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Running cross-country

Surprisingly, the most vital issue in the Indo-Nepal 1950 Treaty imbroglio has been the continuation of the regime of an open border on which the treaty is silent. Mahendra P Lama examines...

india Updated: May 07, 2008 22:48 IST

With the historic win of the Maoists in Nepal, relations with India predictably figure high on the agenda of the new government in Kathmandu. Pushpa Kamal Dahal, a.k.a. Prachanda, who will play a key role in the future political dispensation, has already spoken of renegotiating the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. This treaty made two very overarching arrangements on security issues. New Delhi and Kathmandu undertook to inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighbouring State likely to cause any breach in friendly relations between India and Nepal. It also agreed that neither government would tolerate any threat to the security of the other and not to employ any foreigners whose activity may be prejudicial to the other’s security. Not all these measures have been to Prachanda’s satisfaction.

The treaty made far-reaching provisions for the reciprocity in movement of people which kept the border regimes open and interactive. Under this, they agreed 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. There has been a protracted demand by some sections of the Nepalese elite for the abrogation of the treaty on various grounds. They have used this to demonstrate India’s ‘big brotherly attitude’ and ‘attempt to erode and usurp sovereignty’. However, they never mention the huge tangible and intangible benefits that some of the provisions of this treaty have brought Nepal. But many of the issues in the treaty have also resulted in bad patches in India-Nepal relations, including the ‘equidistance policy’ with China and the ‘zone of peace’ proposal have been associated with this treaty. Despite deep reservations on this sensitive issue, India had agreed in the mid-90s to consider Nepal’s demands for a review of this treaty. Nothing much has happened since then.

Interestingly, the 10 million-odd Indian Gorkhas living in various parts of India have also been demanding the abrogation of the treaty and the closing down of the borders. This is because their identity is being diluted by the floating population from Nepal who come to India for livelihood. As a result, Indian Gorkhas are dubbed as foreigners in states like Assam, Manipur and Meghalaya. For this separate Indian identity, they had fought for the recognition of Nepali language in the Indian constitution for four decades. Nepali was included as an official language in 1992.

Surprisingly, the most vital issue in the treaty imbroglio has been the continuation of the regime of an open border on which the treaty is silent. Nowhere in the treaty, or in the ‘secret’ letter exchanged with the treaty, has the word ‘border’ or ‘open border’ or ‘border regime’ been mentioned

Why should India draw flak for keeping a dead treaty alive? There could be two dynamics in the freshly emerging India-Nepal relations. The first is to continue the ‘special relations’ and decide on the parameters of new political relations. The second is to have a relation based on open relations, as it is between any two sovereign countries. This could mean a major shift in the bilateral regulatory matrices. India could leave it to Kathmandu to define what kind of relationship it wants with it.

It is against this backdrop that there are three critical options in determining the future of this treaty. First, let this treaty be drastically rewritten, incorporating likely future needs after which the treaty must be freshly signed. A new framework of bilateral relations that is in tune with present domestic, regional and global developments should be evolved. The most critical aspect that needs to be reassessed is the issue of an open border and the movement of people, goods and services through it.

Second, this treaty could be abrogated forthwith after a kind of referendum, particularly in Nepal. This referendum is needed to spread the debate about the need to abrogate the treaty and the possible implications of that on the general people. At the grassroots, people who make maximum use of the open border and its related benefits possibly do not even know that their ruling elites are raising issues related to the abrogation of the treaty that directly affect their movement across the border. There is a very strong feeling that the scrapping of the treaty is primarily sought by the Nepalese elite who are not sure about its implications.

Third, this treaty could be abrogated and several new agreements like the modalities of open border, movement of people, recruitment of Nepalese citizens in the Indian Army, management of natural resources, tourism, cross-border environmental cooperation and management of non-traditional security issues could be signed.

Given the very nature, topography and age-old cross-border exchanges and interactions, the closing down of borders — like with Pakistan — will be impossible, untenable and impractical. It could, at most, be regulated through a substantial increase in the number of official crossing points to help make the transition more people-friendly.

Mahendra P. Lama is the Vice-Chancellor of the Central University of Sikkim.