Nepal preferential economic treatment and provide Nepalis in India the same economic and educational opportunities as Indian citizens. Also, it ensured that the India-Nepal border would be open and people from both sides could move freely across the border without passports/visas and live and work in either country.
However, by 1978, the trade and transit treaties were separated, owing to demands from Nepal.Unfortunately, in 1988, when these treaties were up for renewal, Nepal’s less pragmatic stand to not accommodate India’s wishes on the transit treaty forced India to call for a single trade and transit treaty. Nepal maintained its firm position, which led to an unprecedented strain on India-Nepal relations.
A virtual Indian economic blockade on Nepal continued till April 1990, which was a painful episode and should be remembered as insincere political moves were made by both sides. The countries hit a new low in bilateral relations after Nepal’s arms deal with China in 1988, albeit it was later observed that economic issues were the real determinant.
Rajiv Gandhi, then Indian PM, took the matter as violation of the treaties of 1959 and 1965 but failed to understand the extraneous clout India was enjoying with these treaties. As per Gandhi, “Nepal was in India’s security zone and was prohibited from purchasing arms without India’s approval.” Such clauses were naturally unacceptable to a sovereign nation like Nepal. However, it is also true that king Birendra’s actions were focused more on irritating his Indian counterparts than going against those treaties.
Thereafter, India linked security with economic relations and took action to review India-Nepal relations. Soon, Nepal had to rethink its position after dwindling economic conditions led to a drastic change in its political system, with the effect that the king was compelled to endorse a parliamentary democracy.
As expected, the new government quickly sought to restore normal relations with India. After that, the ‘special’ security relationship between India and Nepal was reestablished during the New Delhi visit of Nepal’s newly elected Prime Minister Krishna Prasad Bhattarai in June 1990. Six months later, Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala also visited Delhi and the two countries signed new, and separate, trade and transit treaties to provide more economic benefits to Nepal.
In April 1995, Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari visited New Delhi and negotiated well on a major review of the 1950 peace and friendship treaty. These three high-profile political visits from Kathmandu proved beneficial for India-Nepal relations. But 1996 onward, Nepal started losing its usual stream of politics under the virulent affects of an armed insurgency driven by the Maoists. The country ushered in a painful spiral of civil war with conditions becoming much grimmer with the highly suspicious royal massacre of 2001.
Gyanendra, the new king had neither the acceptance of the masses nor the capability to deal with a tricky political situation where the democratic movement was getting swiftly radicalised. In the further course of time, the Maoists made politics a popular but non-serious business through their unrelenting dubious acts. They made Nepal less progressive, going against their hyped claims, and blocked the country’s quest for better economic and diplomatic stakes in South Asia.
However, in present circumstances, a new course of action would do much good for the bilateral relations between India and Nepal and for other areas of Nepal’s interest. As prevailing strategic challenges are much bigger than in the 1950s and Nepal’s biggest quest should be to give its economy continuous momentum, the time has come when the open border must be handled more proactively to redefine trade and diplomatic cooperation between these two countries.
In particular, Nepal’s Terai region, which borders the Indian districts of north Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, could be turned into a major source of trade exchanges with India. Here, border management has to be more liberal. As someone hailing from the border regions, I have experienced the practical hurdles created by rudeness at the border check-posts. On many occasions, I have seen petty traders being exploited for no fault of their own by security personnel at the border.
Notionally, it is true that these two countries share liberal border but sadly, its entrepreneurial benefits have not reached the people living on both sides of the border. Through more progressive border plans, cluster-based trade relationships between India and Nepal could be taken ahead. This will also effectively change the pattern and outlook of bilateral relations at the macro level.
Improved trade relations would give India valid reasons for greater engagement with Nepal in developing road and rail networks along the border. A proper rail network between Madhuban-Janakpur, and a later extension to Kathmandu, will end the logistic hurdles of trade in Nepal. For decades, these small changes have been awaiting governmental action but few have their minds oriented there.Beyond the obsession with big treaties and imaginary outcomes, Nepal should pursue its relationship with India to improve its economic position.
-Atul K Thakur
(Published in The Kathmandu Post on May5,2013)