Is the EPG report dead and buried?India has refused to accept the report prepared by a joint team of eight experts five years ago. Some Indian diplomats find faults with its recommendations.
A report by the Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India Relations, which has almost lost its relevance after having been shelved for about five years, is being discussed again with Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal all set to embark on a four-day India visit.
Nepal and India had formed an eight-member panel of eminent persons in 2016 to review bilateral relations in their entirety and suggest the way forward.
The peace and friendship treaty of 1950, which Nepalis in general view as unequal, was also taken up in the panel’s deliberations. The group prepared a joint report in July 2018 but has failed to submit it to the authorities after the Indian side’s reluctance to receive it.
In their last meeting in Kathmandu nearly five years ago, the EPG members first agreed to submit the report to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As preparations for Dahal’s Delhi visit starting next week in Kathmandu are in the last leg, some sections have demanded that Nepal resolutely take up the matter with India. There are concerns how Nepali and Indian prime ministers will address the EPG fiasco or if they will come up with an alternative plan to address the concerns raised in Nepal’s Parliament.
“We have constantly been demanding that the EPG report be accepted but they are ignoring our call,” Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, the coordinator of the Nepali side, told the Post. It was agreed that the two prime ministers would receive the EPG report but that understanding no longer holds. Rather than accepting the report, the Indian side has been ignoring it.
Nepal and India boast of some of the closest ties between two neighbours, but there have been a fair share of ups and downs in relations.
That the bilateral relations should be reviewed, especially the 1950 treaty of friendship, was Nepal’s call rather than India’s. Kathmandu always saw the treaty as skewed.
In 2011-2013, when then Maoist leader Baburam Bhattarai was the prime minister, he floated the idea of forming a group of noted personalities from the two countries to review the bilateral ties and make recommendations in the form of a joint report. Indian Congress leader Manmohan Singh was the 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. The EPG was finally formed In January 2016 when KP Sharma Oli became prime minister.
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, besides Thapa as the head, Nilamber Acharya, former ambassador to India; Rajan Bhattarai, former foreign relations adviser to prime minister Oli; and Surya Nath Upadhyay, former chief of the Commission for Investigation of Abuse of Authority, were appointed as 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.
Months after the report was readied, Upreti died in December 2018. In November 2019, Koshiyari was appointed governor of the Maharashtra state of India, a post he no longer holds.
Thapa said he has maintained communication with Koshiyari. Nepali observers are intrigued by India’s reluctance to receive the report even as its findings are non-binding.
During an interaction in Parliament last week, CPN-UML lawmaker Raghuji Pant raised the issue of the EPG report. Pant asked whether Dahal would ask India to accept the years-old report that suggested a blueprint for renewing the Nepal-India relations in the changed global and regional contexts. Pant asked the prime minister to receive the report even if India refuses to do so.
“I cannot say before my India visit whether the EPG report will be submitted or not,” said Dahal, responding to Pant. “Whether India will receive the report will be known only after my India visit. Whether we should receive the report will be clear only after talking to the Indians.”
The visit of Prime Minister Dahal should be forward looking, focused on economic cooperation rather than venturing in the past, former Indian ambassador to Nepal Ranjit Rae said, suggesting that contentious issues should be avoided.
“In my view, the EPG report is dead. If there was any relevancy of receiving the report, that would have been much earlier. The main thrust behind forming the EPG panel was to look into the 1950’s peace and friendship treaty which can be given to the foreign secretaries of Nepal and India to make necessary recommendations. If one side keeps on raising irritating and contentious issues, then the problem arises,” said Rae.
Nepali diplomats read as much of India’s intent. It is not in a position to receive it, said a Nepali diplomat who frequently communicated with the Indian side in the past. “There is only one way out: Nepal’s prime minister should break the silence and seek an alternative way of acting on the recommendations made by the EPG report.”
After India’s refusal to accept the report, Thapa unilaterally announced that he would make it public. But he later shelved the idea as it was a document jointly prepared by the two sides. “Some friends had suggested unveiling the report unilaterally, but we later backtracked,” said Thapa.
In May last year, Indian foreign secretary Vinay Mohan Kawtra told a press conference: “I think you have obviously read the EPG report, which we have not because EPG is an independent group of experts. And I’m assuming that only they have access to the report, but perhaps some others also have access to that.”
Kwatra, however, added that the EPG report would be reviewed after it is submitted. “I think the government will take the report into consideration once it is submitted.” In response to Kawtra’s statement in New Delhi, Thapa issued a statement that the Nepali side will unilaterally unveil the report.
Another Nepali member of the EPG, Rajan Bhattarai, said not accepting the report would put a question mark over India’s credibility. “As a close neighbour of Nepal, I hope India will not ignore it.”
Not receiving the report would mar the image and credibility of the Indian government as it was agreed at the prime minister level, said Bhattarai. “Forget implementation; that’s secondary. Let’s receive and accept the EPG report [first].”
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 the either side, and jointly tackling common challenges in areas of terrorism, extremism and all kinds of trafficking.
The report carries suggestions on resetting the centuries-old bilateral relations dominated by political and economic matters. The recommendations cover trade, commerce, water resources, people-to-people contact and cultural ties, according to the Nepali side. The Indian side was not happy after parts of the report were leaked to the Nepali media.
India’s reluctance to accept the report aside, there seems to be a lack of political will on the part of the Nepali side to press for its acceptance. There have been three Nepali prime ministers—Oli (twice), Pushpa Kamal Dahal (twice) and Sher Bahadur Deuba (twice)—since 2016.
During Oli’s prime ministership that ended in 2021, the Nepali side had taken up the issue with India, only to be cold-shouldered by Delhi.
It was during Oli’s stint that Nepal-India ties hit rock bottom. The Oli administration decided to unveil a new Nepal map, including Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh, three areas also contested by India. Since Deuba’s comeback in July 2021 bilateral ties appeared to be returning to normal, but outstanding issues remained unaddressed.
The EPG report failed to figure in bilateral talks—neither during Deuba’s Delhi visit in April last year nor during Modi’s Lumbini visit in May that year. In recent consultations, some former foreign ministers including Prakash Chandra Lohani suggested that Foreign Minister NP Saud take up the EPG issue with India.
“I do not see signs of the report being accepted. There is no communication. We have been raising the issue but Indians are silent and ignoring it. There is no response at all. We hope something good will happen during the prime minister’s visit,” said Thapa.
Former ambassador Rae said that since the EPG report itself was problematic, it was not received by the Indian side even as the issues dealt by the EPG report are still relevant.
In the course of the visit preparations, there has been no such official communication that says the EPG matter will be on the formal agenda. The prime minister might take it up nonetheless, according to leaders close to Dahal.