Patna - The India-Nepal conference organised by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs this week in Patna featured the cream of the Nepali political landscape. Dr Baburam Bhattarai, Barshaman Pun 'Ananta', Pradeep Giri, Bimalendra Nidhi, Gagan Thapa, Pradeep Gyawali, Pradeep Nepal, MJF(D)'s Jitendra Dev, Sadbhavana's Anil Jha, and former bureaucrats and journalists participated in the seminar titled 'Towards a New Era in Nepal'.
The Indian delegation consisted largely of former bureaucrats and academics. Former ambassador Deb Mukherjee, former deputy national security advisor Leela Ponappa, RAW chief during the drafting of the 12-point agreement Hormese Tharakan, former Intelligence Bureau director AK Doval, constitutional expert Subash Kashyap, serving Indian officials, and Nepal experts were present.
There were different sessions on the Nepali peace process, water resources, federalism, and the role of the media and civil society.
But the most interesting conversation was regarding the 1950 treaty and the open border. It showed the fragmented nature of Nepali political opinion, but gave Nepalis a chance to understand the Indian security establishment's concerns and reflect on what overhauling the treaty would mean. What became quite clear is that no side is quite willing to stand up and defend the 1950 pact anymore.
This may come as surprise to many, but the Indian side feels the treaty is highly unfavourable to it. Those clauses that held any advantage in the security realm are now non-operational, while Nepal continues to enjoy benefits from other provisions.
An Indian participant argued how millions of Nepali citizens enjoy national treatment in India without a reciprocal arrangement. What would revising the relevant clause mean for them, particularly when India is planning to introduce national identity cards for its citizens? Would they need work permits and visas, and is that what Nepal wanted?
A precondition for the open border was a special security relationship with absolute co-operation. But Nepal was not seen to be as sensitive to Indian concerns. And while the open border was meant for the nationals of these two countries, many third national countries were using it for other purposes. A former official argued for a regulated border regime to track cross-border movement.
For their part Nepali politicians, particularly the Maoists and UML, feel the treaty is inherently unequal, signed as it was when a newly independent India was dealing with a decaying, feudal Rana regime on its last legs.
Dr Bhattarai noted that the treaty was based on India's Himalayan frontier policy. Specific provisions, according to him, give India a de facto say over Nepal's security, be it through consultations about third country threats or the acquisition of arms. The change in context needed a new arrangement. He also argued that while India had an advantage in the economic and commercial realm, the weaker economy, i.e. Nepal, should be given preferences and privileges. Claiming one third of border activity was illegal, led to a loss of revenue for the state and encouraged crime, Bhattarai agreed with the need to regulate the border. After all, the Maoists see out-migration as a liability that helps sustain the old semi-feudal economy.
But this was not a position shared by all Nepali participants. Madhesi leaders emphasised the roti-beti relationship and said revising the open border arrangement would devastate lives and families. Others pointed to the huge working class population, including pahadis, who would suffer.
It is clear that Nepal is yet to develop a broad national consensus on the 1950 treaty and the border. While doing so, it should be aware of the risk of ending up with a more unfavourable arrangement.
Does the Nepali state want a special relationship with India based on the logic of socio-economic integration and security linkages? Or does it want to chart out a more autonomous path and have a friendly, but routine, bilateral relationship? Answering that fundamental question will unlock the India-Nepal maze.