Dr. Purna B. Silwal
28 May 2020
Despite Nepal’s unique and historical ties with India, the former has been encroached upon by the latter since 1950s. The dispute in Kalapani area was aggravated by India’s unilateral issue of a new political map in November 2019 as well as by the inauguration of a link road between Dharchula and Lipulekh Pass on May 8. It was followed by an unusually strong statement by Indian Army Chief General MM Naravane claiming Nepal’s objection to Lipulekh road was at the behest of some third party. Then the Government of Nepal issued an updated political map by incorporating Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh areas as laid out by the Sugauli Treaty.
The source of this entire debacle is the source of Kali River.
Nepal claims its western boundary in Kalapani area is defined by the 1816 Sugauli Treaty and 1860 Boundary Treaty with British-India. The maps issued by the British-India government after 1816 affirms and reaffirms Limpiyadhura as the source of the Kali River. Realizing the strategic importance of Lipulekh Pass, the British however tried to change the boundary after 1879. The map published by the Surveyor General of India in 1879 renamed the Kali River originating from Limpiyadhura as ‘Kuti Yangti’ River and the map issued in 1881 again changed the name to ‘Kuti’ River and the international boundary from Kali River to a line connecting a point north of Gunji village, Kalapani and further eastward along the ridgeline to Tinkar.
These changes were not legalised by any treaty or agreement between the two.
The Map of 1930/31 issued by the Surveyor of India has two editions; the first edition mentions the river originating from Limpiyadhura as Kuti River and second edition changes the name to Kuti Yangti and the river flowing from Lipulekh is named as Kali River. India’s latest stance also recognizes Kali River as the boundary river between Nepal and India. Nepal-Britain Treaty of 1923 reaffirmed Kali River as Nepal’s western boundary. Article II of the Treaty states “All previous treaties, agreements and engagements, since and including the Segowlie [Sugauli] Treaty of 1815, which have been concluded between the two Governments are hereby confirmed, except so far as they may be altered by present Treaty”.
The 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty between independent India and Nepal did not change the existing boundary between the two countries. Therefore, it would only be logical to conclude that no fresh treaty or agreement to modify the international boundary has taken place since 1816 and 1860 treaties. Thus, any unilateral publication of maps by British-India or independent India or even Nepal in contradiction to these two treaties has no legal validity whatsoever.
Unilaterally changing the origin and name of Kali River and shifting the boundary from Kali to the river flowing from Lipulekh in new maps without the support of corresponding treaties have worsened Nepal-India relations. Independent India also practically recognized Limipyadhura as the boundary river due to the fact that Nepal continued to administer Kalapani area even after 1947. Nepal conducted first democratic elections in 1960 and conducted population census in 1961 in Kuti, Nabi and Gunji village south of Limiyadhura along the eastern bank of the Kali River. These villages used to pay land tax through Nepal’s Darchula district office. Indian Army Chief Naravane also said that the area east of Kali River belongs to Nepal and the new link road was in fact to the west of the river. His statement has clearly narrowed down the dispute just to a fixing of the source of Kali River. Generally speaking, one can easily figure out the source of any particular river by its length, width and volume of water.
The situation had changed only when Indian Army retreating from their war with China in 1962 stayed in the area temporarily and continuing thus far. An agreement was made in 1968 between Nepal and India in which both sides committed not to build new infrastructure in Susta and Kalapani areas. India continuously violated the agreement on Kalapani due to its strategic importance. Undermining numerous facts mentioned above, Prof. S.D. Muni, in his recent article on Hindustan Times, says that the maps issued by the British in 1816 and 1860 generally favour the Nepalese position but the maps issued afterwards endorse that of India. He also maintains that Independent India was handed over access to Kalapani and Lipulekh by the British.
However, “handing over” of a piece of territory of a sovereign country without any bilateral agreement has no meaning.
Indian Army Chief’s claim that Nepal acted at the behest of China does not hold water. Because, it is India that used China in its favor at Kalapani-Lipulekh area when Nepal’s northern border was under its control through its 18 Indian military checkpoints and its headquarters in Kathmandu. Nepal had to struggle until 1972 to send back Indian Military Mission. The checkpoints were established along Nepal’s northern border with Tibet since February 1952. Leveraging this control, India signed bilateral agreement with China on Lipulekh in April 1954.
India’s strategic interests in Kalapani-Lipulekh area grew particularly since Chinese Army controlled Tibet in 1950. India sent protest notes to Beijing but recognized full Chinese suzerainty over Tibet on April 29, 1954 through an Agreement between the two countries. Article IV of the Agreement included Lipulekh Pass for mutual trade and travel of pilgrims between them. When this agreement was concluded, Nepal didn’t have a diplomatic relations with China, and Nepal was under India’s political and security influence. One can logically reach to a conclusion that India’s recognition of Chinese suzerainty in Tibet was at the cost of Nepali territory of Lipulekh Pass. In 1968, Nepal and India signed an understanding to maintain status quo ante at Susta and Kalapani. Has India kept its own commitment?
The road construction to Lipulekh is self-explanatory in this regard.
Since 1954, India was looking for a favorable Nepalese domestic political environment. Restoration of multiparty democracy in 1990 with India’s direct backing including economic sanction created such an environment. India quickly signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with China on “Resumption of Border Trade” in December 1991 during Chinese Premier Li Peng’s visit to New Delhi, and in July 1992 again both the countries signed a “Protocol of Entry and Exit Procedure” for border trade. Both the documents included Lipulekh Pass as border trading point. Prime Minister G.P. Koirala and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed in 2000 to settle the issue through an on-site study of Kalapani with the aim of concluding it in 2002.
In February 2005, King Gyanendra took over executive power to India’s great displeasure. On 11 April 2005, an agreement was signed between the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh. Article V of the agreement mentions that both sides agree in principle to expand the mechanism of border meeting points to include Lipulekh Pass.
Only weeks after Nepal was struck by powerful earthquakes on 25 April and May 12 in 2015 killing over 9,000 people, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi signed an agreement with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The joint statement talks about enhancing border cooperation through trade and pilgrimage through Lipulekh Pass. Nepal made its diplomatic protests to both India and China for the mention of its territory in a pact it was not party to.
India’s current strategy at Lipmiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh area is to delay diplomatic negotiation under various pretexts and wait for a favorable domestic environment in Nepal. This has been the trend since 1990s. Former Indian Ambassador to Nepal Manjeev S. Puri in his article in India Today (May 23, 2020) states, ‘The way forward is dialogue and that requires an appropriate bilateral environment not only free of corona but also sans the pulls and pushes of others through regional and global geopolitics”. Who will determine whether or not the regional and global geopolitics is free from the pulls and pushes, and when the countries will be free from Coronavirus?
A small state like Nepal cannot imagine of claiming a giant neighbour’s territory as its own. And Nepal is not imagining either. Hence, its pledge that it will not give up an inch of its sovereign territory. Nepal got back small chunk of its territory from British-India in 1860 which was lost since the Sugauli Treaty. The territory was given back in lieu of Nepal’s military contribution to suppress 1857 mutiny and earlier contributions to protect British-India’s interests. Likewise, Nepal has contributed over 200,000 youths to India since independence in 1947 to serve India’s security interests. Yet, Nepalese people do not expect an inch of Indian territory in lieu of its military contribution, but are anxiously watching whether or not India will return Nepal’s encroached territory as delineated by the treaties and agreements with British-India.
Disclaimer: Dr. Silwal is a retired Major General of the Nepalese Army. The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of his former employer.