Calls grow louder for making EPG report public, one way or the otherNepal members of the panel and former foreign ministers even advise taking the suggestions to Parliament.
A fresh debate has begun on what Nepal can do with the report of the Eminent Persons’ Group on Nepal-India Relations should New Delhi continue to defer receiving it. Experts have suggested that Kathmandu can make it public through Parliament in case India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to refuse to accept the suggestions of the expert panel on improving and updating his country’s relations with Nepal.
An eight-member team had prepared a joint report five years ago suggesting the blueprint for Nepal-India relations in the changed regional and global contexts. The document has been gathering dust while the panel is disbanded, not least by the death of one eminent person and by other official assignments of some others on either side.
At an interaction on ‘Neighbourly relations and EPG report’ organised by the Tanka Prasad Smriti Pratisthan in Lalitpur on Friday, former foreign ministers and EPG members from the Nepali side said their patience was running out. They are of the opinion that either the two governments, which formed the taskforce, should disown the work or create a conducive environment for receiving it.
“If the government of India does not receive the report prepared by the joint panel, then the government of Nepal should receive it,” former deputy prime minister and foreign minister Kamal Thapa said.
The EPG was formed in 2016 when Thapa was the foreign minister. He said that as the EPG report is only suggestive, it’s not mandatory for the two governments to implement its recommendations.
“If the government of India does not agree to receive the report, the government of Nepal should accept it. Then it is for the government of Nepal to decide whether to make it public,” said Thapa. “It’s a total failure of the government of Nepal to create an environment for the report’s receipt by the Indian side [first]. We should not make the EPG report a Pandora’s box.”
The Eminent Persons Group was mandated to review the 1950 bilateral peace and friendship treaty and suggest a new one as well as to address other issues like transit, trade, water resource, and border management between the two countries. The EPG consisted of four members from each side.
After preparing the report some 61 months ago, the EPG members had agreed to submit it first to the Indian prime minister but due to India’s suspicions over some of the suggestions incorporated in the report, the panel has been unable to give their assignment a sense of completion.
Thapa suggested that Nepal-India relations could be improved by removing some irritants like the Peace and Friendship Treaty, boundary disputes, border management, inundation and by focussing on trade expansion and economic development.
Former foreign minister Bimala Rai Poudyal said that the EPG report remains locked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“If the Indian prime minister is reluctant to receive it, can it be submitted to the foreign minister or the foreign secretary? We have a mechanism with India at two levels. There is a foreign minister-level mechanism, which can receive the report,” Rai Poudyal said. “If the report cannot be received at the prime minister’s level, we have to seek its alternative. As part of public diplomacy, can our Parliament accept and make the report public? If we do not publish the report on time, there is a chance of it being outdated.”
Rai Poudyal, who served as foreign minister for only 42 days, admitted that she does not have much knowledge on the EPG report.
During his recent India visit, Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal did not raise the issue of the EPG report with Indian leaders and officials. Dahal told Parliament and the media on his return from New Delhi that he did not take up the matter as that could spoil the environment for negotiations in Delhi. Former minister Rai Poudyal and other participants speaking on Friday termed the prime minister’s statement on the EPG issue irresponsible.
Another former foreign minister, Prakash Chandra Lohani, suggested that Nepal and India should work together on shared concerns and mutual benefits. “Unfortunately, that is not happening,” Lohani remarked. “The Indian establishment has not come out of its mindset of ‘umbrella doctrine’ propagated at the time of Chandra Shumsher Rana.”
On regulating the open border, the two neighbours had formed a committee of home secretaries. “We also agreed to explore the potential of navigation in Indian rivers long ago but we did not follow up on that.”
In the context of the government’s unwillingness to take up the EPG report matter with India, Lohani challenged the main opposition CPN-UML to press for tabling the report in Parliament. “Why is the main opposition not saying the EPG report should be tabled in the House so people will know what it suggests?”
A UML leader familiar with the nitty-gritty of the EPG issue is former foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali. “Based on my interaction with the Indian political leadership, I found a kind of illusion on EPG in the political leadership of India. The report has been grossly misinterpreted,” said Gyawali, who is also a deputy general secretary of the UML. “Even though we were ready to receive the report at the foreign minister’s level, that did not happen.”
When Gyawali travelled to New Delhi in December 2020 leading a Nepali delegation to the sixth Nepal-India joint commission meeting, there were discussions about receiving the report at the foreign minister level.
“We don’t think India does not want to accept the report because of a particular recommendation that was made. But it seems India has security concerns. A stable and prosperous Nepal is good for India but some people in India want ‘controlled stability’ in Nepal,” Gyawali said. That could explain why India is reluctant to receive the EPG report and to address concerns put forth by Nepal on disputed issues, he reasoned.
As there is no alternative to good neighbourly relations with India, it is the responsibility of the government of Nepal to talk to India about the EPG report, Gyawali suggests.
All four Nepali EPG members including Bhek Bahadur Thapa took part in the discussion. Thapa said that as age is not on his side, he wants to settle this issue once and for all and is consulting leaders and officials on what to do with the report.
Nilamber Acharya, an EPG member who became the ambassador to India after the report was prepared, said the panel was in favour of replacing the 1950 friendship treaty to suit the changed context. “The formation of the EPG was agreed upon at the top political level. It was included in the text of the joint commission meeting and Bhagat Singh Koshyari had also tried his best to submit it in both the countries,” Acharya added.
Acharya, as he revealed, had had interactions with several Indian leaders and officials including Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former prime minister Manmohan Singh. “All of them were positive on the EPG formation. We are consulting among ourselves. If the government is not going to receive it, we will make the report public as we are accountable towards them as well,” said Acharya.
On the Indian side, Koshiyari led the team involving former Indian ambassador to Nepal Jayant Prasad, Professor Mahendra P Lama, and (the now deceased) BC Uprety.
In a democratic system, people have the right to know what the EGP suggests, said Rajan Bhattarai, another EPG member.
“This [the EPG report] was prepared in line with a widely practised model. This is not only an academic exercise. As India is emerging as a regional and global power, it should certainly be accountable and responsible towards its neighbours,” said Bhattarai.