Friday, 12 April, 2024

Managing A Porous Frontier

Dhruba Hari Adhikary


That Nepal’s border with India is traditionally ‘open’ is a mere cliché. But people with excessive zeal tend to dub Nepal-India relation ‘unique’, and hasten to cite the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship to substantiate the contention. Such enthusiasm is also displayed even by responsible persons and personalities from either side of the 1751-km long border. What is incredible but true is this: nowhere - literally nowhere - in the treaty signed in Kathmandu on 31st July 1950 is there any reference to ‘open border’ that existed or would exist between the two countries. Hence, there is no legally-binding provision for unrestricted - and unregulated - movement of people across the recognised border. Tradition is another subject, and is subject to interpretations.

Obsolete treaty
In fact, the 1950 treaty became anachronistic a long while ago, if not immediately after the fall of century-old Rana regime in early 1951. Several unequal provisions inserted in the treaty ceased to be relevant, and thus found unworkable in the intervening decades. However, Delhi selectively tries to invoke some of the provisions by insisting that the treaty remains valid inasmuch as it has not been ‘terminated by either party by giving one year’s notice.’ (Article X)
While the Indian establishment in Delhi keep alluding to this ‘open border’ as one of the salient features of multi-dimensional relation between India and Nepal based on people-to-people contacts, Nepalis, by and large, conclude that small-size Nepal can ill-afford to provide ‘national treatment’ to millions of Indians on ‘reciprocal basis’. That India is a country of 1.3 billion-strong population is a hard fact. “The existing open border between Nepal and India is another controversial area…”, said professor Lok Raj Baral, former ambassador to India in a recent newspaper article.
However, managing border is not something unmanageable. Canada and the United States have effectively regulated their 8,891 km (5,525 miles) long border which has more than 100 crossings. The US border with Mexico runs into 3,145 kilometres. In Europe, small-size Finland shares 1,340 km border with expansive Russia. In South Asia, Bangladesh is separated from India by a border which is 4,156 kilometres long. Myanmar, Bhutan and Pakistan too share borders with India. Movements of people between and among these countries appear orderly, and under control.
Nepal doesn’t need to be an exception.
The 1950 treaty stipulation of granting ‘national treatment’ to foreigners entails a vital point which has so far been overlooked by responsible authorities on both sides. The point is: is this ‘national treatment’ to be given only to the persons already physically present in the host country or should this include facilities to be ‘freely ferried’ to the country of destination as well - meaning safe passage without passport/visa or travel documents or even identity cards? If this indeed is the intended target, Nepal cannot understandably carry such a heavy burden. The Indian bureaucrats who applied their ingenuity must have understood that reciprocity on this issue would not be feasible.
To the political leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru, prime minister as well as foreign minister, the proposition of seeking reciprocity from Nepal was not a convincing one. In his 1991 book titled “Nepal-India Open Border”, Dr. Ram Prasad Rajbahak, a university professor, has quoted unnamed but “reliable sources” to substantiate his contention. In the words of Rajbahak, who also had a ministerial stint in Nepal once, “Nehru was not in favour of insisting reciprocal facilities for the Indian residents in Nepal, as it would result in the loss of identity of the Nepalis in Nepal.”
Nevertheless, some of the events and trends in the preceding years have given strong indications that India’s governing leaders are usually led by the members of bureaucracy and intelligence agencies. Examples abound, and one of them can be the report ambassador Raj Bahadur sent to the foreign minister Dinesh Singh, in 1970. One particular missive contained several options Delhi could choose to implement as a part of its strict Nepal policy. One of the measures he suggested pertained to the ‘open border’. His remark on this count reads as follows: “An open border with Nepal of about 800 miles from end to end, which is easily accessible to us for any strategic purposes.” (‘Nepal at the Crossroads’ by LPS Shrivastava, 1996)
This assessment is indicative of the fact that authorities in Delhi have had a tendency to see everything from external security standpoint, especially due to their perceived threat from China. It also denotes that Indian policymakers then found it expedient to keep the border deliberately porous - and unregulated - thereby leaving room for interference.
But this can’t be a wise approach or part of a far-sighted policy in the emerging world order. Instead, a timely proposition would help Nepal augment its own security capabilities. Nepal has always remained committed to address the genuine security concerns of both neighbours, India and China. And Kathmandu’s pledge to this effect has been publicly repeated umpteenth number of times. And it is as clear as day-light that Nepal’s geography has always contributed to lessen existing as well as potential tensions between China and India.
In fact, the present status of border that Nepal and India share is not wide open, it is only ajar. The air traffic, for instance, is already regulated because passengers are now required to possess identity papers. The Indian immigration bureau’s web site ( has a notice stating air travellers from Nepal are “required to be in possession of” a document to establish his/her identity as a Nepali citizen. This is a reciprocal arrangement. The other relevant segment of this Indian notice says: “A citizen of Nepal entering India by land or air does not require a passport or visa for entry in India.”
Needless to emphasise, entry/exit of passengers thus regularised and recorded enable immigration and security authorities to apprehend miscreants and criminals. Nepal has additional concern associated with ever expanding population. That is why Kathmandu wants Delhi to agree to introduce identification system to the people crossing land border check-points as well. It may be imperative to recall here the study conducted by a task force headed by Dr. Harka Gurung. The main recommendation of that 1984 report too focussed on the need to begin regulating movement of people across the land border. And if some of the contemporary media reports are anything to go by, the review prepared by the Eminent Persons Group (EPG), also suggests something along this line.

As has been seen elsewhere, a prolonged complacency demands high prices. The tragedy of 1999 in the wake of hijacking of an Indian airline passenger plane during a flight from Kathmandu to Delhi is a telling reminder. That incident compelled authorities to start regulating movement of people travelling by air. “Do we have to wait for a similar man-made disaster, involving a land route, to be woken up from a deep slumber?” Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, a border expert, wonders. Like many others, Shrestha has witnessed devastating consequences of violent attacks by Islamic State (IS) terrorists claiming innocent lives in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. These are all recent occurrences, and too painful to be easily forgotten.

(Adhikary is a journalist active since 1978 and writes on regional issues.