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Benefitting from borders

November 23, 2012

Nepal and India: People, borders, politics and future

In Nepal, India remains a destination for education, medical treatment, religious rites, tourism and, of course, functions as a punching bag for anything that is not satisfactory within the country. In Nepal, nationalism has for many decades been equated with being “anti-India” and this sentiment is whipped up regularly by all politicians, whether Right Wing or Left, in order to secure maximum electoral weight. However, the same politicians also believe that their longevity – in or out of power – is decided by New Delhi.

In Delhi, Nepal has never been a priority and it remains a subject for retired officials who spend their latter years writing and speaking about it. The same two-dozen people continue to share the perspectives that they have always shared; perhaps since the days they frequented Nepal on assignments. In Nepal, where politicians graduate from being youth leaders only on reaching the age of sixty, these politicians share a long lived, love-hate relationship with their Indian commentators. It is these elderly groups that determine the fate of the relationship between the two countries where 70 percent of the citizens are under 35 years of age. India is yet to see Nepal as anything other than a neighbouring country that can be harbour ISI folks or produce fake currency. Many Indians do not realise that Nepalis play a vital role in the Indian security apparatus, whether in the Indian Army or the private security services.

Nepalis on the other hand, mostly educated in India, view India as a troublemaker and a bully. Agreed, Nepal is geographically small but Nepalis forget that they are the 40th most populated country in the world with a population that is nearly one and a half times that of Australia, and a few millions less than Canada. They continue to think of their country as being at par with Sikkim or Bhutan, which have less than 3 percent of Nepal’s population. Their own belief of being a “small country” complicates their relations with India. Further, the firm belief held by Nepalis – that India wants to meddle in the internal affairs of the country – has not been quelled by India.

Both the countries forget that their relationship is not controlled by their capitals but by perceptions created by realities at the border towns. An example of such a reality would be in Panitanki, a town close to Naxalbari in West Bengal. The latter shares a border with Kakarvitta in Nepal. The Panitanki border has not seen any rebuilding or renovation in the last thirty years. There are dilapidated structures that house the customs buildings and plain clothed security officials continue to harass the people crossing to either side. Officials in Delhi or Kolkata cannot imagine that this could be a part of a country that is touted to be an economic superpower. The shops, the railway crossing and pot-holed roads make a good setting for a period film. Seeing this, how would a Nepali – who has seen his own settlement of a few huts in Kakarvitta swell into a municipality in three decades – believe in the progress of India?

The behavior of the security agencies has not changed, the customs folks still want their palms greased. Since the entire neighbourhood is decrepit, the security and customs officials at the Nepali border often assume that it is the deprived Indians who are crossing the border. Hence they don’t leave any stones unturned to extract their own pound of flesh. This is the reality of the India-Nepal border relationship, across a border that allows, as per treaty, free access to the citizens of both countries. Unless something drastic is done to improve this reality and concentrate on image building, the relationship issue will remain a topic for retirees to write columns on.

The potential of image building and establishing a welcoming environment on both sides is important for economic benefits to both the countries. The tourism departments of Darjeeling or Sikkim can campaign in Eastern Nepal to attract Nepali customers. The Nepali side can lure investors in the cities closer to border towns in order to invest in their country. The idea is to put on economic lenses to view the potential and throw away all the previous perceptions that viewed every citizen crossing into the other country as a smuggler, criminal or potential trouble-maker.

The relationship between the two countries has always been viewed from the perspective of the past. Series of meetings have taken place to talk about the 1950 Treaty, something that was signed six decades ago. That was when India was a poor country that wanted to make a start on its economic trajectory by acting as a donor to Nepal. Nepal was just emerging from the ghettos of isolation to face the world. Things have changed dramatically, and the time is ripe to shape the relationship of these states. How do we want the citizens to interact with one another? How do we rework our economic policies in order to benefit the people on both sides of the border? How can we replace hate and suspicion with a business relationship? The time to start the discussion that will shape the future has come.