Time To Close The Border With Nepal
Giving due importance to one’s neighbourhood should be every country’s foreign policy priority. However, more often than not it is a sensitive task. And it is all the more so for a country like India whose immediate neighbours in South Asia are not only smaller but also connected to one another only through India (the situation changed only recently after Afghanistan became a member of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation; it shares the border with Pakistan) In other words, South Asia is an India-centric region. Naturally therefore, there is a tendency among the smaller South Asian nations to nurture a grudge about the so-called Indian domination.
It is against this background that the Modi government seems to be on a course-correction mode. The new Prime Minister has already visited Bhutan and is about to commence an official trip to Nepal. This trip by an Indian Prime Minister to the Himalayan country will be after a long gap of 17 years; after I K Gujral in 1997. The climate for Modi’s visit has been made conducive by what is claimed to be a highly successful trip to Kathmandu last fortnight by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj.
Meanwhile, a lot of changes have taken place in Nepal in between 1997 and 2014. Any dispassionate analysis of the situation in Nepal will deal with some uncomfortable questions for India. In my considered view, the Indian government has not dealt with these questions properly. By “facilitating” the virtual Maoist-take-over of the Himalayan country in 2006, the UPA government committed what could be, in course of time, a monumental strategic blunder. It may be noted that the new political era in Nepal is the result of the India-brokered peace deal in September 2006 between the seven party democratic alliance and the Maoists who had been engaged in 10-year insurgency in which nearly 13000 people were killed. And here, all of them were anti-Monarch, since the then King Gyanendra was their “principal rival”. That means that in the heralding of the present political system in the country, the King, his loyalists, and most important, the Nepal Army, played no role at all.
All told, Nepal is essentially a “Hindu country” and for majority of God-fearing Nepalis, “the King” is the “Living Vishnu”, the supreme God of the Hindus. They might not have approved the absolutist rule of the King, but the fact remains that the institution of the monarchy or “King” had always been an important pillar in Nepalese society and polity. That is precisely the reason why countries such as India, the US, Britain and China had hitherto talked about the monarchy as an “important pillar” of Nepal. In fact, India and the US, while opposing the King Gyanendra’s direct takeover of power in 2004, had always emphasised on the importance of Nepal remaining a “constitutional monarchy”. Therefore, it is really perplexing how India under Manmohan Singh reconciled to the Maoists’ insistence on a “Republican system”.
Of course, it is for the future historians to evaluate the 2006-transition in Nepal. But the fact remains that democracy has not exactly ushered in that country after that epoch-making event. The political consensus continues to elude in Nepal and that explains why the country’s political class has not even been able to draft a democratic constitution for the country. There are sharp differences between the people in the hilly areas and those living in plains bordering five Indian states-Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, and Sikkim. Then there is the factor of China, the other big country that Nepal shares borders with. Over the last seven years, the Chinese have made their presence really big in Nepal, a country, which occupies a very important space in India’s vital strategic periphery.
However, what is most worrisome, India’s lavish economic assistance and concessions to Nepal are hardly acknowledged, let alone appreciated, in Nepal. I will like to quote here Rakesh Sood, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal: “Not many are aware of the extensive economic linkages and cooperation between the two countries. Two-thirds of Nepal’s foreign trade is with India which also accounts for half of Nepal’s foreign direct investment. The Nepali currency is pegged to the Indian rupee. Over the years, India has built highways, optical fibre links, medical colleges, trauma centres, polytechnics, schools, health centres, bridges, etc. For flood protection and embankment construction in Nepal, India provides more than Rs.75 crore annually. To facilitate the movement of goods and people, India is providing Rs.270 crore to build four integrated check posts on the border, Rs.650 crore for extending two railway links out of the five proposed, and Rs.700 crore for the first phase of rebuilding old postal roads in the Terai region. In addition, there is a second EXIM Bank Line of Credit for $250 million available and another $125 million for the power transmission line upgrades. About Rs.1,300 crore is disbursed annually to the 1.25 lakh Indian Army pensioners in addition to other welfare schemes. The provision of iodised salt, conducting cataract and trachoma camps, gifting of ambulances and school buses in the remotest of Nepali villages are initiatives that have made a difference to life in rural Nepal. Still, an undercurrent of resentment against India has persisted.”
It is often argued by the Nepalis that Indo-Nepal relationship is highly “unequal” because of the unequal Treaty of Peace and Friendship which the two countries signed in 1950. However, the fact remains that it was Nepal that had wanted this treaty in order to maintain the special ties with independent India that it had with British India. Moreover, many a time over the last 64 years India has asked the Nepalese side what provisions of the treaty were unequal; but there has been no concrete response. It may be noted here that according to Articles VI and VII of the treaty, citizens of both countries have equal rights in matters of residence, acquisition of property, employment and movement in each other’s territory. As Ambassador Sood says, “The treaty provides for an open border between the two countries and allows Nepali nationals to work in India without a work permit, to apply for government jobs and the civil services (except for the IFS, IAS, and IPS), to open bank accounts and buy property. Incidentally, India had waived its rights under reciprocity as a sign of goodwill. The provisions of the ‘secret’ side letters to the Treaty, which required Nepal to consult India on its defence requirements, which Nepalis perceive as unfair and which are often used by politicians to whip up anti-India sentiment, are no longer secret or even observed.”
Now the question is: should India and Nepal continue to have an open border? At present, people of both the countries can cross the border from any point, despite the existence of border check posts at several locations. The number of check posts meant for carrying out bilateral trade is 22. However, only at six transit points out of them, the movement is permitted to nationals of third countries, who require entry and exit visa to cross the border. But, as the whole length of the border is not monitored, illegal movement of goods and people is a common feature on both sides.
Who does the open border, or for that matter the 1950 treaty, favour more? The World Bank data for 2010 suggests that there are 564,906 Nepalis in India. But Wikipedia claims that there are 4.1 million Nepalese Indians, without citing a source. Obviously, they are living in India for their own benefit. It is true that they are contributing to the India’s labour force and thus the Indian economy, but then like any other migrant, a Nepali in India is the unequivocal beneficiary of migration; that is why he or she comes and works in India. But this is not appreciated in Nepal, despite the fact that the open border has been grossly misused by the by anti-India terrorists and criminals. A former Indian Army Chief has been on record that about 15-20% of the Pakistan-trained terrorists sneaks into India through Nepal. Besides, the open Indo-Nepal border is used to ferry fake Indian currency from Pakistan to India. The same route is taken to smuggle arms into India as well. In fact, Nepal has been a safe haven of sorts for not only militants from Jammu and Kashmir but also for terror outfits of north – east India.
However, the Nepalis are not impressed. For them, the open border harms India much more than Nepal. Let me cite here the instances of harms to Nepal from a paper written by Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, former Director General of Survey Department, Nepal. According to him, because of the open border, India has encroached on Nepalese territory at 54 places. More terrorists with illegal arms and ammunitions cross over to Nepal than the other way round. Smuggled Indian goods and material are in plenty in Nepal because of the open border. “Archeological materials such as ancient bricks and materials of Lumbini area (birthplace of Lord Buddha) have been smuggled to Piparhawa of India. Because India is going to construct duplicate structures to draw attention of the world, saying as Buddha was born in India. They are trying to distort the historical facts due to lack of the controlled border system between two countries”, he writes. Another major negative impact of the open border according to Shrestha is that more than 5000 Nepali girls are sold annually in the Indian brothels.
The moral of the story thus is—let Modi revisit the open border system. Time for a hard decision to close the border has come. Let Nepal like any other landlocked country be allowed few trade and transit points by India as permissible under international law.
By Prakash Nanda