Kathmandu and New Delhi are currently having to dispute over a centuries-old disputed land. This started at a time when India is already involved in a border dispute with another neighbour - China at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) in Ladakh. Hopefully, the Indo-Nepal relationship is yet floating at the diplomatic level and has not reached crucial military insurgencies. Nepal has only established few base camps along the Mahakali River.
Recently, Nepal's Parliament led by Prime Minister (PM) K. P. Oli, unanimously approved of the new political map and got it approved by their President. The map included Kalapani, a disputed land under Nepal's territory. The problem started since November, 2019 when India released a fresh map of union territories showing the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal claimed that India had wrongly depicted Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani under its sovereign, which they are trying to regain.
Historically, the Nepal-India border was defined by the Sugauli Treaty (1816) - signed after the Anglo-Nepal war that marked the Mahakali River (also known as River Kali) as the western boundary of Nepal. So, the east bank was given to Nepal and the west bank was attributed to the then British-India. But the treaty did not specify which of the river’s tributaries is to be traced back to identify as its origin. There has been a contradiction about its origin - Lipulekh or Limpiyadhura? The British rulers identified Limpiyadhura as the origin of Mahakali in 1827 (first map). Later, they changed it to Lipulekh in 1865 (second map). Additionally, the 1850-56 alignment kept Kalapani in Nepal but according to the 1879 alignment, the region came under India’s territory.
Nepal thinks the Kuthi tributary that goes north-west from Garbyang to Limpiyadhura is the origin of the river. Thus, Kalapani and Lipulekh fall under Nepal. Contrarily, India is demanding that the river originates in the black water springs at Kalapani below the Lipulekh, so Kalapani comes in India. Even during Nepal’s monarchy, the situation did not worsen like now.
In the closing years of the last century Nepal and India shared a series of events concerning the river. they signed the Mahakali treaty regarding hydro-power in 1996 - later it came into operation but the initial process was tardy. The present chaos has also its root in June 1997, when former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral visited Nepal and came up with the ‘Gujral Doctrine’. This offered some benefits to Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and the Maldives that again led to Nepal’s claim of Kalapani and Lipulekh. Additionally, the location of an Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) camp at Kalapani has also been contested by Nepal since 1997 as they believe that the post lies in the Nepalese territory.
It is significant that Lipulekh and Kalapani are strategically important for India for pilgrimage routes and trade. Pilgrimage started from 1981 through Lipulekh after a bilateral understanding between China and India. The border trade was also resumed in 1991 through the Lipulekh area. Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee (JTBC) established in 1981 followed by Border Working Group in 2014 - resolved majority of the border issue. In August 2019, it was decided to elevate these to Foreign Secretary level discussions. However, a recent incident regarding road infrastructure has aggravated the situation.
It is an important question: Why is Nepal suddenly concerned over a 35 square km disputed land at the trijunction of Nepal, India, and China. This present border chaos is essentially the aftermath of the inauguration of an 80 km long road by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 8. The road will connect the Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Uttarakhand. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping signed a memorandum of understanding to open the Lipulekh Pass for Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrimage in 2015. Kathmandu identified this infrastructure as New Delhi’s ‘unilateral act'. Nepal government is also claiming that 17 km. of the road passes through Nepal's territory. The Nepal Foreign Ministry has also summoned the Indian envoy in Kathmandu.
The road, built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is crucial for India's strategic, religious and trade relations. The Kailash-Manasarovar pilgrimage that is conducted every year through the Lipulekh pass, goes through Uttarakhand’s Pithoragath district on the Indo-China border. The Lipulekh-Dharchula connecting road will make the difficult trek to a simple road trip for the pilgrims. The road will aid India’s tourism segment among other businesses. Also, Lipulekh pass is strategically important for India because it is located nearest to National Capital Region (NCR) – allowing easy Indo-China trades.
Nepal’s economic dependency
India accounts for two-third of Nepal’s overall import which is quite higher than their imports from China. India receives 60% of their total exports compared to only 2% to China. Additionally, Nepal receives around 15% of its total remittances from India just after the Gulf countries. It accounted to around $2.54 billion in 2019. Nepal also imports petroleum and other essential products from India. Around eight million citizens of Nepal work and live in India. So, will these border tensions really impact the inter-country trades? During the pandemic, no economy will prefer to give up their businesses and Nepal will be the last country to sacrifice this.
Why is China a factor?
Being the first Chinese president in 23 years - in October, 2019, President Xi Jinping visited Nepal. He offered a strategic railway network to the landlocked country that will connect Kathmandu and Shigatse in Tibet. It would join a rail-line to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet. Xi Jinping has offered Nepal four ports for shipment. They signed 18 agreements and two letters of exchange in areas concerning transportation, defence and security, tourism, hospitality, trade and education. This will minimise Nepal's dependence on India. Beijing has also pledged $500 million financial aid to Kathmandu when they were already receiving around 90% of their foreign direct investment (FDI) from China. This consistent Chinese investment made Nepal to consider China as a new friend to aid their fight against India.
Moreover, the present border tension triggered both Nepal and China after a single cause – newly released map by India in November. Nepal elected K. P. Oli of Nepal Communist Party in February, 2018 as the Prime Minister. Rule by concerned communist parties in these two counties is also considered as the reason of their recent closeness. Their recent activities indicate that Nepal, for the Chinese government is not just a weather ally but a new market for their goods and a tool to strengthen their border management.
Additionally, the newly inaugurated road by Rajnath Singh that goes through Kalapani will ease the bilateral trade between Beijing and New Delhi. So, if the area comes under the control of Nepal government, they will make profits whatever bilateral trade happens through the road. Therefore, this can be thought as a reason for Nepal's recent concern over the area.
Nepal started to push their claims at a time when India is defending its 'land' at LAC from China. This will only help in strengthening China's ground. News agency CGTN admitted, “The set of moves made by Nepal's government to harden its stance on the land row - coincided with a military standoff currently unfolding between China and India.” It has also been reported that recently Nepal rejected to have a diplomatic talk offered by the Indian officials.
Iman Kalyan Lahiri, Assistant Professor, International Relations, Jadavpur University, who works on South-East Asian traditional and non-traditional security issues told BE, “Nepal’s stance on the border issue is not desirable. Before publishing a new map, Nepal government could have a discussion with the Indian government. Similarly, the Indian government should give more importance to Nepal, keeping it mind that India is not a military-ruled country.”
The last South Asian Association for Regional Co-operation (SAARC) summit that was attended by the Prime Minister of India, held in Kathmandu. The next scheduled meet was arranged in Islamabad in 2016, but the aftermath of Pulwama attack stopped India from joining the summit. Later the summit was called-off after Bangladesh, Bhutan and Afghanistan followed India's way. Since then Nepal is holding the Chair of SAARC. In January, 2020, Nepal offered to be the ‘mediator’ between India and Pakistan that might help to survive SAARC while condemning terrorism. Suddenly this stood before as a barrier after the recent Indo-Nepal border tension. So, lack in satisfactory policy making is holding back the two countries back fuelling the present situation.
The Indian Army Chief General Manoj Mukund Naravane recently said that Nepal’s cartographic changes were done at the ‘behest of another country’ – clearly, he meant China. Indian Army general is the honorary general of Nepal's Army and vice-versa as part of a tradition. So, this might have fired Nepal. Lahiri added, “The Indian government is failing to offer positive outlook to its friend neighbours like Nepal Bangladesh, Bhutan and Malaysia - on both trade and diplomatic grounds. It only creates a problem when India tries to take the path of ultra-nationalism. Both the countries should step back from any unilateral act.” Indian government should leave no stone unturned to fill the trust-deficit with Nepal. It will be tough for India if all of its neighbouring countries start to retaliate. India must try to make Nepal believe that China might be their new fellow, but India has always favoured them.