Eminently beneficial for India and Nepal

The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) mandated to review past bilateral treaties between India and Nepal and provide recommendations completed its work in June last year. But it is still under wraps. Why was the eight-member Group formed in the first place, and so much money and time wasted?

It was Nepal’s idea to set up a group made up of notable people from India and Nepal to come up with a mutually acceptable plan to reset bilateral ties in keeping with the times. Nepal has for a long time wanted to revise some of its treaties with India, particularly the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. 

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Signed 70 years ago, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship needs revision because it was signed by Prime Minister Mohan Shumsher Jung Bahadur Rana whose sole intention was to perpetuate his clan’s hold on power, rather than protect the national interest. The protocol was also askew, since it was signed on India’s behalf by its ambassador in Kathmandu and not Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Nepal also had issues with Clause 7, which states: ‘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.’ 

Being a much smaller country, Nepal wants this changed and also wants to ensure that its gigantic and militarily stronger southern neighbour respects the Treaty. India has blockaded its border with Nepal several times, using ambiguities in Clause 5, which states: ‘The Government of Nepal shall be free to import, from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunition 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.”(Emphases added)

Nepal first proposed the formation of an Eminent Persons Group in 2011 when Prime Minister Baburam Bhattarai visited India. According to the Indian media at the time, New Delhi welcomed this idea, but there is reason to doubt it. India has always wanted to maintain the status quo in its relations with Nepal. If it indeed was supportive, Delhi would not have dragged its feet and taken three years just to prepare the terms of reference for the EPG, and two more years to actually form it.

But in February 2016, the formation of the EPG was suddenly expedited because of New Delhi’s need to mend its ties with Nepal after the Blockade. This should offer us clues as to why India is now reluctant to receive the report painstakingly negotiated and drafted in nine meetings over two years.  

If the members of the EPG are vexed, they are hiding it well, saying that Indian Prime Minister Modi has not received the report “owing to his busy schedule”. Some members of the EPG are former ambassadors and are trained to be diplomatic in their language, but it is clear they are getting fed up of telling it like it is.

Nepal had wanted the report submitted to Narendra Modi when he was in Nepal for the BIMSTEC Summit in August last year, but India refused saying that it would not discuss any bilateral issues during a multilateral forum.  

The suspicion is that the Modi government does not agree with some of the content of the joint report which recommends that the 1950 Treaty be replaced with a new one proposing a ‘smart and regulated’ border and consider the proportionate sizes of the two countries on the issue of national treatment for citizens. These ‘concessions’ to Nepal apparently have displeased hawks in India’s ruling BJP, which fears they may be used against it by the opposition ahead of India’s 2019 general election.

But this argument is untenable. The recommendations are not binding and the Modi government could have easily glossed over them if they really undermined India’s national interest or were expected to have negative repercussions on the 2019 elections.  Moreover, the Indian contingent in the EPG was led by Bhagat Singh Koshyari, a senior BJP leader and RSS veteran, who would not have agreed to recommendations that the Modi government would have objections to. 

India thinks Nepal can be made to wait, and this could be the mindset prompting  Modi to haughtily ignore the report. This dangerous, colonial era mindset of not giving a sovereign country equal respect has had, and will continue to have, foreign policy consequences for India in its neighbourhood.

India surely does not want such an image as it advances towards becoming a regional superpower

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