The CA’s ‘Committee to Protect and Preserve the National Interest’ 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 the “majority of the Nepali people share this view”.
The demand for passport control on the India border comes from three quarters of the Kathmandu (yes, it is confined to the capital) political spectrum. The first is the nationalists who borrow the Westphalian notion of absolutely sovereign nation states. They argue that one reason the Nepali state has never been totally independent is because it has not controlled the movement of people across its boundaries.
The second is the school of economic protectionists, especially on the left, who believe that Nepal has a ‘semi-colonial’ relationship with India because the open border makes the country a cheap source of labour and raw materials and a recipient of finished goods.
The third includes hill chauvinists who oppose the open border. They see the Madhes movement as solely a result of the open border and India’s covert attempt to destabilise Nepal. Proponents argue that closing the border will defuse the Madhes unrest and solve the most important challenge to the Nepali state.
Sherchan, a pahadi Maoist, represents the synthesis of all these three views. The nationalists forget that an absolutely sovereign state is a myth. There is also an element of hypocrisy 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 about it because they usually fly across to India (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. It helps national 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 prefers an open border and that India takes advantage from it. Even if it benefits a few petty border traders, Nepal and the open border is the least of priorities for big Indian 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 for us Nepalis.
The poorest segments of the population who cross the border to earn their livelihoods will suffer the most. It will deprive the Nepali macroeconomy 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 which 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 1,751km India-Nepal border.
Nepali nationalism is not under threat from open borders. 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.
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.”