Nepal – the country of Mt. Everest and Buddha

Nepal – the country of Mt. Everest and Buddha

Should the 1950 treaty be scrapped?

Posted by completenepal on February 22, 2010


K.V. Rajan


The Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal is nearly six decades old; its relevance for India’s security in today’s context is limited and questionable.


The Maoist demand for “scrapping” the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal has been greeted with a sense of alarm, as if it is something new or sinister. In fact, it is neither. The treaty, which was a straightforward imitation of understandings dating back to British India days, and basically offered economic opportunities in India for Nepalese nationals against Nepalese assurances that India’s security concerns would be respected, became an irritant in India-Nepal relations as soon as it was signed on 31 July, 1950. In Nepal’s eyes, India’s growing sense of insecurity, generated by an apparently aggressive and expansionist China, had compelled it to yield to expediency, abandon its support for the incipient democratic movement against the autocratic Rana regime, and seek to constrain Nepal’s sovereignty so that it was compatible with India’s security perceptions. The treaty, signed between the Indian Ambassador with Prime Minister Mohun Shumshere Rana (a disrespect for protocol which added insult to Kathmandu’s sense of injury) in the last days of his discredited regime, was accompanied by an exchange of letters which was not made public until many years later — in 1959, when they were placed on the table of the Indian Parliament.

The pitch of Nepalese criticism at any given time has depended on the degree of hostility or political insecurity felt by a particular power centre in Kathmandu vis-À-vis India. With the exception of King Tribhuvan (who escaped from Rana’s custody, was given refuge by Nehru, and who actually suggested Nepal’s merger with India), the monarchy in Nepal was actively engaged for several decades in undermining the treaty in letter, or spirit or both. Birendra’s Zone of Peace proposal was one such thinly disguised attempt. (An emissary from New Delhi was sent to Kathmandu to give a blow-by-blow picture of the implications for Nepal if the treaty was abrogated, and Birendra was said to be so shaken that the project was eventually abandoned).

But even when Nepal had a democratic dispensation, there was a certain unity across the political spectrum that, while the economic benefits accorded by the treaty were essential for Nepal, the treaty in its existing shape was not compatible with national self-respect. The Nepali Congress was the only party which usually hesitated to raise the matter of treaty revision, because of the close personal affinities between its leaders with Indian counterparts and their desire not to rock the boat of bilateral relations. But in private conversation they, too, voiced similar reservations.

In 1994, the CPN (UML) minority government assumed power after an election campaign dominated by issues such as abrogation of the 1950 treaty, ending the special relationship with India, renegotiating agreements on cooperation in water resources, and ending the recruitment of Nepalese gurkhas in the Indian Army — exactly the issues raised by the Maoists today. Yet, the UML was quick to moderate its positions as soon as it assumed office. Prime Minister Man Mohan Adhikari made it clear that he was not for abrogation of the treaty: “friendship treaties can be amended, they should never be abrogated.” An institutional arrangement at the Foreign Secretary level was set up in March 1995; but after a few rounds of discussion, it became clear that India was not interested in “amendment”: the treaty had either to be abrogated or maintained in its present form, as the text of the treaty did not provide for modifications. In private conversation, the Nepalese argued that this was not a very valid approach; the treaty had already been amended in 1950, even before the ink on the signatures was dry, by the exchange of letters accompanying it. It had effectively been amended again in 1965, through another exchange of letters which basically “committed” India to supply all of the Nepal Army’s armament needs. So why couldn’t it be amended again? But given India’s “either we keep it or you abrogate it” approach, Nepalese leaders did not go beyond making proforma noises about review of the treaty being under active discussion.

Gujral “doctrine”

The Gujral “doctrine,” which in effect promised all of India’s neighbours (especially Nepal) a bilateral relationship based on non-reciprocity, revived fresh hope in Nepal that the treaty could be “updated.” As Foreign Minister and later as Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral demonstrated a certain willingness to accommodate Nepalese expectations, as demonstrated by negotiations on the Mahakali Treaty and the transit route through India’s sensitive “Chicken’s Neck.” Foreign Minister Kamal Thapa visited India in August, 1998, with a “non-paper” which, for the first time, set out Nepalese ideas for a revision of the treaty. He made the mistake of publicising in advance the objective of his visit; the Nepalese media mentioned separate treaties on mutual security and economic cooperation accommodating both countries’ legitimate needs and concerns. But Thapa was sent back empty-handed — India’s traditional resistance to changing the treaty re-asserted itself.

Issue to the forefront

It has taken the remarkable electoral success of the Maoists to bring the issue again to the forefront. Should India continue to evade the issue, despite the widespread sentiment in Nepal favouring a revision? The treaty is nearly six decades old; its relevance for India’s security in today’s context is limited and questionable. China is no longer the only security concern in the sub-region, and in any case it is doubtful if it needs to ally itself with Nepal in order to create problems for India. The Himalayas have been replaced by the open border as India’s main defence perimeter. Pakistani activities in and through Nepal, migration, smuggling of narcotics and arms, terrorism, human trafficking, traditional cross-border trade and investment, regulation of the open border, development of border infrastructure and, above all, human insecurity have emerged as the urgent priorities. Management of water resources, environment and climate change, also have serious long-term implications for the security of both countries.

The treaty is already respected more in the breach than observance. Indian nationals in Nepal had long ago lost any entitlement under the “national treatment” clause; they can still travel to Nepal without a visa, and the Indian rupee is legal in Nepal, but permission to work, purchase property, and engage in activities on a par with the Nepalese is usually not available. Nepalese migrants to India, too, do not have the same rights they used to enjoy in many areas. Gurkha recruitment to the Indian Army continues but there is already a demand to phase this out and increase the intake of Indian Gurkhas.

Nepal has also from time to time projected its concerns about elements from India misusing the open border. Pro-democracy activists in Panchayat times, Maoists in recent years, armed Madhesi groups still more recently, have freely utilised the facility to challenge the government of the day, with Indian intelligence and security being either unable or unwilling to stop them. And the “national treatment” promised to Nepalese nationals in the matter of employment, business and property acquisition in India is becoming progressively more difficult to obtain.

India needs to review the treaty with an open mind rather than as a necessary evil — because the Maoists are demanding it. The first step would be to open the subject up for free debate within our own civil society, and explore the possibility of a cross-party consensus on the kind of treaty or cluster of treaties which would comprehensively address the real security concerns, military as well as non-conventional, for peoples on both sides of the border. Nepal should be encouraged to go in for a similar exercise. Thereafter, a track two interaction could seek to narrow the differences, with government representation but in the background. Official negotiations should ideally be the last phase. This long festering issue can and should be resolved to the mutual satisfaction of both countries in such a way that it promotes peace and development, and — hopefully — there are no future demands for its revision, at least for the next 50 years.

(K.V. Rajan was India’s Ambassador to Nepal from 1995 to 2000.)

Source: The Hindu

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