Handshake Across the Himalayas

Cover Story

From the rousing welcome received during his visit to the Pashupatinath temple to the grand ovation for his powerful oratory at the Constituent Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to reach out to the masses and has proved to be a true friend of Nepal

The relationship between Nepal and India is at a turning point since the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Nepal. The second country he visited during the first three months of his tenure was significant because for over 17 years, there was no official visit of the Indian prime minister to Nepal. During this period, Nepalese heads of state had visited India six times and Nepalese prime ministers nine times. In contrast to Modi, former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh gave least importance to the political relationship with Nepal. In fact, he downgraded the contact with Nepal from the political level to bureaucrats, diplomats and, above all, intelligence agents. The Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), consequently, played a dominant role and went to the extent of micro managing Nepalese affairs in a blatant manner. Nepalese leaders conceded to all diktats from New Delhi and through its different agents – formal and informal – in Nepal. Nepal watched India’s last general elections in April/May 2014 very keenly, to see if there would be a change of guard. As anticipated, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) bagged an absolute majority, formed the government under Modi’s leadership with a positive message to Nepal. He showed his intention to improve relations with neighbouring countries by inviting heads of state and government to attend his inauguration, which some believed was the revival of the Delhi Durbar system of the British Raj in India. Modi’s interest in improving relations with neighbours, including Nepal, recalled the friendly gesture of Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who visited Nepal in June 1997 and approved Nepal’s request, overruling Indian bureaucrats, to grant transit access to Bangladesh through the chicken’s neck in West Bengal, known as Fulbari-Banglabandh corridor. During formal talks with Nepal, in which I was also present as one of the senior Nepalese bureaucrats of the day, Gujral demonstrated boldness and sensitivity to Nepalese sentiments, which contributed to improved relations between both the countries. There were high hopes surrounding Prime Minister Modi’s August 2014 visit to Nepal, which he has fulfilled to a large extent.

Winning Hindu Religious Sentiments of Nepalese People

By choosing the last Monday of Srawan (August 4, 2014) for offering puja at Pashupatinath, Modi, I believe, succeeded in convincing the Nepalese about his total faith in Hinduism. Furthermore, his gift of 2,500 kilograms of sandalwood to the Pashupatinath Temple Authority, support for the construction of the temple Dharamshala, and assistance in the conservation and restoration of old monuments in the temple complex, enabled him to win the hearts of religious people. Modi also reached out to the followers of Buddhism, considered part of the Omkar family. He said he ‘belonged to the land of Somnath, began his journey in national politics from Kashi and had now arrived at the feet of Pashupatinath. This is the land that gave birth to Lord Buddha, who holds the whole world spellbound’. He was also praised for mentioning Nepal as the birthplace of Buddha, a goodwill gesture that forestalled Nepalese misgivings and was appreciated by everybody, including my family and friends.

There were some who expected more from Modi in favour of a Hindu state in the wake of the controversy surrounding the declaration of Nepal as a secular state, a notion perceived to be an imposition from outside. Those working in Nepal in BJP-sister organisations are not happy over the growing religious conversions that have been taking place in Nepal, especially among the weaker sections of society through exploitation of their poverty. They would like this issue to be given serious attention by concerned officials and stakeholders.

Recognition of Interdependence of Three Ecological Zones

In his address to the Constituent Assembly of Nepal, Modi appreciated the Unified Communist Party of Nepal Maoist for giving up arms and joining mainstream politics. He wished for the success of the Constituent Assembly in framing a constitution that would be acceptable to all Nepalese living from the high mountains to the Tarai (a term inimical to the leaders of Madhes). A handful of Madhes-based leaders were disappointed at the clear lack of support for their demand of a single province comprising all the districts contiguous to the Indian border. On the contrary, his obvious neutrality on this sensitive issue was taken as a sign of statesmanship. He assured that India would honour Nepal’s sovereignty and would not interfere in its internal affairs. Indeed, Modi’s speech resonated with the Nepalese people, which gave an impression that his audience was listening not to a ‘big brother’, but a true friend of Nepal.

Handling of Relations at the Highest Level

Nepal and India maintained close relations at the highest political level since 1950. King Tribhuvan, Bishweshwor Koirala, King Mahendra and King Birendra maintained regular and direct contact with the Indian political leadership, including Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, irrespective of the occasional turbulence in their relationship. The uneasy relationship between King Birendra and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi resulted in Nepal facing an economic blockade from India in 1989, which helped create a public stir in Nepal and hastened the revival of a multi-party parliamentary system in 1990. Since then, for more than a decade, especially during the Prime Ministership of Dr Manmohan Singh, Nepal was completely ‘managed’ by bureaucrats from the Ministry of External Affairs, or their colleagues at the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu. RAW officials played a key role in this period. Nepalese political leaders kowtowed to these people bypassing the political leadership in New Delhi, which encouraged them to micro manage Nepal in every sphere. This behavioural pattern provoked serious anti-India feelings in Nepal, despite India’s support for Nepal’s democratic movement and development projects. Modi’s visit has reinforced India’s intention to interact with Nepal at the highest political level. How far he would succeed in reversing the trend remains to be seen.

Security Concerns and the 1950 Treaty

Nepal and India are probably the world’s only two countries sharing a long and open border, which has proven to be both a boon and a curse. It is a boon because people living across the border have been able to use numerous facilities, but its misuse by unscrupulous elements for smuggling has made it a curse. Over the last few years, the world has seen the emergence of a number of fundamentalists causing serious problems in many countries, including India. Nepalese authorities have arrested some fundamentalists and handed them over to India, raising concerns about security threats from across the border. Unless there is connivance between the unscrupulous elements on both sides of the border, such activities will not happen. Security agencies of both the countries must work in a close and coordinated manner as fundamentalism of any type could cause problem to both. In addition, there is a need for both countries to agree to some sort of border regulation, without causing problems to people living along the border. As Prime Minister Modi said in his address to parliament, “The India-Nepal border should not be a barrier but a bridge, which helps to bring prosperity to both sides”.

The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship that was signed during the last days of the Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher Rana figures as an irritant in bilateral relations. There is a strong feeling within Nepal that the treaty is already obsolete, and, therefore, should either be abrogated or revised. Modi did touch upon this issue and wanted Nepal to come up with a firm proposal in this regard. In addition, he should have asked Nepal to come up with a definite idea for another controversial but almost dead treaty – an arms purchase agreement of January 1965, through which New Delhi, as per Late Leo E Rose – an eminent expert on Nepal – ‘agreed to underwrite as far as possible the entire requirements of Nepal army.’

Long Standing Border Issues

Nepal and India share a 1,880 km long border characterised by a host of issues. India’s occupation of Kalapani in far western Nepal, as a result of misreading the source of the Kali/Mahakali/Sharada River and Susta at the Gandak river area in Nawalparasi district (western Nepal), remains a bone of contention in their border relations. The Joint Technical Committee (JTC) on border was able to complete its work except for these two points. Although the Indian side stressed early signing of the agreed treaty and initialled strip maps of about 98 percent of the boundary work, Nepal would not be able to sign the strip maps as long as these two outstanding issues are not addressed. The two prime ministers seem to realise this matter, and as such, underlined the need to resolve pending Nepal-India boundary issues once and for all.

Silver Lining in Water and Energy Sector

The bilateral relationship in the water sector characterised by the 1954 Kosi River Treaty, the 1959 Gandak River Treaty, the Mahakali River Treaty of 1997 or the latest project development agreement on Upper Karnali hydro project, is not only very old, but is also highly debatable. Against this background, it was mentioned in the joint press statement that the Pancheshwar Development Authority (PDA) will be set up and a detailed project report (DPR) will be finalised within a year. As an important member of the 1996 Mahakali Treaty negotiation team, which has jurisdiction over the PDA and DPR of the Pancheshwar multi-purpose project, I definitely welcome the inclusion of these matters in the joint statement. But the Pancheshwar DPR was to be finalised within six months of the exchange of the instruments of ratification in 1997, yet no progress has been made at all. Similarly, since many other provisions of the treaty, including a 12 km road linking Tanakapur barrage to Mahanedra Nagar, provision of water to Dodhara Chandani areas from Sarada barrage and from Tanakapur barrage to Nepal, are yet to be implemented, I only wish that this time the commitments made by the two prime ministers are honoured. The basis of such a wish is the general impression I have of Modi – of a person of action.

The other welcome development is the signing of a Power Trade Agreement (PTA) - a framework pact for the commerce and power sector. The manner in which India handled this issue initially definitely created suspicion in the minds of many people. The Indian government headed by Dr Manmohan Singh had proposed the draft to Nepal containing the same old spectre of Indian dominance in the water resource. I do not know whether the bureaucracy actually apprised the Modi government of it. However, had Nepal signed it, she would have surrendered her authority of identifying, studying and developing her hydropower projects to India. Because of inclusion of provisions that would have given India total control over the hydro power sector, Nepalese civil society and professionals staunchly opposed the Indian draft. Nepal subsequently revised the draft and sent it to India and succeeded in getting the current PTA signed. It is also understood that the treaty could be signed only due to Modi’s personal interest.

Cooperation in Infrastructure Building

Modi raised hopes in Nepal by announcing a ‘HIT’ formula, meaning highways (H), information highways (I) and transmission lines (T), which India would help Nepal develop. He also promised to build pipelines to carry oil to Nepal and to double power supply to meet Nepal’s power deficit. People in Nepal are looking forward to more fruitful cooperation in infrastructure. Indeed, if the promises made are met, unlike in the past, they would definitely help Nepal, and India’s support would be appreciated. The follow-up actions by India including sending a team to study the oil pipeline, lowering telephone call charges, proposing an agreement to allow bus services between the two capitals and for the movement of vehicles in either direction, are indeed encouraging. India’s seriousness in helping Nepal in ‘HIT’ will be determined by the early completion of the promised bridge on the Mahakali River at Mahendranagar, Jhulaghat and Darchula and the postal and feeder roads (Tarai roads).

From the rousing welcome received during his visit to the Pashupatinath temple to the grand ovation for his powerful oratory at the Constituent Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been able to reach out to the masses and has proved to be a true friend of Nepal. Also, it seems he has taken control over the responsibility of handling Nepal from the hands of bureaucrats and RAW. Modi’s visit, which was welcomed practically by every section of society, has impressed the people of Nepal. Now there is eagerness to determine if his visit would contribute towards improved relations, and the speed and honesty with which his commitments would be implemented.

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Author

Dwarika N Dhungel

Dwarika N Dhungel is retired secretary, Government of Nepal and a former Executive Director of the Institute for Integrated Development Studies (IIDS). He is presently a freelance Senior Researcher, Social Sciences. The author is greatly indebted to Senior Journalist Aditya M Shrestha, Political Scientist Dr Jana Sharma and Development Anthropologist and former Secretary to the Government of Nepal, Shyam P Adhikari for their valuable suggestions and inputs for the article’s improvement.

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