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Army Chief ’s upcoming visit to Kathmandu is sign of thaw in India, Nepal relations

The planned visit of the Indian army chief to Nepal in early November will hopefully lift the icy chill that had descended on India-Nepal relations following the publication of a new map by Nepal in May — it had included the Indian territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpyadhura in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, a sensitive region bordering Tibet and Nepal.

The visit is a welcome development. Prime Minister Oli of Nepal has also recently reshuffled his cabinet and divested Ishwar Pokharel of the defence portfolio. Pokharel was very critical of a statement by our army chief at a webinar in May, suggesting that Nepal had raised the boundary issue with India at the behest of someone else, hinting at China.

The Nepalese army chief had wisely refrained from commenting on the issue. The visit provides an important opportunity to strengthen army-to-army relations, a key pillar of the overall India-Nepal relationship.

General MM Naravane’s visit also holds symbolic significance. In keeping with the tradition of bestowing the rank of honorary general to each other’s army chiefs, the President of Nepal will host a special investiture ceremony to honour Naravane.

Equally significant, this will be the first high-level visit between the two countries this year. Some initial and preliminary steps to improve the atmosphere surrounding the relationship included a telephone conversation between the two Prime Ministers on Independence Day and the convening of the Project Review Meeting to ensure that ongoing developmental cooperation is not adversely affected.

The Nepalese are keen to convene a meeting of the foreign secretaries to begin the dialogue process on the boundary issue. They would also like the report of an Eminent Persons Group, established in 2016 to provide a road map for the relationship in the future, to be accepted by the two sides.

Though the contents of the report have not been made public, Nepal attaches importance to the fact that it addresses the question of the revision of the 1950 Treaty on Peace and Friendship. From India’s perspective, the fact that we have so far not accepted the report, even two years after the group has completed its work, suggests that we are unhappy with, or at the very least indifferent to, its content.

In the past, Nepal had presumed that since the members of the group had been identified by the two governments – it was headed by Bhagat Singh Koshyari, who is now the governor of Maharashtra, and former foreign minister of Nepal Bhekh Bahadur Thapa — its recommendations would be binding. This is contrary to our understanding. The time has now come to convey clearly to the Nepalese side our view on the report so that it does not become one more irritant in the bilateral relationship.

India’s stated position on the 1950 treaty, reiterated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to Nepal in 2014, is that India is prepared to consider Nepal’s proposals. We have already successfully revised the 1949 Peace and Friendship Treaty with Bhutan; clearly, we should be able to work out a mutually acceptable revision of the treaty with Nepal.

The boundary issue is more complex because Nepal has precipitated matters; India cannot be seen to be giving in to threats and unfounded claims. We have a watertight case on the boundary, which will be discussed with Nepal in due course. Meanwhile, the negative feelings being generated at the people-to-people level on the two sides of the boundary River Mahakali, by false and motivated Nepalese propaganda, should stop.

At the same time, we should resolve the outstanding problems with regard to the Pancheshwar Multipurpose Hydropower project on that river. The project has the full commitment of the leadership in the two countries — PM Oli was instrumental in getting the Mahakali treaty approved by the Nepalese Parliament and PM Modi revived this project during his visit to Nepal in 2014.

The critical difference relates to the definition of existing consumptive usage of water, and this should be resolved at a political level looking to the strategic aspects of the project; it will not only transform the less-developed region of Far Western Nepal but also Kumaon and Uttarakhand, and further cement the relationship between the two countries in this border region.

These steps would go a long way in breaking the ice and preparing the ground for a full-fledged resumption of ties, including a discussion on the boundary.

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