Centre for Social Inclusion and Federalism (CESIF), Nepal organized a webinar on Nepal-India Border Relations on 26th November, 2021. Discussants included: Ajaya Bhadra Khanal, Research Director at CESIF Nepal. Summera Shrestha, Executive Director for Women for Human Rights. Senior Journalist and Analyst, Chandrakishore and Hon’ble Malamati Rana, Member of the Parliament of the Sudhurpaschim Provincial Parliament. The discussion was moderated by Lumana Upreti, Research Fellow at CESIF Nepal.
To watch the full video, click on the link here.
The webinar mainly focused on the issue of Nepal-India Cross Border Relations and challenges that exist in the smooth functioning of border relations and regional connectivity. The webinar also highlighted the economic and social hardship faced by the border inhabitants due to the political differences between two countries and lack of border policies and regulations to regulate the movement of people. There exists a policy vacuum which gives arbitrary power to the police officials stationed at the border to mistreat the border inhabitants. The speakers emphasized the need for politics of trust, understanding and dialogue between both the nations to move forward. In addition to that, the speakers maintained that economic development is a long term solution to reduce migration and vulnerabilities.
Ajaya Bhadra Khanal
The first speaker Ajay Bhadra Khanal provided brief analysis findings of the Nepal- India Cross Border Relation research, conducted by CESIF. He began by providing a brief disclosure on the findings of the research. The research revealed two important findings. First, Anti-Indian nationalism is prevalent in Nepal. Consequently, India is seen as a threat to Nepali nationalism. Second, despite these sentiments, millions of Nepali youth migrate to India for job opportunities and to sustain their livelihood. Till this date, millions of Nepali people’s livelihood, social security and kinship relationship is interlinked with India. There appears a contradiction: the struggle between sustaining a livelihood and the sentiments of anti-India nationalisms. The speaker argues that addressing these two issues together is very important at this juncture to improve Nepal-India border relations and regional connectivity. Nevertheless, down the road is not so easy as there exists multiple challenges.
The speaker then addressed the challenges. First challenge is the issue of National security. Cross border migration is characterized as dangerous mobility by Nepal’s top level decision makers. Bureaucrats and policy makers see migration through an open border as a serious threat to National Security-infringing the sovereignty and territorial integrity. Secondly, political relations between both the countries have time and again affected the status of border and border related conflicts. For an instant- blockades. Nepal’s transit points with India have been closed three times since 1969. The blockade of 2015, ultimately changed the political dynamic between Nepal and India, thereby causing rift to their relationship. The third challenge is the territorial dispute between India and Nepal related to Kalapani, Susta, Lal Bakaiya. In addition to that, the dispute regarding inundation and compensation exist amongst the local inhabitants. Similarly, disputes regarding the cross-boundary occupation and settlement especially on no-one man’s land is very prevalent and is a matter of serious concern.
When speaking about the people experience living in this area and their challenges; majority of the people reported issues like inundation; water use/irrigation; encroachment and and/or land use for agriculture, grazing, construction; COVID-19 related disputes and differences; implicit bias and racial discrimination; and conflictual relationship between security personnel and citizens. It has been revealed that disputes and conflicts arise especially during the rainy season, when Indians restrict them to make embankments, due to the fear of flooding. The conflict escalates to an extent that people fear crossing the border to the Indian side.
It has been discovered that, in response to the security threat, people have different perceptions about border security. Some reported issues with smuggling, trafficking in person and drugs. While an equally significant number of people cited, inability to cross the border was their paramount challenge. Other challenges were illicit border crossing by the criminals or by the third nationals, customs evasion, robbery, and smuggling of small arms, illegal trading and encroachment. When speaking about people’s experience related to Border Relation; people stated that they had a very good relationship with and across the border. About 96% of the people both male and female, stated that they crossed the border multiple times a week or month to purchase supplies, visit relatives, for business or for work. But the border closure during COVID-19 generated new types of challenges and hardship on the marginalised communities and the migrant population. It was revealed that, aside from the strong economic ties, the border inhabitants share 74% of social ties (marriage relationship or parents-children relationship) with the Indian counterpart. This social ties is not just limited to the residents of Terai region but is equally prevalent amongst Khas, Arya and Padhis. The speaker argues that the quality of inter-state relationship has a direct impact on cross border relationships, including kinship relations, behaviour of government agencies, migration and marriage trends. Past events have proved that during conflicts and disputes between the two countries, people generally tend to develop nationalistic feelings. Thus, the issues between two states are likely to hamper the relationship between its citizens including cross-border marriage and migration.
Top level bureaucrats perceive the Nepal-India border as being “asymmetric”. According to them, the openness of the border is largely controlled by India which is a threat to Nepal’s independence and sovereignty. This understanding has shaped Nepal’s border management and immigration policies. Similar attitude is also reflected towards the Madeshi people by the federal government. Federal government often overlooks the problems of border areas or refuses to listen to the voices of people living near the border while formulating border policies. The speaker states that, current approach and attitude towards the border is affecting the poor and the marginalized the most. On the other hand, Nepali citizens residing in the border region have willingly accepted that they want to be self-reliant and are tired of excessive reliance on India. However, Nepal’s negative approach towards the border and lack of aid has compelled the border inhabitants to rely on the other side as they have no choice.
The speaker then explained the concept of “re-bordering” and the strategies adopted for managing the open border by Nepal and India. He states that the concern for border security from both the countries have resulted in the process of “re-bordering”. The process is marked by increased budgets for law enforcement, new legislations against dangerous mobilities, deployment of cutting-edge technology, visa controls, and increased role of the military. The government of Nepal is beginning to reorganize border management through a single framework or, alternatively, a joint-mechanism—to emphasize the role of people living near the border and coordinate across three-levels of government. The speaker maintains that the current mechanisms in practice involve checking IDs, conducting foot patrols, introducing technologies, BoPs, health desks. It has been observed that these mechanisms are no longer seen as being adequate. On the other hand, India has adopted three strategies namely- working through bilateral mechanisms, enhancing security and developing infrastructure along the border and engaging in security cooperation with Nepal.
Finally, the speaker concluded the webinar by providing recommendations and viable solutions to move forward. He stressed that the government must focus on border management, livelihoods and security and political goodwill to move forward. According to him, border management and security can be improved through increased coordination and the use of infrastructure and technology. In addition to this, he stressed on empowering bilateral joint mechanisms and political leadership. He argued that 70% of issues can be solved through bilateral joint mechanisms. He further stated that, government must prioritize the concerns of marginal groups and take their voice into account while forming policies. The government must focus on strengthening gender-friendly provision and policies. The speaker view’s economic development as a long term solution to reduce migration and vulnerabilities. He insisted that border policies must address the potential vulnerabilities marginalized and vulnerable groups may have to face. He also emphasized on the role of province government and local government to improve the present situation. According to the speaker, many issues in the past have lingered because of the unwillingness of the political leadership to address them. Thus, politics, trust, understanding and dialogue is essential at this juncture rather than politics of identity and anti-nationalism.
The second speaker Sumeera Shrestha added her perspective on gender and social inclusion and linked it with the issue border and border dispute. She emphasized the need to monitor and focus on the matter of gender relations border policies, gender based division of labour and gender discrimination, disability, caste and religion-based discrimination, marriage and kinship, violence and in equality. She states that, women and men of various groups and ages have been denied their human rights due to discrimination, exclusion, or limitation based on gender norms, roles, and relationships. She argues that unequal power relations creates hierarchies between men and women, causing disadvantages to one group over another and is main cause of discriminating. In addition cast system and economic disparity, has limited the participation and the engagement of people from marginalized communities, which is a form of discrimination. According to the speaker, it is very much important to focus on intersectionality as it identifies multiple factors of advantage and disadvantage of border inhabitant. The speaker then highlights the plight of daily wage workers including single women whose livelihood and health care is depended on the other side of border. She stresses that border policies must, therefore, take into account the people’s need to cross the border (i.e., for employment and supply of low-priced goods) and make the process smoother. When talking about of the labour mobility, the speaker highlighted the cases of molestation and harassment faced by women during the body inspection in the border post. The speaker insisted on bringing such issues to light and coming up-with a solution to prevent such gender based violence. The speaker also spoke about the discriminatory citizenship provision against women married to Nepali men living along the border and the social and economic hardship that comes with it. From a lack of access to government services to difficulties in obtaining their birth certificates of their offspring, that deprives them of their right to nationality.
The speaker emphasized on having a gender friendly policies which not only addresses but recognizes the needs of the people living close to the border. Further, she stressed on local public participants and public discussion on issues that involve prioritizing and balancing multiple policy interests linked to the border. She argues that, there is a need to study discriminatory impacts of policies like citizenship, provision of government services, and border policies on cross-border relations, especially of the Madhesis, disadvantaged groups, and minority groups.
The third speaker Chandrakishore stated that border relations is actually the relations between two centers; i.e. Kathmandu and Delhi in case of Nepal and India. It is the two centers that decide the fate of the borders and the people living there. Unfortunately, the centers often ignore the voices and concerns of the people living in Simanchal,i.e. the areas surrounding the borders, where the citizens from one border have their day-to-day affairs connected with the citizens across. In the case of Nepal, Kathmandu has lagged behind in prioritizing the social, human and citizenship rights of the citizens living in the borders or Simanchal. Comparatively, India has made notable efforts at improving human development and connectivity in the areas near its borders. It is important to note that the people in Simanchal have more to lose with border disputes/issues compared to the people living in the center. For example, if Nepali border is to be encroached, citizens of Kathmandu will view that as an attack on Nepal’s sovereignty. However for people living in the bordering area, border encroachment will impact their land and livelihood. Thus it becomes increasingly important to protect and prioritize the ones who live in the Simanchal.
A bitter picture of ignorance was seen during the Corona Crisis, when Kathmandu sealed the border. There are thousands of Nepalis living in India as laborers, and since they could not come right in, they had to jump in the Mahakali River to reach their homes. Later, as they were required to stay quarantined in India before coming home, it got expensive for them and added to the hassles. During these injustices even civil societies were found to be quiet.
Hon’ble. Malamati Rana
The fourth speaker, Hon’ble Malamati Rana shared her experience and the difficulty faced by the members of her communities every now and then merely because of the fact that they are people residing in the bordering region. She emphasized on the dire need and the role of the Nepali government to improve the employment and livelihood opportunities of the people living in the border. She talked about a progressive way to move ahead with the Roti-Beti relations between Nepal and India. She stated that the concept of Roti-Beti social ties is not just limited to the residents of Terai region but is equally prevalent amongst Khas, Arya and Pahadis. However, it is just the border inhabitants who face the discriminatory consequences of inter-border marriage.
She quoted instances where the Nepali citizens living in India for generations have acquired Aadhar card and land, while Kathmandu still hesitates to issue citizenship to border inhabitants accusing them of being Indian who may threaten national security. She questions, if India can give Aadhar card to the Nepali citizens, then why can’t Nepal give citizenship to their people who have been staying here for generations?
The speaker also addressed the harassment faced especially by vulnerable farmers in the bordering areas. “We must acknowledge that Nepal is a country with very little industries: we do not even produce a needle. Thus, our livelihood is highly dependent on the open border with India.” The tension in the border affects the poor farmers the most, who do not have the means to fight for themselves. There are frequent incidents of farmers being bullied by police from both India and Nepal. While crossing the border to acquire seeds, fertilizers and soils, they are asked to produce Citizenship, Covid-19 vaccine certificates and other documents that poor farmers do not often possess. She argues, while we face such problems despite an open border, imagine the hassles transpired by a closed border? If Nepal had industry and production, it would truly be independent, and the farmers would not have to be bullied in any way. However, since we live in a nation that has to depend so much on India for even the most basic needs, it becomes increasingly important to maintain a regulated and cordial relations at the border.