Three feet of sovereignty

From Himal Southasian, Volume 21, Number 6 (JUN 2008)

When you pass through the security checks and head over to the apron of Kathmandu’s international airport to board an Indian airline, you are asked to enter a strange contraption. It is a covered platform on wheels, and about three feet above the ground. Here, your bags are checked and you are frisked once more before you are allowed to ascend the stairs.

If you are an inquisitive type, you may have wondered how high the sovereignties of Southasia’s countries extend into the stratosphere. If you take the example of this apparatus at Kathmandu’s airport, the answer seems to be that national jurisdiction extends only up to about three feet. If you are standing, then you are in Nepali territory only till about your mid-thighs – depending on how tall you are, of course. An infant or a child may easily remain wholly within Nepali sovereign space, but an adult wishing to do so will have to lie down. Obviously the average, curious reader will demand an explanation about all this ridiculousness. The story begins with the 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines IC 814 Kathmandu-Delhi flight by militants who used Indian passports and managed to get past airport security, it is said, with some arms. The plane hopped from Amritsar to Lahore to Dubai until it finally reached Kandahar airport, where it sat on the tarmac for days while India’s BJP government tried to tackle the ultra-nationalist fallout back home. A passenger was killed by the hijackers and dumped overboard. In the end, Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh, worked out a deal, flew to Kandahar with 3 jailed militants whose release had been demanded, and returned to Delhi with the freed Airbus 300 and its passengers.

As the episode unfolded, the Indian media began screaming with ‘anti-Nepal’ propaganda, which fed pre-existing notions of how the country, which shared an open border with India, was a hotbed for ‘ISI infiltration’. This period proved costly for Nepal, with India slapping an unprecedented condition for air travel between the two countries: the need for passports or other specified identification, where none had been previously required. Tourism from India plummeted by 60 percent.

Indian airlines flying to Nepal – at that time only Indian Airlines – were banned until the Kathmandu government was able to assure security at the airport. New Delhi officials insisted that the Nepal Police security was not good enough, and Indian security would have to be employed. That would not do for Nepal’s sense of self and sovereignty, so carefully nurtured over the centuries vis-a-vis the empire to the south, variously Mughlan, the Company Bahadur, the British Crown and now the Republic.

There was a deadlock, and it was clear that the Nepali side would have to surrender, otherwise there would be a virtual air blockade. For five months, Indian Airlines suspended all flights to Nepal. The unrelenting nationalist bombast in the Indian media did not allow the New Delhi government and bureaucracy to back down, so it was the Nepali side that would have to do so.

The way to back down was to go vertical, through internal negotiations. Nepal would not permit Indian security agents to check hand luggage and passengers’ bodies within the terminal. Okay, so you could perhaps do it at the air-bridge, as some airlines do in Delhi, but there was no air-bridge in Kathmandu, where passengers instead have to emplane by stairs. How about on the ground, in a covered platform just before the stairs? Nope, said the Nepali side. That there is Nepali territory, babuji, and we cannot allow India to humiliate us by a) not trusting our own security, or b) embarrassing us further by bringing in their own security personnel and having them work on our soil.

Do you have a suggestion, then? asked the Indian side. If not, we will just let the matter rest. That was when someone came up with a workable solution: putting the suggested security platform on a trolley, which could be trundled in and out adjacent to the stairs. That way, the security check would be technically Nepali, according to a not-entirely-believable interpretation.

There remained the matter of how high the passengers would have to be above terra firma before being body-searched. It would have to be high enough that the Nepali side be comfortable, and yet things were getting desperate.

The answer was to construct a platform at an elevation of three feet: three feet of sovereignty. Things have moved smoothly ever since, though the passengers may disagree. Either way, there has not been a hijacking since.

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