The present inflection point in Indo-Nepalese border tensions has evolved into an awkward position where neither of the two states can realistically backdown without losing face.
The publication of a restructured map of India demarcating the new Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh in November 2019 had reopened old wounds in the Indo-Nepalese relationship, with Nepal protesting the representation of ‘Kalapani’ as part of the Indian state of Uttarakhand. With the onset of COVID-19 and its evolution into a pandemic this Indo-Nepalese impasse appears to have been on the backburner. However, with the recent inauguration by the Indian Defence Minister of a new road stretching around 80 kilometres from Darchula in Uttarakhand to Lipulekh pass, the trijunction of the India-Nepal-China borders, seems to have resurrected the Indo-Nepalese dispute.
This border dispute is of significant antiquity dating back to the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli which states that all the land that lies east of the Mahakali river is part of Nepal. Consequently, Kathmandu’s claim over the disputed area lies in the fact that the territories of Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani fall south east to the alleged source of Mahakali.
However, this remains disputed as what Nepal claims as the source of Mahakali, is actually just a stream called ‘Lipu Gad’ which is one of its many tributaries that merge into Mahakali near the trijunction. Consequently, India has contested Nepal’s claims arguing that the area north of its actual source is not demarcated by these treaties. Furthermore, administrative and revenue records dating from the late 1800s prove that Kalapani was indeed part of India’s Pithoragarh district.
Notwithstanding this territorial dispute, India and Nepal have shared a long history of cooperation and have successfully in the past solved existing territorial ambiguities through diplomatic dialogue. In 1981, India and Nepal set up the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee to demarcate their shared borders of over 1,850 kilometres and resolve any territorial disputes. This joint enterprise was largely successful with 98% of their border being delineated in 2007. Furthermore, both countries have ever since at several points agreed to establish high level bilateral mechanisms to deal with the remaining border disputes.
Consequently, questions do get raised about the significance of this particular border trijunction which seems to derail Indo-Nepalese relations at frequent intervals. The Indian government has branded its road building exercise as essentially the “new road to Kailash Mansarovar.” Kailash Mansarovar is a sacred site of pilgrimage which until now was only accessible through two long and difficult routes via either Nathu La or Nepal. The construction of this new road would be a major breakthrough for both the ease and the time taken for this pilgrimage.
Apart from the above, there are certain evident advantages for India in controlling this territory. Sino-Indian trade is expected to gain from the new road with enhanced connectivity. More important, this increased connectivity in border areas is critical for Indian strategic interests with the Standing Committee on Defence reporting in 2017 that adequate infrastructure along the borders is crucial to maintain peace with certain ‘difficult’ neighbours.
This strategic necessity is apparent with a Chinese official reportedly stated during the Doklam crisis of 2017 that if the PLA decided it could enter India with ease through other border trijunctions like Kalapani or Kashmir through Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The control of the Kalapani trijunction essentially provides India with a strategic advantage in case of an invasion as it is at an elevated position allowing Indian posts to monitor the Tibetan highland passes. India’s anxieties regarding Chinese intentions for the Kalapani trijunction are reflected in the Indian army chief General Naravane’s comment that Nepal may have raised these problems “at the behest of someone else,” hinting at a possible Chinese instigation. Though the Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Oli has asserted that “everything we do is self-guided,” for many in India there remains an evident correlation between Chinese strategic objectives and the resurrected Nepalese claim of Kalapani.
Notwithstanding the historical trajectory of the Indo-Nepalese border controversy, the present Nepalese protest coincides with a rise of Sino-Indian border skirmishes in eastern Ladakh on the northern bank of Lake Pangong Tso on 5 May and near Naku La pass in the Sikkim sector on 10 May. Coincidentally, on 9 May, Nepal officially expressed its concern describing India’s inauguration of the new road to Lipulekh as a “unilateral act” imploring India to “refrain from carrying out activity inside the territory of Nepal.”
The rise of this trust deficit between Nepal and India seems to stem from the reported Chinese interreference in Nepalese domestic affairs, particularly the support of the Nepalese communists for nearly a decade culminating in the formation of the New Communist Party (NCP). This perception of Nepal ‘tilting’ towards China has only been exacerbated post the Indo-Nepalese border blockade of 2015 during the protests for a new Nepalese constitution.
This Indian concern has justifiably been reconfirmed with recent reports of a successful Chinese intervention in Nepal carried out in early May to save the NCP from an internal rift which threatened to split the ruling party. Nepal on the other hand, seems to be more focused on getting rid of the traditional ‘big brother’ attitude of India. The perceived Indian unilateral actions have only caused Nepal to dig its heels in further and reduce the chances of a compromise with recent remarks by PM Oli mocking and questioning Indian foreign policy as “Seemameva Jayate or Satyameva Jayate?”
Such comments by the Nepalese PM do need to be seen in the light of his waning popularity at the start of this year, with the expectation of a resurgence of domestic approval much like what he experienced during the Indo-Nepalese blockade of 2015. While India remains Nepal’s biggest trading partner, simple economic rationale is often superseded by domestic political compulsions and geopolitical equations.
The present inflection point in Indo-Nepalese border tensions has evolved into an awkward position where neither of the two states can realistically backdown without losing face. The Nepalese Prime Minister has made a series of public statements which have even further reduced his ‘room to manoeuvre.’ Statements by PM Oli such as “India virus seems more lethal than Chinese or Italian” only further allude to the geopolitical collusion that may exist. A statement of this kind if made in India would have bought Nepali citizens to the streets.
However, opportunity does appear in the present COVID-19 pandemic as both India and Nepal face common threats and both have to work together to manage the global health emergency. India has already provided Nepal with 30,000 testing kits and Nepal has publicly expressed its gratitude to India for it. India could perhaps use this Covid diplomacy to strengthen Indo-Nepalese relations and tide over this border dispute and deal with it at a later point when national tensions are reduced.
As a bigger regional power, it is incumbent upon India to make the first move and demonstrate its benevolence. New Delhi needs to rein in the present regional situation by building new joint border dispute mechanisms that are equipped to deal with current issues more efficiently. This would reaffirm India’s role as a responsible regional player which is both credible and does not ignore the concerns of its regional neighbours. But Nepali leadership should also realise that reckless attitude towards India, as shown by Prime Minister Oli through his recent statements, may not be the best way forward in reaching an amicable solution.
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Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...Read More +