FOR A RESET IN INDIA-NEPAL RELATIONS
Mains: General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.
- The urgent need today is to pause the rhetoric on territorial nationalism and lay the groundwork for a quiet dialogue
- Once again, relations between India and Nepal have taken a turn for the worse.
- The immediate provocation is the long-standing territorial issue surrounding Kalapani, a patch of land near the India-Nepal border, close to the Lipulekh Pass on the India-China border, which is one of the approved points for border trade and the route for the Kailash-Mansarovar yatra in Tibet.
- Nepali Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli’s exploitation of the matter, by raising the banner of Nepali nationalism and painting India as a hegemon, is part of a frequent pattern that indicates that relations between the two countries need a fundamental reset.
Background check: Kalapani and the maps
- India inherited the boundary with Nepal, established between Nepal and the East India Company in the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816.
- Kali river constituted the boundary, and the territory to its east was Nepal.
- The dispute relates to the origin of Kali.
- Near Garbyang village in Dharchula Tehsil of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, there is a confluence of different streams coming from north-east from Kalapani and north-west from Limpiyadhura.
- The early British survey maps identified the north-west stream, Kuti Yangti, from Limpiyadhura as the origin, but after 1857 changed the alignment to Lipu Gad, and in 1879 to Pankha Gad, the north-east streams, thus defining the origin as just below Kalapani. Nepal accepted the change and India inherited this boundary in 1947.
When did it all started (Timeline)?
- The Maoist revolution in China in 1949, followed by the takeover of Tibet, created deep misgivings in Nepal, and India was ‘invited’ to set up 18 border posts along the Nepal-Tibet border.
- The westernmost post was at Tinkar Pass, about 6 km further east of Lipulekh.
- In 1953, India and China identified Lipulekh Pass for both pilgrims and border trade.
- After the 1962 war, pilgrimage through Lipulekh resumed in 1981, and border trade, in 1991.
- In 1961, King Mahendra visited Beijing to sign the China-Nepal Boundary Treaty that defines the zero point in the west, just north of Tinkar Pass.
- By 1969, India had withdrawn its border posts from Nepali territory.
- The base camp for Lipulekh remained at Kalapani, less than 10 km west of Lipulekh.
- In their respective maps, both countries showed Kalapani as the origin of Kali river and as part of their territory.
- After 1979, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police has manned the Lipulekh Pass.
- In actual practice, life for the locals (Byansis) remained unchanged given the open border and free movement of people and goods.
Treaty of Mahakali
- After the 1996 Treaty of Mahakali (Kali river is also called Mahakali/Sarada further downstream) that envisaged the Pancheshwar multipurpose hydel project, the issue of the origin of Kali river was first raised in 1997.
- The matter was referred to the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee that had been set up in 1981 to re-identify and replace the old and damaged boundary pillars along the India-Nepal border. The Committee clarified 98% of the boundary, leaving behind the unresolved issues of Kalapani and Susta (in the Terai) when it was dissolved in 2008.
- It was subsequently agreed that the matter would be discussed at the Foreign Secretary level. Meanwhile, the project to convert the 80-km track from Ghatibagar to Lipulekh into a hardtop road began in 2009 without any objections from Nepal.
- The Survey of India issued a new political map (eighth edition) on November 2, 2019, to reflect the change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir as two Union Territories.
- Nepal registered a protest though the map in no way had changed the boundary between India and Nepal.
- on November 8, the ninth edition was issued.
- The delineation remained identical but the name Kali river had been deleted.
- Predictably, this led to stronger protests, with Nepal invoking Foreign Secretary-level talks to resolve issues.
- With the Indian Ambassador Manjeev Puri in Kathmandu retiring in end-December and Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale retiring a month later, the matter remained pending despite reminders from Kathmandu.
Nepali nationalism: domestic situation in Nepal
- By April 2020, Mr. Oli’s domestic political situation was weakening. Under the Nepali Constitution, a new Prime Minister enjoys a guaranteed two-year period during which a no-confidence motion is not permitted.
- This ended in February unleashing simmering resentment against Mr. Oli’s governance style and performance.
- His inept handling of the COVID-19 pandemic added to the growing disenchantment.
- Within the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) there was a move to impose a ‘one man, one post’ rule that would force Mr. Oli to choose between being NCP co-chair or Prime Minister.
- The re-eruption of the Kalapani controversy, when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh did a virtual inaugurationof the 80-km road on May 8, provided Mr. Oli with a political lifeline.
- Oli had won the election in 2017 by flaunting his Nepali nationalism card, the flip side of which is anti-Indianism.
- This is not a new phenomenon but has become more pronounced in recent years.
- A new map of Nepalbased on the older British survey reflecting Kali river originating from Limpiyadhura in the north-west of Garbyang was adopted by parliament and notified on May 20.
- On May 22, a constitutional amendment proposal was tabled to include it in a relevant Schedule.
- The new alignment adds 335 sq km to Nepali territory, territory that has never been reflected in a Nepali map for nearly 170 years.
Why are India and Nepal fighting over Kalapani?
- The dispute over Kalapani, which lies on the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, between Nepal and India was revived in November 2019 when India published a revised political map showing the newly created Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
- Both India and Nepal lay claim to Kalapani.
- The map showed Kalapani as part of Pithoragarh district.
- Nepal protested immediately and drew attention to the lingering issue.
- On May 8, India inaugurated the Darchula-Lipulekh pass link road, cutting across the disputed Kalapani area which is used by Indian pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar.
- Nepal hit back by summoning the Indian Ambassador to Nepal, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, to convey a formal protest.
Where is Kalapani located?
- Kalapani is a region located in the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district.
- It shares a border on the north with the Tibet Autonomous Region of China and Nepal in the east and south.
- The region resembles a slice of cake wedged in between Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani.
- The area is in India’s control but Nepal claims the region because of historical and cartographic reasons. The area is the largest territorial dispute between Nepal and India consisting of at least 37,000 hectares of land in the High
Cause of the dispute:
- The Kalapani region derives its name from the river Kali.
- Nepal’s claims to the region is based on this river as it became the marker of the boundary of the kingdom of Nepal following the Treaty of Sugauli signed between the Gurkha rulers of Kathmandu and the East India Company after the Gurkha War/Anglo-Nepal War (1814-16).
- The treaty was ratified in 1816.
- According to the treaty, Nepal lost the regions of Kumaon-Garhwal in the west and Sikkim in the east.
- According to Article 5, the King of Nepal gave up his claims over the region west of the river Kali which originates in the High Himalayas and flows into the great plains of the Indian subcontinent.
- According to the treaty, the British rulers recognised Nepal’s right to the region that fell to the east of the river Kali.
Here lies the historic origin of the dispute:
- According to Nepal’s experts, the east of the Kali river should begin at the source of the river.
- The source according to them is in the mountains near Limpiyadhura, which is higher in altitude than the rest of the river’s flow.
- Nepal claims that a land mass, high in the mountains that falls to the east of the entire stretch starting from Limpiyadhura downwards, is theirs.
- India on the other hand says the border begins at Kalapani which India says is where the river begins. The dispute is mainly because of the varying interpretation of the origin of the river and its various tributaries that slice through the mountains.
- While Nepal’s claim of the territory east of Kali is based on the Limpiyadhura origin, India says the river actually takes the name Kali near Kalapani.
Why is Lipulekh pass important?
- The region juts into the Himalayas and is connected to the other side of the mountain range through the Lipulekh pass, which has been used for centuries by Hindu and Buddhist pilgrims and tourists on their way to Kailash Mansarovar.
- The nearby markets have been used by various mountain communities.
- The Himalayas have several passes that connect the Gangetic region with the Tibetan plateau but Lipulekh is strategically located as it is nearest to the heart of the Indian state or the National Capital Region and can be of particular concern in case of an armed conflict with China.
What is the current position?
- Nepal has published a revised official map incorporating the territory from the Limpiyadhura source of the Kali to Kalapani and Lipulekh pass in the northeast of the triangular region as its territory.
- On May 22, the Cabinet led by Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli registered a constitution amendment motion to grant constitutional status to the map.
- Indian observers say this move makes any future solution on the Kalapani issue nearly impossible as a constitutional guarantee will make Kathmandu’s position inflexible.
Rewriting the Fundamentals:
- India has always stressed upon “neighbourhood first” policy.
- the relationship took a nosedive in 2015 when India first got blamed for interfering in the Constitution-drafting in Nepal and then for an “unofficial blockade” that generated widespread resentment against the country.
- It reinforced the notion that Nepali nationalism and anti-Indianism were two sides of the same coin that Mr. Oli exploited successfully.
- In Nepali thinking, the China card has provided them the leverage to practise their version of non-alignment.
- In the past, China maintained a link with the Palace and its concerns were primarily related to keeping tabs on the Tibetan refugee community. With the abolition of the monarchy, China has shifted attention to the political parties as also to institutions like the Army and Armed Police Force.
- Also, today’s China is pursuing a more assertive foreign policy and considers Nepal an important element in its growing South Asian footprint.
- The reality is that India has ignored the changing political narrative in Nepal for far too long.
- India remained content that its interests were safeguarded by quiet diplomacy even when Nepali leaders publicly adopted anti-Indian postures — an approach adopted decades earlier during the monarchy and then followed by the political parties as a means of demonstrating nationalist credentials.
- Long ignored by India, it has spawned distortions in Nepali history textbooks and led to long-term negative consequences.
- For too long India has invoked a “special relationship”, based on shared culture, language and religion, to anchor its ties with Nepal.
- Today, this term carries a negative connotation — that of a paternalistic India that is often insensitive and, worse still, a bully.
- This brief account illustrates the complexity underlying India-Nepal issues that cannot be solved by rhetoric or unilateral map-making exercises. Such brinkmanship only breeds mistrust and erodes the goodwill at the people-to-people level. Political maturity is needed to find creative solutions that can be mutually acceptable.
- It is hardly surprising that the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship which was sought by the Nepali authorities in 1949 to continue the special links it had with British India and provides for an open border and right to work for Nepali nationals is viewed as a sign of an unequal relationship, and an Indian imposition. Yet, Nepali authorities have studiously avoided taking it up bilaterally even though Nepali leaders thunder against it in their domestic rhetoric.
- The urgent need today is to pause the rhetoric on territorial nationalism and lay the groundwork for a quiet dialogue where both sides need to display sensitivity as they explore the terms of a reset of the “special relationship”. A normal relationship where India can be a generous partner will be a better foundation for “neighbourhood first” in the 21st century.