T HE Narendra Modi government faces another challenge on its northern borders, adding to its problems in its immediate neighbourhood. In the second week of May, the Nepalese government strongly protested against the construction of a Himalayan road by the Indian Army through an area that Kathmandu considers a “disputed zone”. The 80-km “link road” that was inaugurated on May 8 by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, lies at a three-way junction where the borders of India, Nepal and China intersect.
The new road, besides considerably shortening the distance for pilgrims going to Kailash-Mansarovar, is also meant to help boost Sino-Indian trade. It will be the shortest and most feasible trade route between the two countries. The trading post in Lipulekh was one of the first to be established between the two countries. While inaugurating the road, Rajnath Singh said that it was important to the nation for “strategic, religious and trade” reasons.
What evidently irked the Nepalese government was the publicity the Indian government gave the new road. The opposition parties as well as rivals of Nepalese Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli within the ruling Communist Party, were quick to seize upon the issue of the new Indian road passing through territory that Nepal haslaid a claim to. Nepal has insisted for long that the areas of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh have historically been part of the country and were recognised as such in the 1816 Sugauli treaty signed with the British colonial administration. Under the treaty, the Kali river is specified as the western boundary of Nepal. But Nepal and India have different interpretations about the source of the river. Nepal insists that the river emerges from Limpiyadhura while India claims that it starts from Lipulekh. The disputed land lies in between the branches of the two rivers.
However, it is also a fact that the strategic areas of Limpiyadhura and Kalapani have been under effective Indian control since the 1962 India-China war. The Nepalese monarchy, in a show of solidarity with the Indian government, had allowed the Indian Army to take over the areas as it confronted the Chinese army in the conflict. In those days, Nepal’s defence policy was virtually supervised from Delhi.
The ground realities in Nepal have considerably changed in the last decade. The ruling Communist Party is no longer willing to bend to diktats from Delhi on issues pertaining to its sovereignty. The statement of the Indian Army chief, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, that Nepal’s objections to the construction of the road were at “someone else’s behest” ignited a furore in Nepal. General Naravane was implying that China was instigating Nepal to take an aggressive diplomatic stand against India on the issue. To add fuel to the fire, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath warned Nepali leaders to “remember what happened to Tibet”.
Nepal’s Defence Minister, Ishwar Pokhrel, described the Indian Army chief’s comments as an insult to the thousands of Nepali soldiers fighting in the Indian army. According to many Nepalese commentators, China was, in fact, in favour of the Indian road as it would improve cross-border trade between the two countries. There was palpable disappointment in Kathmandu that Beijing had failed to raise objections to a road being built through “disputed” territory.
China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had objected to Indian road-building in eastern Ladakh and other areas along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) but was silent on the Indian Army-built road leading to the trading post of Lipulekh. Nepal had objected to the 2015 India-China agreement that had opened up the Lipulekh pass for bilateral trade without its consent. Beijing views the dispute between India and Nepal as a purely bilateral one and has refused to take sides. After the domestic political uproar, the Nepalese government introduced a new Constitution Amendment Bill in Parliament to secure approval for a new map which formally incorporated the area under dispute with India within its boundaries.
Before it took the decision, the Nepalese government had called for urgent talks with India on the issue but New Delhi prevaricated, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the excuse. “If the coronavirus is an obstacle to not hold a diplomatic dialogue soon, it should have been an obstacle for the opening of the link road as well,” said Nepal’s Foreign Minister, Pradeep Gyawali. “We have expressed time and again that Nepal wants to sit at the table and resolve the problem.” The Nepalese government had first made requests for talks on the disputed territory in end 2019 and subsequently this May.
The Nepalese Parliament unanimously approved the new map on June 13. India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesman was quick to reject the territorial claims by the Nepalese government. “The artificial enlargement of claims is not based on historical facts or evidence and is not tenable. It is also violative of our current understanding to hold talks on outstanding boundary issues,” the spokesman said.
Within a month, the territorial dispute has become the most serious issue bedevilling relations between the two countries since India’s economic blockade of the land-locked country in 2015 a year after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government took over in New Delhi. Even the pro Indian parties such as the Nepal Congress and the Madhesi political groupings have refused to support Delhi on the issue. However, Nepal’s opposition parties have emphasised the need for talks with Delhi on the issue.
In the third week of June, the Indian government signalled that it was willing to sit down for talks on the boundary issue with Nepal. Indian sources indicated that they were willing to negotiate on the areas claimed by Nepal, except on the issue of Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura which are also included in the new map approved by the Nepalese Parliament. Nepal’s upper house also unanimously approved the new map in mid June.
“We have enough facts and evidence and we’ll sit with India to resolve the dispute through diplomatic negotiation”, Nepal’s Law Minister, Shiva Maya Tumbahamphe, told Parliament.
The new map incorporating territory claimed by India has been formally approved by the President of Nepal, Bidhya Devi Bhandari, and now has constitutional validity under the country’s Constitution. According to MEA officials, Nepal’s latest uncompromising move came despite feelers from Delhi for talks to be held expeditiously to resolve the boundary issue. Prime Minister Oli said that the unanimity exhibited by all political parties showed that the country was united on the Kalapani issue. Nepal’s Army chief, General Purna Chandra Thapa, visited the border post near the disputed Kalapani area after the Nepalese Parliament approved the new map.
The Nepalese side has upgraded its border post and it will now be manned throughout the year. Previously, the post, manned by the Nepal Police, remained closed during the winter months.
According to Indian officials, Nepal’s claim on these two areas contradicts India’s boundary agreement with China. At the same time, Indian officials have warned that Nepal would have to pay a price if it does not come to the negotiating table.
The two countries have had open borders for people and trade and Nepal is one of the biggest recipients of development aid from India. The militaries of the two countries have strong institutional links. Their chiefs enjoy the status of honorary generals in each other’s armies.