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Friday, July 14, 2000

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Towards a passport regime

ONE OF THE positive effects of the hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight from Nepal last year has been a comprehensive review of the security at the Kathmandu airport and a detailed discussion on bilateral security cooperation. Last week's visit by the Union Home Secretary, Mr. Kamal Pande, and the agreements with his Nepalese counterpart, mark another milestone in bilateral relations. Instead of taking things for granted, or blaming each other after an unforeseen incident like the hijack takes place, it is much better to agree on a framework of security guidelines that can prevent its occurrence. Viewed from that perspective, the agreement to curb terrorism, and the other to evolve a set of travel documents for visitors, should make it easier for the enforcement agencies on both sides. Without making it cumbersome by insisting on visas before the travel, the two Home Secretaries have suggested various personal documents for immediate identification of the passengers. These include the passport or an identity card. In all probability, India and Nepal may move towards a passport regime, without the visa formalities. After the hijack of IC 814, that seems to be the best solution.

Considering the nature and extent of travel by both Indian and Nepalese citizens across the more than 1000-km border, it will be a damper to introduce too many formalities. Air is not the only means of travel between the two countries. There are more land crossings and so much of border trade takes place between the neighbours - unfortunately, most of it seems to be clandestine. To enhance security and come down on illegal trade, it is essential to start insisting on some form of identification. When non-Nepalese, especially militants, start misusing the porous border, it creates more problems for India. That is why New Delhi has been asking for travel documents or personal identification. Ultimately, it would be useful to move on to what are called `restricted passports' that can be used only between two neighbouring countries. No visa formalities are called for, but travellers must carry this passport for easy identification. If computerised, the authorities can blacklist any individual or known criminals, offenders and militants. Issuing a passport means a cost, but that becomes inevitable in the present security environment in South Asia. No country wants to take chances, that too along a land border.

The agreement to strengthen cooperation in fighting terrorism needs to be taken seriously by both sides. The National Security Adviser, Mr. Brajesh Mishra, recently visited Nepal to impress on the Government the need to tackle the terrorist menace in the region. Even if Kathmandu does not want to let its territory be used for anti-India activities, it could not prevent a large mass of organised agents from setting up a base there. Thanks to the aircraft hijack, the two sides have been able to comprehend the extent of the problem and take urgent steps to deal with it. Apart from enhancing exchange of information on known offenders or militants, the two Home Secretaries have agreed to further institutionalise cooperation on this front. The border district authorities on both sides will now be involved in a regular exchange of information and the Governments will speed up any further assistance that may be sought. Since speed has to be the essence of any fight against terrorism, India and Nepal must work out an arrangement to swoop down on dreaded terrorists, when they have information of their presence in Nepal. Given the nature of crimes in Nepal, the Indian authorities must also extend all possible cooperation in nabbing such elements operating in India. In all these operations, the issue of corruption at the field level must be addressed.

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