The Eminent Persons Group (EPG), consisting of relevant experts from India and Nepal, was formed in early 2016 to review all the bilateral treaties and agreements between the two countries including the controversial 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship.
The Indian side was led by parliamentarian Bhagat Singh Koshyari, a senior leader of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and the Nepalese side by Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, a former foreign affairs and finance minister.
After nine rounds of meetings and more than two years of deliberations, the EPG finalized a joint report at the end of June this year that was to be submitted to the prime ministers of India and Nepal at the earliest. Almost four months have elapsed since then, but the EPG has not been able to submit its report because of the “packed schedule” of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Since the report has not been made public either, discussions and debates have not been able to take place in support of or against the recommendations.
The relationship between Nepal and India is embedded in deep geographical, historical, cultural, religious and socio-economic linkages. It is so ancient that it predates any formal treaties and agreements between the two countries. However, the formal basis of their bilateral relationship is based on the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Although the EPG was mandated to look into the overall bilateral relationship, this treaty must have figured in at the core of all the meetings that took place.
The 1950 treaty has been controversial from the date it went into effect, for various reasons. First, it was signed on Nepal’s behalf by Mohan S J B Rana, who was the prime minister under the Rana hereditary oligarchy at that time. It is widely believed that he entered the treaty primarily to ensure the survival of the Rana regime rather than for the benefit of his nation and the people of Nepal.
Second, some of the provisions of the treaty and the letters that were exchanged thereafter undermined the sovereignty of Nepal.
Third, the signatories were of uneven protocol as the treaty was signed by the Nepalese prime minister and Indian ambassador to Nepal on behalf of their respective governments.
There have been calls from the Nepalese public, media and scholars from time to time for a review of the treaty in accordance to the modern context. In 1950 Nepal was under the Rana oligarchy, whereas it has since become a republic. A couple of Nepalese prime ministers raised the issue with their Indian counterparts during their tenures but such attempts never seemed wholehearted, and the Indian side too did not pay much heed.
The economic blockade of Nepal in 2015 severely damaged India’s image in Nepal. One of the several measures adopted for damage control was Modi’s decision to give a green light for formation of the EPG.
After a phase of mistrust, the relationship between Nepal and India is heading back on track. The recommendations of the EPG are non-binding to both the governments. However, implementing the justified recommendations of the EPG will not only help the Indo-Nepalese bilateral relationship, it will also enhance India’s image in Nepal.
In spite of the optimism surrounding the completion of the task by the EPG, the delay in submitting the report to Modi has cast a shadow over India’s intentions. What has stopped him from simply receiving the report for nearly four months? If receiving the report takes such a long time, what is the possibility that the Indian side will be eager to implement the recommendations? Are the hawks in the Indian establishment opposed to giving concessions to Nepal?
Is Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli following up with Modi on the matter? Why has he also not received the report and is waiting for Modi to receive it first?
These are some of the questions that need to be answered by the leaders in earnest if the desired aim of forming the EPG is to be fulfilled. Being the most powerful country in the region, India should display a more accommodating character in dealing with its smaller neighbors to earn their goodwill.
It may still be premature to doubt India’s intentions on implementing the EPG report. Some media reports have claimed that the Indian government is not so pleased with Koshyari because of his supposed intention of providing concessions to Nepal in the proposed treaty.
However, what needs to be understood is that for elevating Nepal-India relations, the status quo with regards to the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship cannot remain, and a new treaty must define the bilateral relationship.
Nepal-India relations have stood the test of time. Although irritants have emerged in the ties at various points in history, they have never been able to hamper the bilateral relationship on the long run. The EPG has done a remarkable and painstaking job of analyzing each and every aspect of the bilateral relationship. Both governments should give it due credit.
Nepal has always been eager to maintain excellent ties with India. Both Modi and Oli need to receive the report at the earliest. India stands to gain the goodwill of the Nepali people if it is sincere in implementing the recommendations of the EPG to further cement and elevate the bilateral relations to greater heights.