Nepali Times
Plain Speaking
Open border, closed minds


Kapilbastu brought into focus the implications of Nepal's open border with India. Ever since the madhesi uprising in January, many Kathmandu politicians and analysts have argued that the border lies at the root of the unrest, and demanded it must be tightly regulated.

This view is shared by some in Delhi. An Indian editor who knows Nepal remarked: "Good fences make good neighbours."

The elite in the two capitals must not be allowed to change the nature of the border. This view overplays the impact of cross-border elements in inciting trouble, ignores the crucial linkages shared by people and their livelihood and cultural concerns, and prescribes the wrong solution. Better administration and cooperation on both sides is the answer, not more restrictions.

With the law and order situation improving in Bihar, many criminals have decided to make the most of the anarchy in the Nepal tarai. Some people from Bairgania participated in the Gaur massacre and ran back to India. Jwala Singh spends most of his time in Darbangha and Muzaffarpur, Goit lives in Supaul and Patna among other places. Madhesi groups acquire their guns from the small arms market in Bihar. People came from Uttar Pradesh and participated in the recent central tarai riots.

These linkages are inevitable when there is a conflict in a border zone. Despite sophisticated control and fencing, there is constant flow of people between India and Pakistan, between India's Northeast and Bangladesh and Burma. The open border may make these linkages more pronounced but this remains a subsidiary feature.

The real issue is domestic Nepali politics. Gaur happened not because the border was open but because the Maoist-MJF relationship was antagonistic. Kapilbastu happened because political competition, statelessness and ethnic tension came together. Madhesi leaders live in Bihar in the way Maoist leaders did. It was not the active deployment of border forces, but the peace process that stopped Maoist activities. Similarly, once the root causes in the madhes are addressed, these armed groups will come on board or be marginalised.

The other part of the solution lies in more competent and less corrupt administrative machinery on both sides, not in tightening the border. Militarisation will not deter either criminals or politicians who will find a way to keep up the links, crossing open fields and rivers, travelling at night, paying off custom officials. Other ordinary people will be adversely affected: the madhesi woman who is married in Raxaul but comes to teach in a Birganj college every day, the small trader who lives in Jogbani and runs a shop in Biratnagar, the dalit rickshaw puller from Nepalganj who works in Bahraich, the young medical representative in Janakpur who has to take his mother to Darbangha for treatment, the Tilhati family which needs to visit relatives in Birpur, the thousands of pahadi and madhesi Nepalis who move to India to work.

Cross border links led many in Kathmandu to suspect that India is fuelling the crisis. That is unlikely. Both Delhi and Lainchaur diplomats were happy with the madhesi movement because it weakened the Maoists. But India is neither pleased about the present situation in the Nepal tarai nor is it engineering the unrest.

India's Nepal policy is dominated by stability, in keeping with the larger vision of a peaceful periphery. The tarai developments not only threaten to derail the entire Indian effort of the past two years, but can also have a potentially destabilising impact on north Bihar and east UP politics. What India wants is a quick, snappy solution, not a conflagration. Those who believe otherwise have not kept up with this basic change in South Block's mindset.

MEA officials in Delhi occasionally meet their counterparts in the central Home Ministry and intelligence agencies. To expect that they are closely working with home ministries in Bihar and UP, local intelligence agents, and SSB to support madhesi groups or create instability in tarai is over-stretching it. In fact, there are only two officials in Bihar and none in the UP government who keep track of Nepal. Delhi neither has the motive nor has invested resources to keep the crisis going.

It is Nepal that has to address the madhes issue and the political vacuum domestically, not blame it on the open border. Indeed, the border is the best thing to have happened for millions of Nepalis.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)