22 May 2020
On an unrelated note, The Notebook author Nicholas Sparks said, “It is never too late to do the right thing.” When it comes to settling border disputes between two sovereign nation states, however, just the opposite of what Sparks said becomes the preferable : sooner the better. Delay in dispute settlement may result in manipulation of information sources and distortion of facts from either or both the disputing parties.
Amid angry outbursts and rising protests, the Government of Nepal has finally inscribed a chunk of land into its newly updated administrative and political map. Evidences show that the disputed land in the northwest of Nepal has been in India’s unilateral political control since 1960s. Needless to say, the hotly disputed areas remain in India’s superintendence because of the heedlessness of Nepalese political leadership for the good part of past six decades.
The Nepalese government’s decision to update its political map to include the disputed areas of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh has been lauded across the country. However, there are some political ideologues who believe this should have been done only after a proper consultation with the Indian government. They argue that any aggression of this nature may have negative bearing on future diplomatic endeavors.
The Nepalese political leadership turned a blind eye towards the smouldering issue decades after decades, or at least did not show an immediacy in finding a resolution. It was not until Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the road linking Uttarakhand to Kailash Mansarovar that the Nepalese government responded promptly and decisively.
It’s hard to comprehend why Kathmandu remained irresolute on the Lipulekh matter for so long. Its dilemma in this matter was clearly reflected even recently when a TV host quizzed Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli, ‘What stops you from picking up the phone and ring your Indian counterpart Narendra Modi and invite him for a negotiation on the Lipulekh issue right this weekend?”
PM Oli had no clear answer to the simple question as he beat around the bush. He did not mention whether he was resolute enough to pull off an antic like that, nor did he mention when the negotiation may begin.
Only the massive protests across the country forced his government to issue a statement condemning India’s building of the link road in the disputed land as a ‘unilateral act’ and called it something that was against the understanding reached between the two countries to solve the boundary disputes through bilateral negotiations. Without the pressure of the public, the updated map may or may not have eventuated.
The land that does not serve the country
Restrained by geographical complexity and lack of political, cultural and economic linkages with rest of the country, people in the disputed hinterland have been historically ignored by Kathmandu’s elites.
Here, we are going to present four reasons why Nepal did not show promptness in resolving this issue despite experts of international law and cartographers claiming that Nepal possessed enough information even to internationalise the issue; although, most experts in Nepal favour resolving the matter bilaterally – so long as possible.
Nepal, which has never been a part of any military alliance at any point in history, does not realise the geopolitical and geostrategic sensitivity of the disputed region. Hence, it never attached any urgency to the matter.
Many may oppose this claim that Nepal was never a part of any strategic alliance as most view the Rana Regime’s affinity with British India as a strategic alliance. But we would prefer calling that an appeasement policy of the then Government of Nepal to save its own oligarchic regime at home. The Rana government did not have any “joint strategic mission” with the British India within the region or elsewhere.
These far-flung villages in the disputed areas are sparsely populated and yield meager agricultural products and revenue. As a result, the political leadership looked at it as an discountable hinterland that amounted to no significant economics in the context of Nepal’s total GDP.
Also, low population means the region is not “worth-investing” for political parties in terms of vote bank. Moreover, youths from the region are wont to go to major cities in India for employment or studies leaving the villages to elderly and economically less productive age group. There is no electoral incentive for Kathmandu’s power-hungry political parties and hence, the neglect of the region.
Lastly, lack of representation of the people living in these disputed areas in the national mainstream could have been responsible for Nepal government’s historical disinterestedness in reclaiming Lipulekh and other areas. There are no ethnic, cultural, religious and linguistic groups in these areas that find voice in the national politics of Nepal. For the average Kathmanduites, people in these areas may well be as distant as Americans living in some Washington DC suburbs for instance.
Whatever reasons behind Nepal’s indifference towards the disputed land may have been, it is now popularly believed that the country has enough evidence that strengthen its claim over Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani. The government should act more strongly and judiciously to protect and preserve its claim over the disputed land. The government can choose for arbitration if the need be.
Mahendra Gautam is a political science enthusiast from Kathmandu.
Amit Gautam works as a social science researcher with a Kathmandu-based research organisation.