More than ten years ago, Shiv Shankar Menon, then a foreign secretary designate, was taken aback, when during a visit to Kathmandu, an Indian journalist queried him about incidents of misbehaviour by the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) towards ordinary people, mostly Nepalese. The journalist wanted to know if the Indian government was going to take cognisance of the incident.
Menon, known for his cool temperament, silenced the journalist with a not-so-polite response. “You have made your point, but if you want to make a statement, face the camera and do so,” he said.
Journalists may not have raised the issue with the authorities after that, but allegations of atrocities and misbehaviour by the SSB are routinely narrated by “victims” — ordinary passers-by — from both sides. The issue has figured in meetings of officials from both countries often, but has never been fully addressed. The matter is again being debated after an incident last week in which an ordinary citizen, Govinda Gautam, 32, was allegedly shot and killed by an SSB personnel in Kanchanpur district.
The Indian embassy in Kathmandu initially denied the incident, but retracted its statement after the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, expressed his regret in a telephonic conversation with the Nepali Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal. Conflicts between the Nepali and Indian side over construction activities, and SSB interventions, are reported routinely.
Nepal and India share an open border of around 1,750 km. Demographic similarities, marriages between the people of the two nations and the free movement of persons are, however, not without their problems. According to Nepal’s prominent surveyor, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, border disputes have remained unresolved for decades in at least 71 places, and worn-out border pillars are taking longer than planned to be replaced.
“We have already sorted out the border issues in 98 per cent of the cases. But the problems at two major areas, Susta and Kalapani, remain to be sorted out,” says a senior government official, who added that the Kanchanpur incident should not be linked with the border dispute.
Of course, border dispute between neighbouring countries are not unusual. But both during the Kanchanpur incident and other episodes of border disputes, a large section of the Nepali media and opinion makers seem to suggest that both sides should follow, “what China did in similar circumstances.”
In June 1960, after a Nepali was killed by a Chinese security personnel in Mustang along the border with Tibet, China promptly apologised and also apparently paid compensation to the victim’s family. “We have had border problems with China. But the Chinese Premier Chou En Lai said we must sort out the border issue in our lifetime. We should not let it pass on to the next generation because doing so would create an emotive problem,” recalls former Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista. The problem was sorted in the late 1960s.
Nepal-India relations are passing through a volatile phase that has been compounded with the political chaos in Nepal. The Kanchanpur incident took place at a time when the differences over the contents of the Nepali Constitution are likely to snowball into yet another phase of unrest with the United Democratic Madhesi Front.
This could have grave implications for Nepal’s Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition government as well as the local bodies election scheduled for May 14.
In September 2015, Nepal suffered a nearly five-month-long blockade when India chose to endorse the demands of the Madhesis. This caused enormous hardship and shortages in the country and anti-India sentiments rose to unprecedented levels. The government, led by K. P. Oli, also the chairman of the Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist, identified itself with that sentiment, and drifted
towards China, signing trade, transit and other treaties with long-term implications. The replacement of the Oli government by the Maoist-Nepali Congress coalition may delay the execution of these treaties, but backing out from them looks very unlikely.
China has been making increasing inroads into Nepal and of late, it has emerged as the biggest foreign direct investors in the country. It’s increasing say in Nepal’s politics has come at the cost of the clout India once used to enjoy in Kathmandu. Oli joined the recent chorus over the Kanchanpur incident in criticising India and asking it to tender an apology, like the one tendered by the Chinese premier in 1960. Oli rushed to Kanchanpur and handed over a sum of Rs 5,00,000 to the father of Gautam, who has since been declared a “martyr” by the Nepal government.
Nepal and India relations have been through many ups and downs, but the Kanchanpur incident shows that sentiments and building trust at the border level, and a favourable government machinery are absolutely crucial in establishing and maintaining good relations between the two sides .