By Bikram Timilsina, Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University
12 December 2019
Nepal’s former foreign minister Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa has drawn an interesting analogy around Indo-Nepal border disputes.
In a recent television interview, Dr Thapa likened India to an elephant that has trespassed into your territory, and now the elephant is not willing to retreat. Your predicament, according to Dr Thapa, is that the enormous animal does not listen to your instruction to return, nor do you have enough strength to shove it out. His analogy was in relation to India’s unresponsiveness to Nepal’s concerns about its newly published political map and the associated border encroachment indictment of the latter.
Shyam Saran, former foreign secretary of India who was also Delhi’s envoy to Nepal between 2002 and 2004, recently claimed in an article that such disputes have not been resolved mainly due to Nepal’s lack of interest in resolution. This scribe, however, seeks to argue why it is more of a problem on India’s side instead of the other way around. There are two critical actions/inactions that show that India is unwilling to resolve some longstanding issues with Nepal, including the current border dispute.
The first one is India’s rejection of Nepal’s willingness to resolve existing issues through a high level political channel. Nepal’s Prime Minister KP Oli recently chose former Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal as his Special Envoy to send to Delhi to discuss Nepal’s concerns about the Indian map. Despite the massive hue and cry from Nepalese people who poured out onto the streets following publication of the map and Nepal government’s attempt to talk on the matter, it is strange to see why the proponent of “neighbourhood first” policy in Delhi has ignored Nepal’s attempt to engage. What makes India choose to ignore Nepal is a crucial question here.
A popular discourse in Kathmandu (also in Delhi to some extent) is that the Indian bureaucracy is the main culprit when it comes to the prolonged problems between India and Nepal. Former diplomat and politician Dr Thapa claimed that a senior Indian official once told him, while he was still Nepal’s ambassador in New Delhi, that the South Asian superpower would never step back from Kalapani because it would be against their national security interests.
If what the well-respected international relations expert said was true then it basically boils down to the following conclusion: India is least worried about what is right and what is wrong; it would do anything and everything to secure its national interests.
Here, it would be relevant to mention that former bureaucrats are substantially and almost equally influential in India’s foreign policy enforcement.
Only a few months earlier, a foreign policy expert in India told this scribe, on strict condition of anonymity, that the dillydallying of the EPG (Eminent Persons Group) report was only because a former senior diplomat (India) was not in favour of any change in the Indo-Nepal Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950.
It is not only the Indian bureaucracy that lacks interest in resolving persistent bilateral issues between the two neighbours, the same is true at the political level. Modi’s denial of meeting Nepalese prime minister’s Special Envoy on border dispute proves that there is inaction at the political level too. Denial to engage is denial to accept that the problems exists. This attitude no doubt will have adverse repercussions on Indo-Nepal relations.
The second one is that Indian Prime Minister Modi has so far avoided accepting the report, which provides remedies for mending Indo-Nepal ties, prepared by the Eminent Persons’ Group on Nepal-India Relations (EPG-NIR). Although he has not formally rejected it, his indifference to the report is bizarre. It is surprising to see that Mr Modi, who is never tired of boasting his so-called ‘neighbourhood first’ foreign policy, could not afford a slot of half an hour over the last year and half in order to receive the report prepared by a group made up of distinguished experts from both the countries. The EPG was formed to resolve the longstanding issues between the countries, including the controversial Peace and Friendship Treaty of 1950.
The Indian and Nepalese politicians are never tired of asserting that Indo-Nepal relation is historical and special. However, they hardly take any conclusive action when problems arise. The major problem lies on the Indian side which tends to procrastinate instead of engaging with the problems and work with Nepal to seek resolution. They fail to realise that serious issues, such as the ongoing border disputes, will not be covered by the intangible qualifiers of ‘special’ and ‘historic’.
It is, however, not only India where the problem lies. Nepal has its own shortcomings, too. Nepalese politicians lack a collective understanding about the country’s national interests and the execution of their foreign policy to secure that. They at times are ready to sacrifice national benefits in order to secure their individual or party ambitions. There was, however, an all-party consensus on the recent border dispute; they were unanimous on the fact that there had been a border encroachment from India and that the Nepalese government should take proper initiative to resolve the situation. However, the following diplomatic initiatives taken by the Nepal government are yet to show any results.
It is important to note that Mr Modi’s silent denial to give Nepal a space to engage is not helpful in cementing bilateral ties. He must realise that there is a need for persistent high-level political engagements between the two countries.
Deviating himself from a usual Indian diplomatic voice, a senior Indian diplomat has said that India should take a proactive action to resolve its problems with Nepal as soon as possible. Also a former ambassador to Nepal, Jayant Prasad asked, “If India can solve the boundary issue with Bangladesh, which also included a maritime boundary, then why not with Nepal, with which we have a special and friendly relationship? We have given Bangladesh much more than they needed, then why let the issue fester with Nepal?”
Though this vital question from a veteran Indian diplomat is less likely to be answered by the Indian side, it is not too hard to decipher the crux of the problem. The problem is that India, to a large extent, cares only about its national interests and intentionally ignores the rightful concerns of its neighbours like Nepal. Can there, then, be any more striking irony against India’s ‘neighbourhood first’ foreign policy than this hard reality?
For India to rise as an acclaimed major power in South Asia, it needs to realise that there has been a huge difference in the rhetoric of its neighbourhood first policy and realities of its execution. The lack of this realisation is the reason why India’s relations with its smaller neighbours including Nepal have not improved substantially. As a big nation, there is nothing that India cannot afford to mend its ties with Nepal. It only has to shed its indifference and give up its highhandedness.
To recall Dr Thapa’s analogy, the elephant must open its ears and listen to what its small neighbour has to say. It should also be ready to return territory, if it is found to have trespassed. After it pulls out of the disputed territory, India should also listen to other longstanding concerns of its neighbour and resolve them peacefully without causing harm to either side.
Bikram Timilsina, based in Brisbane, is a PhD Candidate at Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. Follow writer on Twitter @Bikram_TIMS