There is a crying need for establishing a Nepal Study Center in New Delhi and an India Study Center in Kathmandu, writes Kamal Dev Bhattarai for South Asia Monitor
Nepal and India are close neighbors deeply connected by history, geography, culture, and civilizations. Open border, frequent movement of people from one country to another and close trade and transit ties are other vital ingredients that make bilateral relations special and unique.
Due to the lack of dialogue and proper communication in time some issues that could have been resolved easily are affecting the entire gamut of bilateral relations. A close study of the hiccups in bilateral ties in the last five years clearly shows that despite emotional closeness both sides have not understood each other properly or are not taking each other’s concerns and issues seriously.
The recent discourse on the new map in both Kathmandu and New Delhi clearly shows government officials, academicians, intelligentsia, media, and politicians not having properly understood the crux of the issue. The border issue was a long-standing matter left over by history and there was a sudden eruption because no serious attempts were made in the past to resolve this burning issue. To understand the issue properly, we need to understand its history of at least six or seven decades. Only repeating the rhetoric that Nepal-India shares a special relationship is not sufficient; we need to know what the key bilateral issues are and how they are evolving with the passage of time.
There are very few people in New Delhi who closely follow Nepal and other bilateral issues regularly. Similarly, it is very hard to find Nepal-India relation experts in Kathmandu though we encounter a flood of experts if some specific issues and events between the two countries hit the headlines. Additionally, there is a lack of independent experts who look at bilateral issues objectively, make comments based on evidence, and who can identify the mistakes committed by both sides and urge course correction. Additionally, negative news reports on Nepal by some Indian TV channels are damaging bilateral relations instead of contributing to a better understanding between them.
Think tanks role in improving relations
In this context, think tanks of both countries can play a vital role to initiate a debate based on facts and objectivity. There are a lot of internationally reputed think tanks in New Delhi who are conducting in-depth research and study about India’s international relations. They give priority to the countries in the neighborhood when some specific issues arise or when regime change takes place. For instance, there was a lot of discussions and study on Nepal-India relation after the economic blockade of 2015. After that, there were no regular discussions or research on bilateral relations. Again, after the map controversy, some think tanks are producing commentaries and policy briefs. Even in normal times, Indian think tanks dedicate very few efforts for Nepal studies. Actually, there is a crying need for establishing a Nepal Study Center in New Delhi and an India Study Center in Kathmandu.
Over the past few years, the number of think tanks dedicated to international relations has increased in Kathmandu as well. But very few of them are conducting research and study on Nepal-India relations. Most of them are focused on organizing some interactive programmes and do not even produce a detailed report of such programmes. In spite of the lack of sufficient resources, some think tanks are trying to hold discussions on bilateral relations but the research aspect is totally neglected.
Similarly, there is a need for close collaboration between think tanks of the two countries to carry out joint research and study projects on Nepal-India relations and share knowledge and perspectives between them. In 2018, the Asian Institute of Diplomacy and International Affairs (AIDA), in collaboration with Nehru Memorial Museum Library (NMML), organized the first-ever Nepal-India think tank summit in Kathmandu. The purpose of the summit was to initiate greater collaboration and knowledge- sharing among Nepali and Indian think tanks. Such summits should take place on a yearly basis which paves the way for the collaboration between the think tanks of two countries.
If think tanks engage in research on all bilateral issues it would help people to understand the issues better. For example, the current discourse on the map clearly shows that people have not understood how it evolved, why it emerged as a dispute, and what could be the solution. Except in Susta and Kalapani, there are no major border disputes between the two countries but many people do not know the actual scenario. Instead of focusing on a creative and forward-looking approach to border disputes, there have been ill-informed and misinformed discussions.
Amend old treaties
In the changing context, both Nepal and India need to amend or change the old treaties and conventions. Nepal has been taking up the amendment of the Peace and Friendship Treaty 1950 with India. After the agreement at the top political level, both countries agreed to form Eminent Persons Group (EPG) in 2016 to suggest ways on how current issues could be resolved and which specific treaties and agreements need to be amended.
The EPG is yet to submit its report to both governments. The EPG report which is yet to be made public can become a base document on the basis of which there can be extensive discussions on bilateral relations. Before the two governments enter negotiations on the amendment of the treaty, there is a need for intensive discussions among the people about several issues that have come out. Despite the formation of EPG, think tanks of both Nepal and India have not conducted discussions on it, neither have they done research regarding 1950 treaty. Without frank and open discussions on all bilateral issues, we cannot expect cordial relations between Nepal and India.
Frankly speaking, the current pattern of discussions at the level of media, academics, and commentators are not helpful in improving the relationship but only creating unnecessary irritants in bilateral ties by indulging in avoidable blame game.
(The writer is a Kathmandu-based journalist and writer. The views expressed are personal)