By Pushpita Das:
The recent arrests of two high profile terrorists, Adul Karim Tunda and Mohammed Ahmed Sidibappa alias Yasin Bhatkal have brought the India-Nepal border into sharp focus. Differences of opinion, however, exist as to the exact location from where these two terrorists were arrested. While India maintains that Tunda was arrested at the Banbasa-Mahendernagar border point and Bhatkal in Raxual, some media reports indicate that Tunda was arrested from Kathmandu Airport and Bhatkal was picked up from a hideout in Pokhara during a joint operation with Nepalese law enforcement authorities. Whatever maybe the case, these arrests highlight the fact that terrorist and criminal groups are increasingly using Nepal as a base because the open border with India allows them to enter and exit India with ease.
The seeds for an ‘open’ border between India and Nepal can be found in the Treaty of Peace and Friendship which the two countries signed in 1950. Articles VI and VII of the treaty specify that citizens of both countries have equal rights in matters of residence, acquisition of property, employment and movement in each other’s territory, thus providing for an open border between the two countries. These provisions allowed the citizens of India and Nepal to cross their shared borders without passport and visa restrictions. In fact, the practice of keeping the borders with Nepal open was a British legacy. During the colonial times, the British required Gorkhas for the Indian army and the Nepalese market for their finished goods. These requirements necessitated unrestricted cross-border movement of both goods and people. After independence, India continued with the practice of an open border with Nepal. In addition, the rise of an assertive China and the absence of any physical barrier between India and Nepal compelled India to define the Himalayas lying north of Nepal as its northern barrier with China.
The open border between India and Nepal not only addressed mutual security considerations but also fostered close socio-economic relations between the two countries. The unrestricted flow of people over the years has resulted in the dissemination of ideas, culture, and settlements of people in each other’s territory thereby strengthening the bilateral social and cultural relations. The open border also has a favourable impact on two economies. Nepal is a landlocked country and its closest access to the sea is through India. As a result most of its imports pass through India. Keeping this in consideration, India has granted Nepal 15 transit and 22 trading points along the border. As for India, it is the biggest trading partner of Nepal. An open border has also allowed many Nepalese citizens to find employment in India and Indians to open business ventures in Nepal.
At the same, the open border has been misused by terrorists and criminals. During the eighties and nineties, the Sikh and Kashmiri militants used to infiltrate into India through Nepal as fences were erected along the India-Pakistan border to prevent infiltration. More recently, India has allowed former Kashmiri militants to return to Jammu and Kashmir via Nepal under the surrender and rehabilitation policy because of the difficulties involved in accessing the designated routes along the India-Pakistan border. However, apprehensions have been raised that trained militants might also slip through the border in the guise of surrendered militants. Further, suspected perpetrators of serial bomb blasts in India sneak out of the country through the open border and hide themselves in Nepal. In addition, many hard-core criminals pursued by Indian law enforcement agencies escape into Nepal through the open border, where they set up smuggling gangs and criminal syndicates to smuggle gold, drugs, fake Indian currency notes (FICN), women and children, arms, and explosives. For instance, the Indo-Nepal border has become a major conduit for smuggling FICN. In the last four years, FICN amounting to more than Rs. 8 lakhs was seized along the border. Likewise, human trafficking and smuggling of Ganja from Nepal and pharmaceutical preparations from India is also quite rampant. More recently, the Indo-Nepal border has also become a route for smuggling of gold from Tibet into India.
Numerous madrasas which have proliferated in the Terai region on both sides of the Indo-Nepal border during the past two decades has also become a source of major concern for the Indian security establishment as it is suspected that some of them might be providing shelter to fugitives and becoming a platform for recruiting cadres for terrorist organisations. The problem is further aggravated by intelligence inputs that Pakistani Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) has been using Nepalese territory to carry out anti-India activities since the 1990s. Wikileaks documents have revealed that the ISI has created a number of terrorist fronts in Nepal and has also pushed in men and explosives through the border to carry out terror attacks in India. While the entire border is open for crossing into India, the busy border crossings at Raxual and Sunauli are the preferred routes for smuggling as these places are well connected with good roads. Encroachments in the no-man’s land by removing or damaging border pillars have added another dimension to the problem. Security agencies believe that the buildings which have come up in the no man’s land could be used as a hideout as well as for storing arms and explosives.
The extent of misuse of the open border by terrorists and criminals has led to a clamour in some quarters to rethink the rationale for keeping the border with Nepal open. While it is true that the open border has facilitated terrorist and criminal activities that are adversely impacting national security, it is equally important to recognise that an open border has also helped India and Nepal to develop and deepen socio-cultural and economic relations. Transforming the border from an ‘open border’ to a ‘closed border’ would severely damage these ties with disastrous consequences for the citizens and economies of both countries. It would therefore be prudent to keep the border open but manage it more effectively by strengthening security through effective law enforcement, installing screening and detection devices at the check points, and enhancing intelligence networks.
Policymakers in India have taken note of the deteriorating security situation along the India-Nepal border and have undertaken a number of measures in response. For instance, the presence of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) along the Indo-Nepal border has been further augmented with the construction of five additional Border Out Posts (BOPs). The SSB has been granted the powers to search, arrest and seizure under the Criminal Procedure Code as well as powers to arrest under the Passport Act. In addition, 1,377 km. of strategic roads are also being built along the border to facilitate the easy movement of the border guarding personnel. The SSB is also installing surveillance cameras along the border. For addressing the twin objectives of security and trade facilitation, two integrated check posts with state of the art detection and screening devices as well as support facilities are being constructed at Raxual and Jogbani.
India has also been seeking Nepal’s cooperation in managing the border through several bilateral mechanisms. However, domestic political turmoil, lack of political will and resource crunch have so far prevented Nepal from effectively cooperating with India. This situation, however, appears to be gradually changing now. Following the arrests of the two terrorists, the Nepalese security agencies had conducted a study and identified 18 types of crimes that are widespread along the India-Nepal border including human, arms and drugs trafficking, unauthorised trade, smuggling of counterfeit currency, kidnapping, robbery, and extortion. They have also prepared and enforced a Cross-Border Crime Control Action Plan 2013 to curb trans-border crimes. But more needs to be done. India and Nepal have to collaborate and coordinate their efforts to improve the situation along their border by setting up joint task forces to investigate cross-border crimes, sharing real time intelligence, conducting coordinated or joint patrolling, re-installing missing border pillars and repairing the damaged ones and jointly developing infrastructure along the border.
Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.
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