By Bikram Timilsina & Ram Khatry
16 November 2019
Earlier this week, some agitated Nepalese youths poured onto streeets and burnt effigies of Narendra Modi and Xi Jinping – executive heads of two neighboring countries tiny Nepal is sandwiched between. Emotions ran high following media reports that both India and China had violated Nepal’s sovereign territory. An overwhelming majority in the Himalayan nation therefore presently harbour a strong resentment towards these intimidatingly giant neighbours.
One must understand while these allegations are new, the encroachment is not though. These border disputes have been in existence for well over half a century.
What has caused the latest nationwide stir in Nepal?
After India released its new political map two weeks ago incorporating the newly-formed Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh (as per the abrogation of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution), Nepalese opposed claiming the new map placed a good chunk of their territories within India’s border.
Nepal’s Foreign Ministry issued a press release on November 6 saying “the Government of Nepal is clear about Kalapani region being a part of Nepal”. The very next day, India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded by claiming that there was nothing new in the latest map so far as the Nepal-India border was concerned and that the Indian map “accurately shows the Indian territory”.
An all-party meeting in Kathmandu on November 10 asked Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to hold dialogue with India and reclaim the “encroached” Nepalese land. During the meeting, which reportedly included former prime ministers of the South Asian nation, the government was asked to approach India “with all historical artifacts and evidence that substantiate Nepal’s claim to Kalapani including the Lipu-lekh pass”.
Following a wide publicity about the burning of Xi Jinping’s effigy, the Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu urged Nepal and India to resolve the dispute about Kalapani through dialogue.
The Embassy also claimed that reports about the Chinese encroachment were baseless.
The Core Issue of the Kalapani issue
Nepal’s border disputes with India are longstanding and have been a major geo-political discourse in Nepal, particularly post 1990 as Nepalese citizens gained freedom of expression more than ever before.
Between 1952 and 1969, India operated 18 military check-posts on the Nepalese side of the Sino-Nepal border. Nepal later asked India to remove these check-posts from its territory; the Indian government responded by removing 17 of them. Howevver, the last check-post in Kalapani, which continues to hurt Indo-Nepal relations to this day, was never removed. There have been no convincing explanation from the Indian side as to why that 18th check-post, which was in Kalapani, was not removed along with the rest.
Although the Indian government does not admit so openly, Kalapani is strategically important for the South Asian superpower to watch over Chinese activities in Tibet because of which it never pulled out from there despite the known ire of the Nepalese people.
According to the Treaty of Sugauli between the East India Company and Nepal which was signed in 1816, the demarcation line between the two countries is the Mahakali River – the west of the river being India and Nepal to the east.
Border dispute between the two otherwise friendly nations arises since Nepal and India have differing theories on the origin of the Mahakali River. The new Indian map includes nearly 400 square kilometers of land which a mortified Nepal claims is part of its sovereign territory. The disputed territory consists of regions from Kalapani to Limpiyadhura. But this is not the only region where India-Nepal border dispute exists.
Rivers demarcate the border between Nepal and India at more than one place and the fact that rivers keep changing their course has fueled the border tensions. The remaining northern border consists of the Himalayan ranges that are of course “rock-solid” and hence do not move. This makes Nepal’s border dispute with China less of a problem. Nevertheless, there are a few hundred hectors of land which China has been accused of encroaching upon.
Most of the Sino-Nepal border disputes were resolved in 1960s, and it does not appear to be too difficult for the few remaining ones to be resolved. However, there is one aspect Nepal is unhappy about regarding China-Nepal border – the Lipulekh Pass. In 2015, India and China signed an agreement to make Lipulekh Pass—an ancient route for traders and pilgrims transiting between Nepal and Tibet—a junction of their bilateral trade and pilgrimage although Nepal had been claiming the territory as its own for a long time. Nepal government objected the agreement.
The Problem – India’s share
Over the years, various committees have been formed to put an end to the border dispute between Nepal and India but with no substantial progress. The Joint Technical Level Nepal-India Boundary Committee, which worked for 26 years, got dismissed in 2007 – hard to believe, without any resolution or result. There is still a committee at secretary-level of both Foreign Ministries but they have done zippo to resolve the dispute.
Indian map has included areas that Nepal claims to be its own and yet India does not even acknowledge that the region is a disputed one. The current demarcation of the border line between Nepal and India is based on the Treaty of Sugauly signed by Nepal government and British India. However, the Indian side is accused of not accepting the evidence from the British era, which clearly shows the disputed land belonging to Nepal. Hence, it becomes somewhat clear that the Indian government is not willing to return the disputed territory to Nepal. It does not require an international relations expert to understand that Kalapani is strategically too important for India to give up.
The Problem – Nepal’s share
It is unknown why the last security post of the Indian border force was not removed from the Nepalese territory while rest of the 17 were dismantled. Some even believe that there must have been some sort of gentleman’s agreement between the then Nepalese King and the Indian government to let the Indian force use Kalapani. Veteran Nepalese journalist Bhairab Risal recently said in a television show that the then Prime Minister of Nepal Kirtinidhi Bista had said to him that the government was not aware of any Indian border force personnel staying back in Kalapani at the time. However, Mr Risal, who claims of having overseen a census in the territories of Limpiyadhura, Lipulek and Kalapani four decades ago, does not believe what Mr Bista said.
Come election seasons, political parties and their leaders time and again raise the issue of India’s border encroachment only to go mum on the subject once and if they come to power.
There is no evidence of any Nepalese Prime Minister ever having strongly raised this sovereignty-compromising issue with his Indian counterpart.
Using Kalapani issue only in slogans to gain cheap popularity but not actually mentioning it in important bilateral meetings surely suggests that the problem does not lie in India alone. The Nepalese government leadership is equally responsible for this continued tussle between two age-old friendly countries.
What’s the solution then?
Since the border dispute has been one of the most serious and longstanding issues between India and Nepal affecting their close people-to-people and bilateral ties, the two sides must work together to reach an early resolution before these affairs take some ugly turn.
As the border demarcation that the two countries follow now are based on British era treaty, India cannot not be adamant on not accepting the evidence of that time including the maps the British India published. Renowned border expert of Nepal, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, provides the historical evidences in an article about why these territories belong to Nepal:
- The Lipulekh Pass is a part of the Nepali territory is supported by many facts. The historic maps of 1827 and 1856 and among others, published by the British Survey of India, depict that the Western boundary of Nepal is extended up to Limpiyadhura, and the river originating from this point is named as ‘River Kalee.’
- Similarly, the ‘Old Atlas of China’ a map published during Qing Dynasty (1903), depicts, in Chinese characters, Limpiyadhura as the source of the Kali River. The word ‘Nepal’ is scribed in the map for the north-eastern part of the river.
Since the Treaty clearly mentions that borderline is the Kali River and its origin, it is not hard to resolve the dispute if both parties come open-minded to reach a resolution. However, since efforts by different bureaucratic bodies yielded no results, it is imperative that the two countries take up the issue at the highest political levels.
Because in 2015 India and China unilaterally decided to make Lipulekh a junction of their bilateral trade and pilgrim route despite Nepal’s claims on the territory, there is a need of trilateral consultations as well. During Xi’s recent state visit to Nepal, reports suggested that China was happy to hold talks on the subject.
Similarly, the news report that claimed recently quoting a Nepal’s Survey Department’s report regarding Chinese encroachment needs serious consideration too. While Chinese Embassy in Kathmandu already objected to that accusation, Nepal government is yet to respond and it is its responsibility to announce what its position is about the allegations of Chinese encroachment.
This is not the first time that the issue of encroachment of Nepalese borders stirred nationalistic fervour and fever in Nepal – it has happened before, many times. So, whether it will lead to yet another episode of silence of decisionlessness or it will lead to a peaceful resolution is the most important question of the hour. It depends more on how seriously Nepal government handles this violation of its sovereignty and how strongly it raises this subject while holding bilateral and trilateral meetings with India and China, if any. In any case, honesty and flexibility both on the part of India and Nepal will be paramount if any resolution is to achieved.
One thing is certain: merely burning effigies of the heads of governments of Nepal’s neighbouring countries will certainly not uphold the sanctity of Nepal’s international borders.
Bikram Timilsina, based in Brisbane, is a PhD Candidate at Griffith University’s School of Government and International Relations.
Ram Khatry, a New South Wales-based journalist, is the editor of southasia.com.au