Closed minds

The Constituent Assembly’s ‘Committee to protect and preserve National Interests’ has suggested that a passport regime be introduced at the Nepal-India border. Committee Chair Amik Sherchan has said this is necessary to ‘protect waning Nepali nationalism’ and ‘to treat both China and India equally’. Sherchan claimed that ‘majority of the Nepali people share this view’, an assertion hard to believe.

The clamour to end the open border relationship comes from three different quarters of the Kathmandu (and yes this is confined to the capital) political spectrum. The first is the nationalists who borrow the Westphalian notion of absolutely sovereign nation states. In this version, the Nepali state has never been totally independent because it has not controlled the movement of people across its boundaries. The act of walking across unchallenged is seen as an attack on state authority.

Closely intertwined to this is the second school of economic protectionists, especially on the left. They believe that Nepal has a ‘semi-colonial’ relationship with India because the open border makes the country a cheap source of labour and raw material and a recipient of finished goods.

The third school which opposes the open border includes hill chauvinists. They see the Madhes movement as solely a result of the open border and India’s covert activities. Proponents of this view have been arguing that closing the border will defuse the Madhes unrest and solve the most important challenge to the present Nepali state.

Sherchan – a pahadi Maoist leader – represents the synthesis of all these views, flawed as they may be.

The nationalists forget that an absolutely sovereign state is a myth and this is an era of loosening border controls. There is also a strong element of hypocrisy involved because it is the same people who have at different points used the open border against the Nepali state (like the Maoists did) or do not care for they usually fly across to India (as in the case of the capital elite).

The left economists forget that the open border, along with disadvantages, also empowers Nepali labour (by allowing them to move out in search of opportunities when there is little to offer at home) and helps local capital (by giving it an opportunity to piggy-back on India’s market economy).

And those who blame the border for the Madhes mess refuse to look within at the internal discrimination that gave rise to it in the first place.

Kathmandu politicians are also mistaken in thinking that the Indian establishment really wants an open border or India benefits enormously from it. Even if it benefits a few petty border traders, Nepal and the open border is the least of priorities for Indian big business like the Tatas and Ambanis who exercise real influence on policy making. For the Delhi security establishment, the open border is a liability given their concerns about fake currency, narcotics, ISI influence and now the possibility of the Chinese getting right into the Tarai. Unlike what our netas think, they will find a fairly receptive audience to such a proposal in Delhi’s power corridors.

But while regulating the border and improving administration on both sides is necessary, any attempt to introduce passports or close the border will be deeply unfortunate and politically counter-productive.

It will make lives tough for the poorest segments of the population, who cross the border to earn their livelihoods. It will deprive Nepali macro economy of a safety valve and prevent our entrepreneurs from making the best of growing opportunities on the other side.

Most importantly, it will devastate the lives of the economically inter-dependent local borderland population on both sides. It will invite a ferocious Madhesi backlash who will see the move as an attempt to kill off their links with their families on the other side. It may even encourage a stronger secessionist movement.

But most of all, it will not work. If fencing on the Indian-Bangladesh border or millions of troops on the India-Pakistan border cannot prevent mobility, there is no way that the governments can control movement across the fields and rivers on the 1751 km India-Nepal border. As a pioneer of borders studies, Willem Van Schendel puts it, “No matter how clearly borders are drawn on national maps, how many custom officials are appointed, or how many watchtowers are built, people will ignore borders when it suits them.”

Nepali nationalism is not under threat from open borders. If anything, it is under threat because politicians are not getting on with their job of writing a constitution. The same insecure bunch is now coming up with wild schemes to block the natural flow across borders. If they do go ahead, they must be prepared for some nasty consequences.

(First published in Nepali Times.)

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