| September 18, 2020

Time for change

Nepal-India treaties
The Nepali Eminent Persons’ Group (EPG) is scheduled to hold its first joint meeting with its Indian counterpart on July 4th and 5th. In this connection, the four-member Nepali EPG has been consulting people from various walks of life—foreign affairs experts, former bureaucrats, politicians—in order to set the agenda for the joint meeting. The two groups as expert committees have broad mandates: they have been tasked with reviewing all bilateral agreements and treaties between Nepal and India. They will then make their recommendations to respective governments on whether to update or scrap such agreements. The most challenging task for the two groups will be to review the landmark 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Many people in Nepal feel that the ‘unequal’ treaty should be scrapped and replaced by a new treaty that is more in keeping with Nepal’s interest. At least part of the criticism of the treaty is justified. The problem starts with the plenipotentiaries who signed the treaty on the behalf of India and Nepal.

From Nepal’s side, putting pen to the paper was the last Rana Prime Minister Mohan Shumsher. Doing the honors from the India’s side was Chandreshwar Prasad Narayan Singh, then the Indian ambassador to Nepal. How could India designate its Nepal envoy to sign such an important document? If the head of government in Nepal was signing the treaty shouldn’t his Indian counterpart, Jawaharlal Nehru, have also taken it upon himself to sign on India’s behalf? Wasn’t this a clear indication that India did not treat Nepal as a fully sovereign country? Other Nepalis have a problem with Mohan Shumsher himself. A descendant of the autocratic Ranarchy, in their view, should not have had the right to decide the fate of democratic Nepal. Besides such symbolic contestations the treaty has some substantive faults too. For instance the treaty says the government of Nepal shall be “free to import, from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunition or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal.” This has been clearly interpreted by India to mean that Nepal can import arms only from India. So when Nepal wanted to bring some arms from China in 1989, India responded with a blockade of its key border points with Nepal. The Nepali side rightly contests that nowhere does the treaty say Nepal can import arms “only” from or via India. As a sovereign country, Nepal should be able to import arms from anywhere it likes.

Likewise, the Indian establishment, by invoking the 1950 treaty, expects Nepal to keep it abreast of any “serious friction or misunderstanding” between Nepal and China. Over time this has been conveniently interpreted by the Indian establishment to imply that Nepal should inform India of all its bilateral engagements with China. This provision is also impractical for India as, according to the treaty, India will have to inform Nepal of any friction arising in its bilateral relations with the five other countries (besides Nepal) with which India shares its land borders. Moreover, in many places the treaty and the subsequent letters of exchanges seem to treat Nepal and India as equals in all aspects, a provision that puts Nepal at a clear disadvantage because of its small size and demography. We don’t think it’s asking for a lot when Nepalis call on India, a rising global power, to cut its small neighbor some slack while preparing such important documents. But we are happy that India has at long last listened to Nepal and agreed to review all such contested treaties. Setting up the EPGs is a step in the right direction. We hope something substantive comes out of it.

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