Long read | Nepal-India EPG dilemma: To receive or not to receive the report

What if the Indian government continues to refuse to receive the EPG report? Can the Nepali side make it public unilaterally?

The fifth meeting of the Nepal-India Eminent Persons Group (EPG) held in Kathmandu in 2017. Photo: RSS

Mahabir Paudyal

  • Read Time 12 min.

On May 23, Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa, the coordinator of the former Eminent Persons’ Group Nepal, announced that he will make the EPG report public if the governments of India and Nepal do not receive it soon.  The EPG was a joint Nepal-India mechanism of experts formed with the consensus between the governments of Nepal and India. The EPG members worked for two years and finalized the report which, it is believed, contains recommendations for both India and Nepal to sort out nearly all the outstanding issues between the two countries.

What the statement says

“It is known to all that the report finalized in July 2018 following a comprehensive study by the EPG formed by the governments of the two countries to study Nepal-India relations has not yet been submitted to both governments.

In the last meeting of the EPG, it was agreed to submit the report first to the Indian Prime Minister and then to the Nepali Prime Minister. It is, however, known to all that the Indian side has not been able to secure an appointment with the Indian PM as per the agreement of the last meeting and it has not been submitted. Thus the report remains under the possession of EPG coordinators.

The media has reported that recently a top-level Indian official said in a press briefing that the EPG report was prepared by independent groups of both countries and therefore he had no knowledge about it. The statement by such a personality in a highly responsible position in the Indian government about the report prepared by the EPG formed by both the governments has made the fate of the EPG report uncertain.

In the context of indifference shown by the Indian side about receiving the report, the silence seen in both the governments of Nepal and India, and in view of the comment made by the Indian official, it looks challenging to formally hand over the report to both the governments. It is unfortunate that the report prepared after a long and comprehensive study and diligence by the expert groups of the two countries with the aim of enhancing mutual benefit to a higher level is yet to come to the public. It would be inappropriate to keep the report under the possession of only coordinators for an uncertain period. Thus based on the informal understanding among the EPG Nepal members, we are preparing to make the utmost efforts to hand over the report to the PMs of both the countries soonest possible and, if that becomes impossible, make it public.”

Call from Nepal

This is not the first time the EPG Nepal coordinator has expressed his frustration over the reluctance from the Indian side to receive the report. 

Dr Bhekh Bahadur Thapa. (Photo: NL Today)

Talking to Nepal Live Today in January 2022, he expressed his unhappiness that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has shown no interest to accept the EPG report. “How can they ignore the report which was born out of the commitment from none other than the Prime Minister of India? The sea change in the attitude toward the EPG from the Indian side is astonishing,” said Thapa. He argued that the EPG has recommendations to resolve long-standing issues between Nepal and India. “Until the matters raised in the EPG report are addressed, the kind of bitterness that sometimes emerges in relations between India and Nepal will continue to surface,” he warned.

The EPG members from the Nepal side are one voice about the EPG report.

Nilambar Acharya, who served as Nepali ambassador to India and who was one of the EPG Nepal members, argues that the report should be received by the Indian government. “The EPG report must be accepted by India.  The world has changed. India has changed and Nepal has changed. We must rise above the mindset of colonial times,” Acharya told Nepal Live Today in April this year. According to him, the Indian officials never rejected Nepal’s request to accept the report but did not accept it either. “They never said they would not accept the report. But in reality, they would not accept it,” he said.

“The EPG report is a consensus document with signatures from EPG representatives from their side as well as ours. The delay and reluctance seen in India to accept the report is baffling,” said Rajan Bhattarai, another EPG Nepal member, who also served as Foreign Affairs Adviser to former prime minister K P Sharma Oli, when Nepal Live Today approached him for comment in November 2021. “In the last meeting of EPG, we decided that we will first submit the report to the Prime Minister of India.  Then all eight of us would come to Kathmandu and submit the report to the Nepal Prime Minister. And then we would make the report public officially with the permission of the two governments,” he said.

That was the understanding, we have been told. 

The EPG report is the property of both the governments of India and Nepal. As such both sides are obliged to own it up and act as per its recommendations.

Dr Thapa’s May 23 statement appears to be directed toward the Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra, who on May 14, had said this to the journalist who asked him about the EPG report during the press meeting: “I think you have obviously read the EPG report, which we have not because EPG is an independent group of experts. And I’m assuming that only they have access to the report, but perhaps some others also have access to that.”

Let’s be fair here. Kwatra had not said that India would not receive the report. “EPG report will be reviewed after it is submitted. And it is yet to be submitted. So I think government will take it into consideration once it is submitted.”

Kwatra made it appear as if no attempts were made by the Indian side to submit the report to the Indian PM. But Nepali side has been advocating for it continuously ever since the report was finalized and the last meeting of the EPG in July 2018.

But here lies a catch. How will the report be submitted when the Indian side is not ready to receive it? And how will it be ‘reviewed’ when it is not received in the first place?

One understands the spirit of Dr Thapa’s statement if one understands this catch.

Context and contestations

The EPG is probably the first of its kind mechanism in Nepal-India relations. It was formed in 2016 but it has a long context of contention between India and Nepal.

Despite being uniquely close to each other on multiple fronts–culture, religion, people-to-people ties, political systems, and economic (inter)dependence among others–admit it or not, Nepal-India relations have not been trouble-free. 

While the Nepali side has complained of India giving needless trouble to Nepal from time to time, the general perception in the political establishment of India is that India has done so much for Nepal in terms of aid and development assistance but Nepal is not being grateful enough. 

Grievances from the Nepali side revolve around non-cooperation by the Indian side in facilitating cross-border trade and flood management. Since Nepal has faced blockade at least three times, Nepal lives with a perpetual worry that India might use that coercive tool if and when it feels dissatisfied or angry with Nepal.

One main complaint by the Nepali side is that India does not wish to treat Nepal as a sovereign equal. The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between India and Nepal, which directs and guides Nepal-India relations, is seen as a document that restricts Nepal’s freedom to conduct state affairs. 

Prime Minister Mohan Shamsher Jang Bahadur Rana and Indian ambassador, Chandeshwar Prasad Narayan Singh signing the treaty, 31 July 1950.

For example, Article 5 of the Treaty states that Nepal can “import, from or through the territory of India, arms, ammunition or warlike material and equipment necessary for the security of Nepal” but the procedure of this has to be “worked out by the two governments acting in consultation.” This can mean Nepal cannot import arms from any other countries except India and if it has to it needs to secure approval from India. Likewise, according to the Treaty, the two governments have to “inform each other of any serious friction or misunderstanding with any neighboring state likely to cause any breach in the friendly relations subsisting between the two governments.” So if Nepal has ‘friction’ with China, it has to inform India about it. If India has ‘friction’ with China and Pakistan, it has to inform Nepal about it.

Nepali political class has always complained that the treaty is unequal and demanded its review based on the new context. There was a time when any Nepali Prime Minister’s visit to India would be judged based on whether he could raise the issue of the 1950 treaty with the government of India.

The 1950 treaty has remained a vexing concern for Nepalis. Besides, there are claims and incidents of encroachment of Nepali land by the Indian side. 

In this context, there could be two ways to deal with these issues. One by not addressing these irritants at all, thereby keeping them alive forever. The second is by agreeing to independently investigate these issues of contention through a mutually agreed mechanism and methods. This is where the idea of EPG came to fit in. 

The EPG vision was born out of the good faith that Nepal-India relations must be made problem-free once and for all. It would not be possible without members—independent experts who think well of both the countries—sitting together to identify the problems and proposing measures acceptable to both sides to solve them.

Political parties of all faiths in Nepal have involved themselves in this process. Baburam Bhattarai, who was the prime minister from the Maoist party at the time, raised this issue with his Indian counterpart, Mana Mohan Singh, in 2011. And they agreed to “form an EPG, with four persons from each side, to look into broader bilateral issues.”

Three years later in July 2014, the Nepal-India Joint Commission Meeting “reiterated the need for reviewing, adjusting and updating the Treaty of Peace and Friendship 1950, reflecting the current realities.” According to The Economic Times, the meeting had also “decided to set up the EPG with four members from each side.”

When the report becomes public the people of Nepal and India will come to know about the real fault lines, the real sources of irritants in Nepal-India relations.

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal in August of that year the EPG vision was given a tangible shape. Modi and his Nepali counterpart Sushil Koirala ‘welcomed the decision to establish an Eminent Persons Group on Nepal-India Relations (EPG-NIR) to look into the totality of Nepal-India relations from independent, non-governmental perspectives and suggest measures to further expand and consolidate the close and multifaceted relations between the two countries.’ They also directed “to expedite the formation of the EPG-NIR as per the agreed terms of reference.”

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Sushil Koirala in Kathmandu in August, 2014. Photo: AP

When in 2016, KP Oli, who was the prime minister then, constituted the EPG Nepal and the Indian side reciprocated, the idea finally translated into action.

Needless to say, then, the EPG report is the property of both the governments of India and Nepal. As such both sides are obliged to own it up and act as per its recommendations.

What’s actually in the report is not yet public knowledge. But based on what the EPG members have said in public, the report apparently contains the recommendations to end all sources of irritants in the relations between Nepal and India. It recognizes that there is a dispute in the Kalapani region–the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. When the Indian side incorporated them into its political map in 2019, it had let the genie out of the bottle.

The EPG report apparently contains recommendations to resolve border issues including that of the Kalapani region. Though much focus is laid on the 1950 treaty and border issues,  it actually covers all facets of Nepal-India relations, according to an EPG Nepal member. “As many dimensions as Nepal-India relations have, the report covers them all,” he said. “It’s a historic document and if the recommendations are implemented it will not only strengthen Nepal-India relations but also establish Nepal and India as sovereign equals.”

Should Nepal make the report public? 

The report could have been submitted to the government heads of Nepal and India in the last four years. There were ample occasions for it. Prime Minister Modi was in Kathmandu in August 2018, a month after the report was finalized.  Then in May 2019, Oli was in New Delhi. 

This would have been the opportune time for submitting the report. Six months later, Nepal-India relations started to suffer over the issue that could potentially have been addressed through the recommendations of the EPG report–India made its map public, and Nepal responded with its own version of the map and a cold war of a kind began to surface

After Sher Bahadur Deuba came to power, there were two high-level visits—Deuba went to India in April and Modi came to Lumbini on May 16–during which the report could have been submitted.

Now, Deuba does not seem to care much about the fate of the  EPG report.  At the parliament meeting on May 28, Deuba tried to pass the buck back to the opposition UML: The EPG report was finalized three years ago, why did the then government not receive it? He asked as Nepali Congress MPs cheered him. Is Deuba implying that since his predecessor did not push the EPG report, neither will he?

The debate on Twitter on May 25 between Rakesh Sood, former Indian ambassador to Nepal, and Kanak Mani Dixit, Nepali intellectual, writer and activist, was telling. Commenting on the report that EPG Nepal will make the EPG report public if the two governments don’t receive it, Sood wrote:  “The report is not someone’s private property and lies with the two govts. If you want to add another perennial irritant (as Oli has done) then, by all means, let an individual member make it public.” Dixit countered him: “It does not become the ‘property’ of the two governments until they receive it. If they were appointed as ’eminent persons’ of Nepal and India then at least regard their eminence and receive their considered opinion contained in the report. Who is afraid of what?”

Sood’s suggestion was clear: Making the report public by the Nepali side will add a fresh irritant to Nepal-India relations.

Dixit is no less clear. “Both governments agreed to set up the EPG and appoint members to it from the two sides. So, there should have been no unnecessary controversy about either prime minister receiving the report,” he said. Though theoretically, the report does not bind the two governments, he explained, “there would be some moral responsibility because it was your chosen members who wrote the report. There is the responsibility of the two governments to receive it. How can you set up a committee of individuals you consider eminent persons and then not ask for a handover?”

He does not agree with the accusation that the Nepali side leaked the report. “I have checked with various members and my belief is that members of the Indian foreign ministry bureaucracy found out what was in the report and did not like what they saw and recommended that PM Modi not receive the report.”

According to him, the EPG members had agreed that the report would first be received by the Indian PM in New Delhi, and then by the Nepali PM in Kathmandu. “It was according to this agreed protocol that the EPG as a whole was waiting for the signal from India’s PMO, but it never came. Nepal’s prime minister could still say that he will receive it, but there is no intention here to dare his Indian counterpart in that way.”

Commenting on the remarks by Indian Foreign Secretary Vinay Mohan Kwatra who said EPG is an independent group of experts, Dixit said, if that were so, all the more reason for there to be no problem making the EPG report public. “At the same time, a former Indian ambassador to Nepal says the report is the property of two governments and that the Nepali members cannot take a unilateral decision to make it public. So there is a contradiction between retired and serving members of the Indian foreign service, but interestingly neither wants the report out,” he said.

In his view, there has to be some clarity “perhaps a white paper from the Indian side as to how they regard the Eminent Persons’ Group.” The eminent persons for him are “indeed eminent citizens of India and Nepal, selected for their sagacity and experience.” 

He further argues that the report should be out. “It is best for the sake of transparency that the report be made public.”

The EPG vision was born out of good faith that Nepal-India relations must be made problem-free once and for all. 

Purna Silwal, Major General (Retd) of Nepal Army who is also the author of Nepal’s Instability Conundrum: Navigating Political, Military, Economic and Diplomatic Landscape, says first the efforts must be made to submit the report to both the governments. “The best way forward is when the governments of India and Nepal receive the report. If the government of India is really reluctant to receive it, then the Nepal government should communicate with India that EPG Nepal is running out of patience and this bilateral document must be accepted before EPG Nepal makes it public,” Silwal told me. “PM Deuba should tell PM Modi how important receiving the report is for the better health of bilateral relations of the two countries.” 

But what if the Indian government still refuses to receive the report? Can the Nepali side make it public unilaterally?

“In that case, people will come to know what is there in the report. But the Indian side might make an issue out of it and say since Nepal made it public unilaterally, India is no more obligated to receive it,” Silwal said.  “In that case, there is a real risk of this vital document prepared by the dedicated efforts of the joint mechanism of India and Nepal ending up as a mere reference material for researchers.”

It has been two weeks since Dr Thapa sent a reminder to Nepal and India with a sense of urgency. Even if the Indian government, for that matter the Nepali government as well, refuses to receive it, or receives it, but does not implement the recommendations, it is not likely to fundamentally alter Nepal-India relations. India-Nepal relations at people’s, cultural and social levels transcend geographical and political boundaries. But irritants will remain and so will the grievances. Nepal will feel hoodwinked. 

But when the report becomes public, someday it will, the people of Nepal and India will come to know about the real fault lines, the real sources of irritants apart from the multiple dimensions of Nepal-India relations that the report apparently covers. The role and efforts made by the members of EPG Nepal and India will be well acknowledged and appreciated.

It is hoped the governments of India and Nepal will not allow this great initiative started with the noble intention of reinvigorating the Nepal-India relations to become a lost cause.