Rising tensions on the Nepal–India border

06 July, 2020

Security and Defence

Amid rising cases of COVID-19 in Nepal, the country is engaged in a diplomatic spat with India over land disputes in the Dharchula region — a tri-junction between Nepal, India and China. The latest dispute began after Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated an 80 kilometre road from Dharchula to Lipulekh in India’s Uttarakhand state. The road will shorten the route for Hindu pilgrims to the sacred Mount Kailash in the Tibet Autonomous Region.


Nepali social media went abuzz with hashtags like #GoBackIndia and #BackOffIndia, alleging the road illegally crosses Nepali territory. Within a day, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated ‘the Government of Nepal has learnt with regret about the “inauguration” yesterday by India of “Link Road” connecting to Lipu Lekh (Nepal), which passes through Nepali territory’. Nepal also objected to an Indian map for depicting Kalapani as Indian territory in October 2019.


The dispute’s origins lies in the interpretation of the Sugauli Treaty signed between the British Indian government and the King of Nepal in 1815. According to the treaty, the Kali River is the natural demarcation of the boundary with India. But the demarcation of the river and its exact origin is disputed. India maintains that it originates from Lipulekh, while Nepal claims it stems from the Limpiyadhura River.


Kalapani — the region between these two streams — is yet another disputed territory. Indian security forces have been guarding Kalapani since the 1962 Sino-India War. At the time, King Mahendra of Nepal had tacitly agreed to this deployment of troops — and India has been present ever since. India cites the presence of its troops and published maps as evidence of its claim, while Nepal presents old census and revenue records of the disputed land.


Notably, this is the first time Nepal has taken an assertive stance both in principle and in action. Building a national consensus on the issue, Nepal quickly created new outposts along the western border with India and the parliament amended the political map of Nepal showing disputed areas as Nepali territory in the official seal of the Government.


While the two countries have lived in peace for over two centuries and share socio-cultural, economic and people-to-people ties, the on-going dispute questions the future of India–Nepal relations — especially under the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The treaty has kept India and Nepal on special terms, including a visa-free regime and free movement of goods and people across an open border.


Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two visits to Nepal in 2014 were seen as the revival of relations with Nepal as India’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ took centre stage. But bilateral ties soon turned sour after the 2015 border blockade. In Nepal, India is now part of the national narrative of the government and Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli’s Nepal Communist Party. And it is not just the government that accuses India of having a ‘big brotherly’ attitude.


While media and analysts respond with a similar narrative, the situation poses a challenge to India’s Nepal policy. Many observers see a major failure of India’s neighbourhood first policy. It may be too early to call it a failure, but it is a warning sign. India does need to revisit its Nepal policy.


For starters, it needs to take note of Nepal’s changing political and demographic landscape. Before democracy arrived in 2008, the monarchy was at the centre of decision-making in Nepal and public opinion and political pressure barely mattered. With democracy, the government faces public pressure to diversify its foreign relations and look for alternative trade routes through China in case of renewed tensions with India. The changed political space is contributing to changes in Nepal’s foreign policy priorities.


Demographically, people from the hills continue to dominate Nepal’s politics, and the communist government seems to be in no mood to improve the political capital of the Madhesis (people of the plains). India must rethink its extending of moral support to divided Madhesi political movements — as it did during the 2015 Madhesh Movement — as this will further harm its long-term interests in Nepal.


India has been able to conduct ‘special relations’ with Nepal over the last seven decades through the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship. The treaty has been a necessity for India’s security concerns vis-a-vis Chinese aspirations in Nepal, and for trade and commerce. Upholding this treaty remains key to the relationship.


The Eminent Persons Group (EPG) was constituted in 2016 by the two countries’ prime ministers to recommend potential solutions to problems with the treaty and other outstanding issues. Despite the group concluding its report in 2018, it is still collecting dust. Both governments may have reservations about the recommendations in the report, but India should take the initiative to begin discussions.


A border dispute with a neighbour may not be a new phenomenon for India, but such a dispute with Nepal does not favour India in the long term — not least because of intensifying competition with China in the region. India should use diplomacy as the first and last resort to find an immediate resolution. Although its neighbourhood first policy may not have yielded the desired results, India can still mobilise policies like the Gujaral Doctrine — which mandates India improves ties with smaller neighbours on a non-reciprocal basis.


The views expressed above belong to the author.