The 1949 friendship treaty between India and Bhutan is slated for an update when Bhutan’s future king Jigme Khesar Namgyal Wangchuk visits New Delhi this month. A report quoting Bhutanese ambassador to New Delhi Dago Tshering says that the update will reflect the spirit of the 21st century rather than the colonial mindset of the 1940s and 1950s. By allowing Bhutan a greater freedom in the conduct of its foreign policy “as long as it does not clash with Indian strategic interests”, India may be seeking to send a message about its intention to modernise relations with its smaller neighbours. Under the original treaty, the Dragon Kingdom’s foreign policy is “guided by the advice of Government of India in regard to its external relations”. A similar relaxation is to be seen in the treaty’s provision that requires Bhutan to seek Indian approval before it purchases even non-lethal military stores and equipment. This event will mark a definite improvement.

Though Nepal is free of such treaty-led limitations on foreign policy, the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Nepal and India reflects, in its own way, the mindset of the then leaders of India, which had just gained its own independence from Britain. But, though the treaty had been signed by Mohan Shumsher, the last prime minister of a crumbling Rana regime, all the provisions of the treaty cannot be lumped together as being totally unfair to Nepal. Now, at a time when India is undergoing a welcome change of perception vis-a-vis its small neighbours, as reflected in the update with Bhutan, a long overdue revision of the 1950 Nepal-India treaty needs to be undertaken to mutual benefit. This treaty has been a source of much irritation on both sides of the fence but neither government has been able take a decisive step in updating or scrapping the treaty altogether despite the fact that high level discussions have been underway in this regard for the last two years or so.

What can never be ignored about Nepal-India ties, however, is that it is much more than formal state-to-state relations. Apart from being next-door neighbours, Nepal and India have their ties nurtured at various levels through thousands of years of intercourse evolving common bonds. Undoubtedly, politics and business tend to follow pragmatism and self-interest, but the other profound realities are not without their considerable impact on shaping overall bilateral ties. That is why it will be unwise for either Nepal or India to scrap the treaty by giving one year’s notice, as stipulated in the treaty. Revision is what is required by bringing the treaty in tune with the times, reflecting the new priorities, new perceptions, and other new factors. Based on mutual consultation and benefit, any revision should avoid giving the impression, however erroneous, that the smaller neighbour has received a raw deal. The need for both to seriously think about revision is stressed by the fact that it has been hanging fire for the past decade — since the mid-1990s when the issue was officially taken up by the then CPN-UML government.