Nepal-India relations won’t improve unless they’re redefined in new termsNepal has a close but difficult relationship with India, a country that surrounds Nepal on three sides.
Nepal has a close but difficult relationship with India, a country that surrounds Nepal on three sides. India exerts strong influence on Nepal’s economy and politics, something that Nepali nationalists resent. The two countries’ modern relationship is anchored on the 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, which many in Nepal believe is unequal and clips Nepal’s wings. To review the whole gamut of India-Nepal relations, including the treaty, the two countries agreed to form an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) in 2014. The first meeting of the EPG took place last week. Anil Giri and Shashwat Acharya spoke to Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, former foreign minister, and a member of EPG from the Nepali side, about how the first meeting went, his expectations from the EPG, Nepal-India relationship, and ways to improve it.
How did the first meeting of the EPG go?
The two countries did not have two sets of agenda; we have a single, combined agenda. In the past, there have been instances where the proposals put forth by the Nepali side have received short shrift from the Indian side. This time we have a common agenda and a common approach. We told the EPG members from the Indian side that we think of them not as counterparts but as colleagues. The talks have begun in that spirit. We have prioritised the 1950 Treaty because it was signed at a time when India had just become an independent nation and Nepal was still under the Rana oligarchy, which had the final say on matters of public interest. The relations between the two countries are directed by the provisions stipulated in the treaty. Both sides have agreed to address the shortcomings in the treaty so that there will not be any misunderstandings in the future. We have to update our relationship and make it relevant to the present context.
How do you expect the EPG meetings to move forward?
Talks about setting up an EPG group were first mooted during the prime ministership of Baburam Bhattarai. It took a while to prepare for the first meeting, which was normal. The first meeting has concluded in a very friendly manner. We have reached a certain understanding on how to go ahead when the next meeting takes place in India after three months.
Would it be correct to say that the second meeting will start with a review of the 1950 Treaty?
Yes. The treaty serves as the foundation on which Nepal-India relations rest. It has occupied an important place in Nepal where it is discussed not only intellectually, but also emotionally. Both sides should put in effort to address the inequalities and misunderstandings in the treaty. Nepal has the right to abrogate the treaty, but doing so might produce new challenges for both countries. In the past, both Nepal and India have shown prudence in avoiding that scenario.
The relations between the two countries are so close that putting in collective effort to make necessary changes in the treaty instead of abrogating it will be in the interest of both sides. That way, there will not be any misunderstanding between the peoples of the two countries.
At a personal level, I have been involved in the process of assessing the treaty not only when I was the Nepali ambassador to India for six years, but even before when I was a Secretary.
There are speculations that the Nepali side is more interested in reviewing the 1950 treaty than the Indian side. To what extent are they true?
There was nothing missing from the agenda proposed by the Indian side. The two sides may have somewhat different priorities, but reviewing the treaty is part of India’s agenda as well. It was something that was agreed upon by the prime ministers of both the countries.
What was the Indian side’s priority?
They seemed to be of the opinion that the treaty is only one aspect of the comprehensive relations between the two countries. We proposed that we should stick to the terms of reference agreed upon by the two prime ministers, as that would minimise the chances of misunderstanding. We found the Indian side to be open and friendly. They seem to have internalised, as much as we have, that the relationship between the two countries will not improve unless it is redefined in new terms. So we have had a good start.
What has been the advice of Nepali political leaders to you?
When the EPG was established, its autonomy was ensured. It is separate from the various historical as well as contemporary aspects of Nepal-India relations. Our mandate is beyond what happens on a daily basis. It will not be a meaningful process unless there is a feeling that the conclusion we reach will be backed not just by a group or a party but by the whole nation. It has been almost 70 years since Nepal-India relations have been guided by current provisions. The EPG is a beginning of and a quest for laying the foundation of a new relationship based on national support and consensus.
More broadly, where in your view does Nepal-India relationship stand today?
There was an atmosphere of confusion after Nepal promulgated its constitution last year. That was also a time when the country was grappling with the aftermath of the earthquake. Whatever happened at that time was in a way an eye-opener for Nepal. The undeclared blockade ended gradually in an undeclared way. Now, dialogue has started on various aspects of the relationship, be it about water or security. Prime Minister KP Oli has visited India. The foreign minister has been there a couple of times. Nepal has been putting in effort to improve bilateral ties. It is likely that both sides have realised that some of their actions did not produce good outcomes. The idea of EPG was conceived about 18 months ago, and it may only be a coincidence that the first meeting just took place, but now there seems to be a deeper desire on the part of both countries to resume normal relations.
How can a normal relationship be defined in our context, given the difference in size and power between the two countries?
We cannot change our history and our geography, and the challenges they have presented us with. Nepal is not the only country in the world with a big neighbour. But in the present world, the size of a country is not as significant as before. All the countries are guided by the same international rules and norms. No matter which regime or government Nepal has been under, it has consistently expressed its dissatisfaction with the 1950 Treaty. Even during the Rana rule, there were intellectuals who opposed it as soon as it was signed. Nepal ignored the stipulation in the treaty that it requires India’s permission to establish bilateral relations with other countries.
Earlier, whenever Nepal complained about the treaty, India told us to abrogate it—almost in a threatening tone. They said we would be responsible for the consequences of abrogation, including the fate of the thousands of Nepalis who live in India. Now there is a feeling that we have moved beyond that. We are trying to resolve our differences through research and dialogue, which is an indication that the relationship has assumed a new and positive form. We should make sure that trivial matters do not affect the important ones. The EPG has been a good start, and although its recommendations will not be binding, there are reasons to be hopeful about a better and a more equal relationship between the two countries. As I said before, ours is a combined agenda. It is the first time India has agreed to a combined agenda and has been willing to discuss it. Nepal is equally responsible to turn this opportunity into something positive. The media have an important role to play here. Instead of focussing on trivial and contentious matters, the focus has to be on improving bilateral ties.
How influential do you think China’s role is in shaping Nepal-India relations?
I do not think it is the right approach to think of Nepal-India relations in terms of a third country. We need to update and enhance our relations with India. India is an emerging powerhouse with global ambitions and it may have some disagreements with China. But the two countries are also big trade partners. I do not think China’s closeness with Nepal will be a matter of concern for India. I got no impression whatsoever from the EPG meeting that India had agreed to it in order to counter Chinese influence in Nepal. I think it would also be better for Nepal’s national interest not to hype up this issue.
What is India’s role, if any, in resolving our domestic problems, particularly with regard to the Madhesi issue?
I do not want to enter into that. Foreign relations are not the agenda of a particular party; they are a national agenda. Nepal has been consistent in its approach to foreign policy no matter which government is in power. I do not think how we conduct our foreign affairs differs according to which party is leading the government.