India-Nepal ties hit another flashpoint on Sunday after 13 personnel of the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB) were detained by the Nepal Armed Police Force (APF) in Jhapa (Nepal).
They were released after several hours in custody.
While India contended that only two of the personnel, who were unarmed, had inadvertently crossed the border while chasing ‘smugglers’, and 11 had followed to negotiate their release, Nepali officials accused them of carrying weapons without permission into civilian areas.
“The police did not arrest them first. They were captured and disarmed by the locals themselves who then called us to come and arrest the Indian SSB guards,” Thakur Gyawali, Superintendent of Police of Jhapa, told The Hindu .
Admitting that the SSB personnel were in the wrong for entering Nepali territory without permission, DG SSB B.D. Sharma said the situation was resolved after he and chief of the APF Kesh Raj Onta spoke to each other.
Sources said the government would not react officially, so as not to further harm bilateral relations that have deteriorated since Nepal promulgated a Constitution that India has objected to. However, the government of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli has consistently accused India of fuelling Madhesi protests against the Constitution, a charge India denies.
The competing narratives have led to an all-out propaganda war between New Delhi and Kathmandu this week, with the Ministry of External Affairs flying in the first of two delegations of journalists to Birgunj and Kathmandu. An official said the visits were part of a “media outreach.” In response, the Nepali embassy has decided to organise visits by Indian journalists to Nepal to “show the impact” of the blockade on citizens.
Meanwhile on Sunday, Nepali Cable TV operators announced a ban on broadcasting all Indian channels “indefinitely” in protest against an unofficial “blockade of goods” into the country, ANI reported.
Sunday’s incident with SSB personnel has added to tensions between the two countries that have an open border between them, and comes four days after SSB personnel opened fire in no-man’s land in Bhantabari, Sunsari district, injuring four Nepali citizens.
The incidents are seen as a consequence of the two-month pile-up of trucks carrying goods into Nepal, that have been stuck at the border due to protests by Madhesi groups. The Nepal government has accused India of enforcing a ‘blockade’ there, starving Nepalis of essential fuel and food supplies, a charge India denies.
Worried about the continuing repercussions of food and fuel shortages, especially ahead of the winter months, PM Oli has decided to push for an end to the protests, calling a ‘tripartite’ meeting of the ruling coalition, opposition parties, and the main group of protesters of the United Democratic Madhesi Front. According to Arun Chowdhury, former DG SSB, this kind of detention was unprecedented.
(Additional reporting by Kallol Bhattacherjee & Vijaita Singh)