Nepal-India cultural and social ties hit hard by border sealing

Cross border marriage, i.e., matrimony between Nepali son/daughter and India’s son/daughter, is very common in bordering districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This is the reason why Nepal's Madheshis treat Indian soil as their relatives’ home, not a foreign land, write Jivesh Jha & Roshan Kumar Jha for South Asia Monitor

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India and Nepal celebrates bread and bride relations. The two open-border states have an age-old linkage of language, history, culture, tradition, and religion. The interrelationship in various terms has posed positive pronouncements in political, social, cultural, and economic engagements with each other. However, the people-to-people exchange, as well as cultural and religious exchanges between the two nations has been halted due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Globally, the constitution or other relevant laws ensure a fundamental right to work. The right to work has been recognized by the internationally binding instruments as well. In this context, Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), 1948 envisages that everyone has the right to work, free choice of employment, just and favourable conditions of work and protection against unemployment. The right to work morphed from a mere state value to an individual human right with Article 23 of the UDHR. This provision not only protects the right to work, but also obligates states to ensure the right to compensation while unemployed. This international obligation has been badly affected due to the sealing of the Indo-Nepal border at the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.

It is especially hard for the people living in border towns who have not been able to visit their relatives’ across the border. It is disappointing to see that the pandemic has brought not only health and economic crisis but also put a stop to a person’s religious and cultural beliefs, especially during the final journey of a person's life. People on either side of the border are facing difficulty in participating in the funeral rites of their relatives who have died during this outbreak.

In Nepal, whether Hindu, Muslims, or Buddhists, want cordial relations between India and Nepal. The temporarily sealing off the Indo-Nepal border due to the virus has not only prevented people of the two countries to meet their relatives but also stopped them from visiting some of their holiest pilgrimages. The people’s religious freedom or right to move or meet their near and dear ones has been put under suspended animation due to the pandemic.

People residing in bordering towns celebrate each other's lifestyle, language, literature, and culture. They cherish traditions and festivals but rarely care for the language of politics or hate. To put it simply, heart-to-heart relations matters more for them. By celebrating the legacies of cultural exchanges, they want to ensure that hate has no home here along the border.

Madheshis share a special bond with India 

Madheshis - or the people of Indian ancestry - residing in the Terai of Nepal share a special bond with India.  Cross-border marriages work as a catalyst for this bread and bride relation. It is a very common practice, that the Madhehsi have their breakfast at their home (in Nepal) and dinner or lunch at their relatives’ home in India.  Not only Madheshis, even people of hill origin too frequently visit bordering towns for shopping purposes. While the Madheshis want Indo-Nepal relations to grow stronger so that they could celebrate their age-old blood relations, the people of hill origin also want the same but for advancing economic benefits. 

A section of hill community members have settled in India and they enjoy economic, civil, and political rights at par with Indians. Hundreds of thousands of educated youths are working in India’s private companies. Only people from hill origin get deployed in Gurkha regiment under Indian Army. But, there is no such arrangement for Madheshi youths. Even though there is no statutory definition of the term Gurkha, the practices show that Madheshis are not considered as Gurkha and they are not entitled to join the regiment. India, through its embassy in Kathmandu, invests much in the construction of school buildings in Nepal’s hill region.

Suffering Nepali migrant workers

Amid the outbreak, Nepalis living in bordering districts have not been allowed to go to the nearby Indian market to purchase essential goods or to avail essential services, like healthcare. Hundreds of thousands of migrant workers working in India have been affected. They are not able to join back work. Also, the recent dip in relations between the two countries has also made their lives difficult. Neither India nor Nepal has shown any interest in the protection and promotion of their rights and concerns. 

Eventually, this obstruction has caused a serious impact on the 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Article 7 of the Treaty provides that “The Governments of India and Nepal agree to grant, on a reciprocal basis, to the nationals of one country in the territories of the other, the same privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature.” As cross-border human movement is halted, it appears that this provision has been temporarily suspended.

Cross-border relationships 

Cross border marriage, i.e., matrimony between Nepali son/daughter and India’s son/daughter, is very common in bordering districts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. This is the reason why Nepal's Madheshis treat Indian soil as their relatives’ home, not a foreign land. The halt at the border has severely impacted marriages as well.

Likewise, hundreds of thousands of Nepali students are pursuing higher education in Indian colleges. Every year, a large number of Nepali students move to India to earn a higher degree. Due to unfavourable education scenarios or political instability, Nepali youths prefer to study in Indian varsities. Unfortunately, COVID-19 outbreak has put a stop to that too.  

Interestingly, there are many people in Nepal’s Terai region whose house falls in Nepal’s territory but their portico lies in the territory of India. They are prevented to visit their land for farming or other purposes just because the border has been sealed to stem the transmission of COVID-19.

Its high time to devise a robust mechanism for ensuring the rights and concerns of the people across the Indo-Nepal border in every given situation, for the democracies deserve to maximize the people-to-people exchanges and minimize every action that tends to pose a threat to everlasting bread-and-bride relations.

(The writer, a former law lecturer at Kathmandu University School of Law, is a Judicial Officer, Birgunj High Court, Nepal.  He can be contacted at jhajivesh@gmail.com. Roshan Kumar Jha is a Judicial Officer with Nepal’s Parsa District Court. The views expressed are personal)