Rising tensions on the Nepal–India border
July 06, 2020
25 August, 2022
Nepal and India share a deep-rooted friendship, since the introduction of the latter as a sovereign republic. Both countries share open borders themselves, which stretch to about 1850km along the western, southern, and eastern parts of Nepal. This open border was introduced in 1950 after the signing of the ‘Treaty of Friendship’ between the two nations. Since then, both the Himalayan neighbors have worked tirelessly to strengthen their relationship in terms of trade, energy transfer, and infrastructure projects. Nepal is considered to be India’s closest ally because of the historical cultural and religious linkages that the two share, the increasing interdependence between the two countries, not only with regard to trade but in the sectors of technology transfer and advanced engineering has further complimented the limits at which this friendship has bilaterally grown. Indian prime minister, Mr. Narendra Modi has been quoted terming the relationship between the two countries as sacred and one of the very best around the world. But the disputes which have flared up in the last decade have significantly deteriorated the relationship that the two countries share. There have been anti-India sentiment among the masses of Nepal and the situation seems to be threatening the ties and morals over which their friendship was established.
WHAT IS THE DISPUTE
The dispute between the neighbors is over a triangular piece of land, along the extreme western border of Nepal. The territories in contention are Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura falling on the eastern side of the Mahakali River. The boundaries of Nepal were defined by the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816, signed between the British Indian government and the rulers of Nepal. According to this treaty, the western front of Nepal stretched across the Mahakali River while the southern boundary was marked from chure range to plain terai. Nepal did not completely accept the treaty as it reduced their territorial land but had to agree to abide by it as it didn’t want any confrontations against the British. The triangular piece of land mentioned earlier holds very much strategic importance for both countries, especially India as it serves as a tri-junction between India, Nepal, and China. During the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, India constructed various army check posts in this region, in order to tackle the Chinese advances through the mountainous passes, which to date remain in the highly contentious area of Kalapani and Lipulekh (Subedi & Timilsina, 2021).
The issue caught fire when India proposed a new political map of the country after the abrogation of article 370, the new map mentioned the areas of Kashmir and Ladakh in the form of union territories and showed Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura as part of the Indian territory along with the western Nepalese border (Chahal, 2020). Nepal’s prime minister along with the country’s foreign ministry and even the opposition expressed great anger and frustration over the new claims made by the Indian government. Anti-India sentiment rose very high among the population of Nepal and as a form of a reply, Nepal also published a new map, showing the disputed territories as a part of their own (Chahal, 2020). To this, the Indian authorities expressed concern as the move made by the KP Sharma Oli-led communist government, caught the Indian government completely off guard.
On May 8, 2020, the Indian defense minister Rajnath Singh, inaugurated an 80 km long road in the disputed territory between the two countries (Chahal, 2020). The purpose of this road was told to be for the betterment of pilgrims of the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra, as this road would reduce the time significantly to enter China and visit one of the holiest shrines of the Hindu religion. This advancement triggered the bilateral ties between the countries from bad to worse. Nepal straight away disregarded this advancement and clearly classified it as a direct attack on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nepal. To this, the chief of army staff of the Indian army gave out a very controversial remark saying that China is clearly behind this new outlook adopted by the Oli, led government (Shakya, 2020). Just a few weeks later, China advanced on the Indian territory of Ladakh, where the two armies had a long stand-off, costing 20 lives to the Indian army. This advancement made by China, along with the deadly Covid-19 pandemic sidetracked the border issue between India and Nepal and nothing concrete could be made out of it.
INDIA’S TAKE ON THE ISSUE
According to the status-quo of the region for the past 60 years, India has enjoyed complete control over the territories of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. It has a number of army check posts in this region and the country’s foreign ministry says that everything developed by the Indian authorities from army check posts to roads is all inside the Indian territory (Subedi & Timilsina, 2021).
India debates over the demarcation of the Nepalese western border, according to the treaty of Sugauli signed between the British and Nepal’s ruling class, Nepal’s western border started from the Mahakali River, India here suggests that the river which Nepal supposes to be Mahakali is not the actual river. According to the Indian authorities, the real Mahakali River is a tributary, east of the vast river which they agree to be the Mahakali River (Singh, 2016).
India has enjoyed complete autonomy in this region since the late 1950s, as the Nepalese rulers never paid this issue much heed. It was only after 1990, when Nepal changed its regime, that this issue started to be addressed in the country (XAVIER, 2020). From thereon Nepal has been pushing India to solve all the border disputes among themselves. India under the leadership of Atal Vihari Vajpayee and his Nepali counterpart established a Joint Technical Committee in 1981, to check and resolve all the border issues between the two countries. The JTC was successful in resolving 97% of the border issues between the two countries, the remaining 3% which amounts to a total of 606 sq. km. of the area still remains unresolved, and consists of the present-day Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura region (XAVIER, 2020).
India alleges Nepal to have overly politicized the issue in its country, as a lot of protests erupted in the Himalayan country in accordance with the border dispute. Another argument that questions the voice of the protest is, that this sudden eruption of the long-standing issue was deliberately given voice by Oli to stabilize his government as it was already under the fear of dissolution. The issue got the Nepali majority together in unison, even the opposition supported prime minister KP Oli in his conquest of getting what Nepal demanded.
NEPAL’S TAKE ON THE ISSUE
Nepal has always demanded a peaceful dialogue with India to resolve the issue. But its southern big brother has always delayed the dialogue. In retaliation to the Indian advancements on its territory, Nepal deployed its police in the disputed region, summoned the Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, rejected an invitation to BIMSTEC security dialogue, and also did constitutional amendments (XAVIER, 2020), to lay solid claims on the territory of about 400 km sq. Sudden advancements in this region caught the Indian authorities off guard. Panicked and surprised, a number of remarks were put forward by the Indian high class, and they agreed to resolve the issue with the help of diplomatic dialogue.
Nepal lays historical claims on this territory, it has documents proving that Nepalese authorities have collected land revenue and have conducted checks on its western frontier in the early 1950s (Khobragade, 2016). They also lay claims with the help of British era maps, which clearly demonstrates the origin of the river Mahakali. Nepal has tried to build international pressure on India, by taking the issue to international forums like the United Nations. Though the anti-India sentiment reigns high in the country, Still Nepal compels India to hold diplomatic dialogues to resolve the issue, but its southern neighbor is always seen to be running away from the issue. Currently, Delhi has asked for the pandemic to get over, to start with the dialogue. Which is seen as another reason to run away from the issue.
Nepal has one of the youngest populations in the world, and the youth of the country was heavily under the anti-India sentiment after the unwanted 2015 blockade of the landlocked country by India. Over the years the issue has just worsened over time, while hate reigns high, the political elite of the country see it as a great opportunity to gather votes in the name of hate politics.
Nepal has also issued its disregard over China, as it agrees with the Indian autonomy of the region. The two Asian powerhouses agreed to conduct trade through the disputed region and China also accepted the Indian road, coming to its border from the same region (Khobragade, 2016). Nepal under the leadership of its former foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali has adopted a hardened approach to tackle whatever situation arises over the sovereignty of Nepal. It has given Nepal the strength to stand against the Indian incursions and question whatever doesn’t seem to be right for its state. Gyawali sees Nepal as an important hub to join China with the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions.
THE WAY FORWARD
India and Nepal have both agreed over resolving the issue with the help of diplomatic dialogue. But the former is always seen running away from the resolution. Several delays in the talks have got the Nepalese authorities on the brink of their patience levels. India seems to be playing the waiting game, watching how the internal politics of Nepal might roll out, this is much like the British raj tradition of ‘masterly inactivity, Delay in the resolution could prove to be more dangerous for Nepal than for India as the burning hot issue might go lukewarm over time, and not much could be made out of the disregard expressed by the Nepalese authorities.
India’s silence over this issue is greatly disheartening; it should resume dialogue with Nepal as soon as possible. The more it gets delayed, the more worsened the situation might go. India fears Chinese influence on one of its closest allies, but this delay in dialogue might only push the Nepalese government more and more in the court of the Chinese. The border dispute between the two countries has now developed into a permanent political irritant.
In April 2022, Nepal’s prime minter Sher Bahadur Deuba visited New Delhi and met with his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi. The two leaders agreed on a diplomatic resolution to the issue. "We discussed the boundary issue and I urged Modiji to resolve it through the establishment of a bilateral mechanism," said Mr. Deuba (Bhattacherjee, 2022). It was the first instance of the Nepali prime minister visiting India after the border issue flared up in 2019, along with this the two heads of state also signed several bilateral agreements, which seem to be quite beneficial for the landlocked state of Nepal.
Looking at the situation, it is quite difficult to change the status quo of the region which is under the control of India. It is perceived that none of India or Nepal would like to get their hold off the territory. It completely lies in the hands of India whether or not it wishes to hold over the territory or give it over to the more rightful owners, Nepal.
The border dispute between both countries is a long-standing one but is quite ironic to the open border policy that the two countries follow. Hopefully, both countries find a solution to the issue with the help of diplomatic means. The recent visit by the Nepalese prime minister to India has helped ease the tension a bit. The issue is now on the colder side; unlike it was three years back. Apart from agreeing to diplomatically solve the issue, India has agreed on several investment projects in Nepal like that of Broad-gauge rail link from jaynagar to kurtha, this will establish rail connectivity to janakpur in Nepal. India also launched its Ru-pay card facility for Nepal, to have better financial relations. It also agreed to build cross-border state of the art, oil pipelines and now also provide goods transit facility for the landlocked neighbour. All these benefits are seen to offer, just to divert the attention of the government from the border issue. Maybe the 'Masterly Inactivity' technique followed by the Indian government could bear fruit in their own favour. But Nepal here needs to step up and show India that it is Independent in making its own decisions, otherwise, it would be near impossible for the ancient nation to change the current status and control of the regions of Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura.