Treaty that reflects a meeting of hearts
Charles de Gaulle may have been a tad sexist when he remarked that “treaties are like roses and young girls. They last while they last”. But he effectively brought out the transient value that most agreements of whatever kind suffer from. At another level, treaties are like water – they begin to smell foul when left stagnant for long periods of time. The India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship is a classic example. Signed 64 years ago, most of its provisions have not just outlived their purpose but have metamorphosed into bones of contention, resulting in bad blood between two traditional friends and neighbours. The friendship treaty ironically became over the years, more so in the last decade when Nepal witnessed major political upheavals, an impediment to lasting friendship. It is heartening that both India and Nepal have recently demonstrated their resolve to craft a new document of peace and friendship to replace the 1950 agreement.
The impetus came with the recent visits of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and, earlier, of Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj, to Nepal. Both these leaders expressed their acceptance of a new, proposed friendship pact with that country. For the first time in 10 years, there appears a genuine desire on New Delhi’s part to move forward with a fresh friendship treaty. In the past, while India had shown its concurrence to a new agreement, it had done so with reluctance and doubt that Kathmandu was up to some mischief. On its part, Nepal felt that New Delhi was not serious, as negotiations in the mid-nineties after the latter’s acceptance of a proposal for a new pact, got bogged down. The draft of the proposed treaty never materialised, and matters were back to square one.
Just how thorny the matter is can be gauged by the near hysterical response by India when Pushpa Kamal Dahal ‘Prachanda’, before and after he became Prime Minister in August 2008, proposed the scrapping of the 1950 pact and its replacement by a new treaty. New Delhi not only took umbrage over the suggestion but also read into it the Maoist leader’s design to jettison Nepal’s long-standing friendship with India. Of course, the backdrop in which Prachanda mooted the idea had something to do with the Indian reaction, and his various subsequent actions strengthened India’s suspicions over his intent. This does not mean that New Delhi was justified altogether. It had also begun its approach to the Prachanda-led regime with a good dose of pre-judging and prejudice. All in all, the new friendship deal remained an idea on paper.
India’s recent willingness to favourably consider a new draft treaty, and mutually abrogate the existing one, may have to do with the Narendra Modi Government’s resolve to make a fresh beginning. But it also flows from the absence of political insecurity that earlier regimes in New Delhi were gripped by. The sense of insecurity had also hobbled India’s relations with other neighbours such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. It is not a coincidence that, with Mr Modi taking over as Prime Minister, there has been a renewed thrust in revamping relations with India’s near-neighbours.
Since Nepal has had problems with the friendship treaty, it is for the political establishment of that country to draft a new pact. India has clearly indicated that the ball is in Kathmandu’s court. Thus, the other immediate challenge before Nepal’s lawmakers, apart from framing their country’s Constitution, is to write a new peace and friendship treaty. The earlier they do the better it will be for bilateral relations. They must seize the swell of goodwill that has been generated between the two countries as a result of Modi’s visit, and not allow the old wound to fester.
In all fairness, the very relevance in today’s time of the pact in force is suspect. The treaty was primarily concluded in response to communist China’s growing presence in Tibet. Then Nepalese Prime Minister Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana struck this arrangement with India for two reasons. The first was to enhance Nepal’s people-to-people and business relations with its larger neighbour, India. The second was more important: Rana was apprehensive that China would expand its communist influence via Tibet into Nepal. Much water has flowed under the bridge since then. New Delhi has come closer to China in the decades gone by, notwithstanding the 1962 war; and Nepal itself has developed a working relationship with communist Beijing. Interestingly, though, China has once again become a key element in India-Nepal relations, and for reasons that have been extensively documented.
One of the current bones of contention is Clause IV of the Letters Exchanged along with the 1950 treaty. It states that “if the Government of Nepal decides to seek foreign assistance with regard to the development of natural resources of, or of any industrial project in, Nepal, the Government of Nepal should give first preference to the Government or the nationals of India…” Many in Nepal have interpreted this as India’s ‘big-brotherly’ conduct – an effort to put on leash the right of independent Nepal to decide who must partner in its infrastructure development and give New Delhi an undue advantage. India has denied any such compulsion and clarified that it merely seeks first preference in financing and developing projects of national importance in Nepal because, after all, India has invested heavily in Nepal’s economic growth. Hopefully, the new treaty will remove the ambiguity.
The two sides need to remember that one of the touchstones of the treaty is the open border that the two countries share. This has been to the advantage of both the nations, but the benefits have whittled down increasingly. The free migration of people (and the provisions in the treaty) provides entitlements to Indians in Nepal and vice versa. But a fewer number of Nepalese migrants now have the same rights in many areas they enjoyed earlier. Similarly, permission for Indians to work in Nepal, purchase property and be actively engaged in areas on par with the Nepalese, hasn’t really taken off. This is despite a specific provision in the treaty that the Government of India and Nepal agree to grant “on a reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of other the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property.”