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The controversy triggered by Nepal’s coalition government signing a passport contract with an Indian company continued to grow Thursday with the country’s top court summoning the prime minister and foreign minister for explanations and the opposition Maoist party beginning public protests.
Nepal’s Supreme Court asked the government to freeze the deal till it resolved the row and asked Prime Minister Madhav Kumar Nepal to appear before it for an explanation Monday.

Judge Sushila Karki has also summoned Foreign Minister Sujata Koirala, who is the deputy prime minister as well.

The court order came after a lawyer, Hem Mani Subedi, and a law student, Nar Bahadur KC, filed separate public interest litigation applications, asking the apex court to scrap a deal signed between the government and India’s state-owned Security Printing and Minting Corporation of India to print new Nepali passports, contending it was “illegal” and compromised Nepal’s security.

The snowballing passport row has hit parliament as well, creating a rift among MPs.

The parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), which had asked the government not to sign the deal with the Indian company, met Thursday to mull action against the government for ignoring its directive.

However, while MPs from the Maoist party and the prime minister’s Communist Party of Nepal-Unified Marxist Leninist are against the deal, some lawmakers are urging the government to go ahead with the deal, saying else diplomatic ties with India could be hurt.

Koirala’s own party, the Nepali Congress (NC), said it had called a meeting of senior members Thursday to discuss critical issues, including the passport deal and continuing support to the government.

The NC is the biggest party in the ruling alliance.

The trouble started in January after the foreign ministry cancelled a bidding process started in 2004.

Nepal had floated a global tender to print three million modern machine-readable passports that are to replace the current handwritten ones to meet the norms of the International Civil Aviation Organisation.

Four foreign companies were shortlisted but the process was delayed due to protracted political crises in Nepal and the fall of at least four governments.

In January, the foreign minister persuaded the government to cancel the bidding process, saying it would take too long and Nepal would fail to meet the April 1 deadline for the new passports.

She said the Indian company would execute the job quickly due to the close diplomatic ties between India and Nepal.

The Indian company was to have delivered about three million new Nepali passports within the next three years, starting from June.

To tide over till then, the government had said it would issue handwritten passports that would be valid for five years only instead of 10.

But now the deal is in the doldrums till the court gives its verdict.

Nepal’s biggest party, the Maoists, are also opposing the deal.

Its youth and student wing organised a rally in the capital Wednesday and said they would keep it up Thursday to protest against the passport deal as well as pressure the prime minister into resigning.

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