EPG was formed to remove irritants. Its report risks being a source of irritationPlan to unilaterally make public the report, prepared jointly be Nepali and Indian experts, is shelved for now.
A report by the Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India Relations, which has almost lost its relevance as it has been gathering dust for close to four years now, suddenly became a topic of discussion last month.
Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a former ambassador who led the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) from the Nepal side, announced that the report would be made public unilaterally. His announcement followed a statement by Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra that the EPG report was “yet to be submitted” to the Indian prime minister.
About two weeks after Thapa’s assertion that the report would be made public, the plan has been shelved for now.
In a statement on May 23, Thapa said that the statement by a senior Indian official that Delhi was not aware of the development made him consider making the report public.
Sources said that the Nepali side was preparing to publicise the report by the second week of June. However, due to reservations from various sections, the plan has been shelved for now, according to them.
Thapa’s statement could have come in response to Kwatra’s remarks, but observers say time has come to ask New Delhi whether it is still keen on receiving the EPG report, as unless it is settled, it may become an additional irritant in Nepal-India ties.
It will be ironic, according to observers, if a report prepared by a bilateral mechanism to resolve irritants between the two countries itself becomes a source of irritation.
Despite sharing a longstanding friendship, Nepal and India have seen a fair share of ups and downs when it comes to bilateral ties. That the bilateral relations should be reviewed, especially the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, was Nepal’s call rather than India's.
Nepal always believed the treaty was skewed.
In 2011-2013, when then Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai was prime minister, he floated the idea of forming a group of noted personalities from both the countries to review the bilateral ties and make recommendations in the form of a joint report. Indian Congress’ leader Manmohan Singh was prime minister then.
In March 2013, Bhattarai was succeeded by Khil Raj Regmi, while in May 2014, Bharatiya Janata Party’s Narendra Modi took over from Singh. The plan remained on the drawing board.
In January 2016, when KP Sharma Oli was prime minister, the EPG was formed. Delhi did not dismiss the idea as it was in a bid to mend fences with Kathmandu after its border blockade fiasco the previous year.
From the Nepali side, Nilamber Acharya, former ambassador to India; Rajan Bhattarai, former foreing relations adviser to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli; and Surya Nath Upadhyay, former chief commissioner of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, were the members..
The Indian side was led by Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, a BJP leader, with Jayant Prasad, former Indian ambassador to Nepal, Mahendra P Lama, a university professor, and BC Upreti, a scholar, as members.
The EPG finalised its report in the first week of July 2018 and sought time from the prime ministers of Nepal and India to submit it. The group, however, could not present the report largely because of Modi's “busy” schedule, rather than Nepal’s unwillingness.
Five months after the report was finalised, Upreti died in December 2018. In November 2019, Koshiyari was appointed governor of the Maharashtra state of India.
Next month will mark the fourth year since the report was finalised.
The bilateral mechanism was mandated to review Nepal-India ties in totality and make recommendations, but it was made clear in the terms of reference that its suggestions would not be binding. It has remained a mystery why Delhi has not shown any interest in accepting such a non-binding report.
Even though Kwatra said in the second week of May that they [India] have not seen the report, parts of it have made it to the public domain, and some observers say Modi might be following the advice that he should not accept it.
According to parts that have been leaked, the report suggests replacing the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship with a new one, regulating the Nepal-India border by making people produce identity cards while crossing over to either side and jointly tackling common challenges in areas of combating terrorism, extremism and all kinds of trafficking.
The report carries suggestions on resetting the centuries-old bilateral relations that entail political and economic matters. The recommendations concern trade, commerce, water resources, people-to-people contact and cultural ties, according to the Nepali side.
While responding to the media on May 13, Kwatra said: “I think you have obviously read the EPG report, which we have not because the EPG is an independent group of experts and I am assuming that only they have access to it… but perhaps some others also have access to that.”
“All I would say is the EPG report would be reviewed after it is submitted,” he added. “And it is yet to be submitted. I think the government will take it into consideration once it is submitted.”
Kwatra’s assertion triggered a debate on the four-year-old report.
Thapa, who led the Nepali side, told the Post that the plan to make public the report has been shelved for now as it was prepared jointly by the two sides.
“We will wait for some more time because the report was prepared by both sides and India did not respond to it. We wanted to put pressure on both sides so that an environment could be created for its acceptance. The political leadership is totally silent about receiving the report,” said Thapa.
“We know the task of submitting the report is complicated but the political leadership should pay attention to this because it was formed after taking the mandate from all major political parties,” added Thapa. “Since there have been no political and diplomatic initiatives, we have shelved our plan at least for now.”
After the announcement that the Nepali side was preparing to unveil the report, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had taken note of it. The ministry, however, stopped short of communicating its position to Thapa and three other members.
“What is the rationale behind publicising the report [unilaterally] when both sides know the content,” said a joint secretary at the ministry.
While India’s reluctance to accept the report is somewhat apparent, there seems to be a lack of political will on the part of the Nepali side to press for its submission.
Ever since the group was formed, Nepal has seen three prime ministers—Oli (twice), Pushpa Kamal Dahal and Sher Bahadur Deuba (twice).
Earlier when Oli was the prime minister until 2021, the Nepali side had taken up the issue with the Indian side, only to be cold-shouldered by Delhi.
And it was during Oli’s stint, Nepal-India ties hit a rock bottom after his decision to unveil a new Nepal map by including Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh areas.
Since Deuba’s return in July last year, bilateral ties appear to have returned to normal, but outstanding issues continue to remain where they were.
The EPG report has failed to figure in bilateral talks—neither during Deuba’s Delhi visit in April nor during Modi’s Lumbini visit in May.
A Nepali diplomat who is in touch with both sides said that there is an easy way out if there is a will.
“If the two prime ministers cannot receive the report, they can mandate their foreign ministers or foreign secretaries to receive the report,” said the diplomat who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The two foreign offices can then take appropriate decisions on what to do with the report.”
Observers say since the bilateral mechanism was formed as per the consent from both governments, it would be wrong not to own up the report. And Nepal clearly appears to be on the losing side, as it wants early submission of the report but cannot do anything unless Delhi shows interest.
And making public it unilaterally by the Nepali side may cause more harm than good.
Acharya, an EPG member who served as ambassador to India from February 2019 to September 2021, said it is up to both the governments and the two co-chairs [Thapa and Koshiyari] when to submit the report.
Acharya who was appointed ambassador by Oli in 2019 was recalled by the Deuba government in September last year.
“When I was in Delhi, I was in touch with Koshiyari. Now I am not in contact with anyone. But it is our consistent position that the EPG report should be received. It is now up to the two coordinators [Thapa and Koshiyari],” said Acharya.
Some experts and diplomats say the longer the EPG remains pending, the bigger source of irritation it can become in bilateral ties.
“I don’t see any rationale behind holding back the EPG report for long because it was prepared by a panel of eminent persons chosen by both the governments. And its recommendations are not binding anyway. At least the report will pave the way for discussions to sort the issues out,” said Deep Kumar Upadhyay, a former ambassador to India. “I understand [Bhekh Bahadur] Thapa wants the report submitted as he wants to get unburdened also. If both sides don’t want to implement the recommendations, they are free to do so. The Indian side must consider accepting it so as to avoid making the EPG report yet another irritant in our ties.”
Some Indian experts and observers have expressed reservations about the content of the report and said that unless the draft is revised, India might not receive it.
“The EPG report has not been submitted so far due to differences between India and Nepal,” said Nihar Nayak, a strategic analyst with the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. “While the entire exercise is taken as a normal study group by India, Nepal expected it as an opportunity to review the relationship. However, recently, the relationships have taken an upward trajectory despite certain unaddressed issues in the bilateral relationship. And, I doubt, unless the draft is revised, India will receive it.”