India-Nepal Relation Could Finally Be Moving Towards a Thaw

RAW chief Goel's visit to the Himalayan country and a scheduled visit of Army Chief Naravane next month show that both nations are eager to resolve outstanding issues between them.

At a time when two countries were engaged in backdoor channels to mend strained ties, Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli on Wednesday met India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Samant Kumar Goel.

According to Prime Minister Oli’s press advisor Surya Thapa, Goel expressed his views regarding “not allowing interruption in friendly relations between Nepal and India, resolving all the outstanding issues through dialogue and continuing mutual cooperation.” Thapa, however, did not say anything on what the prime minister told Goel in a more than two-hour-long meeting on Wednesday evening at the prime minister’s official residence.

According to sources, Goel came to Kathmandu to lay the foundation for the high-level engagement between the two countries to improve bilateral ties which have reached the lowest ebb after the border dispute erupted in November last year. After several rounds of informal talks between the two countries, the two sides were ready to meet physically on how to break the ice in bilateral relations.

Over the past year, there have not been any talks between the two countries except some bureaucratic meetings between representatives of Nepal’s foreign ministry and Indian Embassy, Kathmandu. Additionally, Oli dialed Prime Minister Narendra Modi to greet him on Independence Day but bilateral issues were not discussed.

Goel’s visit, however, has faced criticisms from ruling and opposition party leaders on the ground that it is improper to entertain the intelligence chief at a time when New Delhi is avoiding talks with Kathmandu at the political and bureaucratic levels.

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Army diplomacy a tool to improve bilateral ties

Despite the criticisms of Goel’s Nepal visit, the gesture shows that the Nepal-India relation is heading towards a thaw. For the first time after the border dispute, this is the first high-level face-to-face meeting between the two countries focusing on bilateral issues. It’s an opportunity for both countries to present their respective position and know each other well.

Goel’s visit will be followed by Army Chief M.M. Naravane who is expected to arrive in Kathmandu in the first week of November. As part of a routine affair to strengthen relations, army chiefs of Nepal and India, after taking the charge, visit each other’s country to receive the rank of honorary general.

However, some visits carry a more symbolic meaning due to the timing of visits and circumstances. The upcoming visit of Army Chief  Naravane to Nepal has a symbolic meaning from the regular visits. This will be an opportunity for Nepal to know of first-hand information on India’s position on border disputes and convey Nepal’s position to the Indian leadership.

This exchange of information and views is expected to create an atmosphere for a dialogue between the two countries. So, both sides should not take this visit just as a routine affair, and the Indian Army Chief’s meeting with the Nepali leadership should not be just a courtesy call.

When it comes to resolving border disputes between two countries, an understanding between the armies is vital. Some instances in the past show how armies of both India and Nepal played a constructive role to improve bilateral relations. In 2015, when there was an economic blockade by India and the political leadership of both countries were at loggerheads, the leadership of both armies played a vital role to lift the blockade and resumption of talks, say analysts. So, robust army diplomacy between two countries can substantially contribute to improving bilateral ties.

The visit of Goel and scheduled visit of the Indian army chief clearly show that both countries are eager to engage at the top political and diplomatic level to resolve outstanding issues between them. Already, both nations are in constant talks through various channels. Of late,  Indian ambassador to Kathmandu Vinay Mohan Kwatra has expedited the meetings with politicians in Kathmandu on how to move ahead. As Prime Minister Oli realised that the relationship with India needs to be improved, he is now keen to mend ties with its neighbour to secure his own political position.

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Some pending key issues 

There are a lot of issues between the two countries which need to be addressed urgently. And for that to happen, there is a need to build an environment of trust between the political leadership of the two countries. The first and foremost is the border dispute issue. Though the chances of resolving border disputes in the immediate future appear slim, both countries can at least begin the talks focusing on border disputes.

Nepal had formed a technical committee to analyse the already available proofs and collect more evidence to prove that Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura belongs to Nepal. The committee has claimed that it has come with sufficient evidence to prove that these territories belong to Nepal.

Another pending issue is the report of the Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) report. The expert panel started its work in 2016 and completed the task in 2018 but both countries are yet to receive the report. The panel had planned to submit the report first to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

However, India is allegedly refusing to accept the report which has become an irritant in bilateral relations. The core of the EPG report is the amendment of the 1950 Treaty, which Nepal is consistently pushing for the last two decades. India has not responded to the report positively and is reportedly unhappy with some of the provisions of the EPG report. However, in the past Indian political leadership has pledged with Nepali politicians that they are ready to consider any proposal on the amendment of the treaty.

The 1950 treaty has several provisions such as Article 2 which states that the two governments have an obligation to “inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighbouring State likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two Governments.”

Along with this, there are some big development projects such as Pancheshwar multipurpose project which are awaiting approval as bureaucrats have failed to resolve the outstanding issues such as funding modality and others. There could be a breakthrough between the two countries if they agree on some big projects like Pancheshwar or initiate new projects.

The visit of the Indian army chief is also expected to open avenues for organising the meeting of the Nepal-India joint commission which is co-chaired by foreign ministers of the two countries.

A year after both countries were locked in border dispute and blame-game, both sides have realised that they need to seriously work to mend the strained ties. The visit of India’s external intelligence chief, the upcoming visit of the Indian army chief, and the Indian ambassador’s increased engagement in Kathmandu – all of it clearly demonstrates a thaw in bilateral relations. It is also expected that there will be some high-level visits from Nepal to India very soon.

Kamal Dev Bhattarai is a Kathmandu-based journalist.