Culturally speaking, India and Nepal share a great people to people interaction. But lately the two countries have been in news not for the camaraderie they share but the border tensions. Like China was not enough! In this article, we provide the explanation of the map related row that’s been brewing up. Also, a general outlay of the bilateral relation is discussed to provide a better understanding for your preparation.
Construction of an 80-km-long road through the Lipulekh Pass got the 2 Himalayan neighbors into the fighting arena. The road was constructed with the purpose to reduce the travel time for Indian pilgrims visiting the religious shrine at Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet. Nepal claims it to be violation of it’s borders.
But first some geography – Lipulekh Pass
- In Uttarakhand, Lipulekh Pass comes under Chaudans valley of Dharchula, a sub-district of Pithoragarh district in the Kumaon region where it links with the Byash Valley of Nepal and with Tibet, an Autonomous Region of China.
- The famous pilgrimage to Mount Kailash that is also known as Kailash Mansarovar Yatra, traverses from this pass.
- The 17,000-feet high Pass is located close to the disputed Kalapani area, which is claimed by both sides.
So, what is the issue?
- The inauguration of the “new road to Mansarovar” on May 8 by India’s defence minister has strained the relations between Nepal and India.
- While India argues that Kalapani is a part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, Nepal claims it falls in its Darchula district.
- The 1816 Sugauli Treaty between Nepal and British India placed all the territories east of the Kali (Mahakali) river, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh at the northwestern front of Nepal, on its side.
- Lipu Lekh pass is 4 km northwest and Limpiyadhura 53 km west of Tinker pass.
- The borders of Nepal, India and China intersect in this area.
- Given the situation in 1961, Nepal and China fixed pillar number one at Tinker pass with the understanding that pillar number zero (the tri-junction of Nepal, India, and China) would be fixed later.
The Treaty of Sugauli
- Treaty of Sagauli, (March 4, 1816), an agreement between the Gurkha chiefs of Nepal and the British Indian government that ended the Anglo-Nepalese (Gurkha) War (1814–16).
- By the treaty, Nepal renounced all claim to the disputed Tarai, or lowland country, and ceded its conquests west of the Kali River and extending to the Sutlej River.
- Nepal remained independent, but it received a British resident with the status of an ambassador to an independent country rather than of the controlling agent of the supreme government in an Indian state.
Why is Lipulekh important for India?
- For India, the Lipulekh pass has security implications. After its disastrous 1962 border war with China, it was concerned about a possible Chinese intrusion through the pass and has been keen to hold on to the strategic Himalayan route to guard against any future incursions.
- The link road via Lipulekh Himalayan Pass is also considered one of the shortest and most feasible trade routes between India and China.
- The Nepalese reaction would probably have triggered in response to Chinese assertion.
What is Nepal’s saying in all this?
- Nepal claims Kalapani is a part of its territory, based on the Sagauli Treaty signed by Nepal’s Gurkha chiefs and British India on March 4, 1816, to end their three-year-long Anglo-Nepalese War.
- It asserts that it ceded control of the areas west of the Kali River, as well as the disputed Tarai, but retained stretches east of the water body, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipulekh as per the agreement.
- In 2015, Nepal had also expressed its disagreement over India and China agreed to include Lipulekh Pass as a bilateral trade route in a joint statement during PM Modi’s visit to Beijing.
- Nepal surrendered a part of its western territory in 1816 after its forces were defeated by the British East India company.
- The subsequent Sugauli treaty defined the origin of the Kali river as Nepal’s border point with India. But the two countries differ on the source of the Kali river.
- India argues that the exact coordinates of the river were not mentioned in the treaty and claims that improved survey techniques have redrawn the map in the years since.
So has China been meddling?
- The suspicion in Delhi is Kathmandu’s new-found confidence is because of Chinese backing.
- The Indian army chief, General MM Naravane, has said publicly that Nepal “might have raised this problem at the behest of someone else” – an indirect reference to alleged Chinese interference.
- And some mainstream right-wing media in India have called Nepal “China’s Proxy” for raising the border issue. The remarks did not go down well in Kathmandu.
Solving border disputes
- Assuming that there is political buy-in from the leadership on both sides, the one workable solution is to seek some form of co-management or shared sovereignty for the disputed territory.
- There are many bold possibilities: maybe there could be a joint deployment of military and police forces, as during the 1960s on the Nepal-China border.
- Given the trade potential, both countries could also consider establishing a special economic zone.
- Finally, it is in the interest of both that Indian and Nepali pilgrims can use the improved infrastructure in the Kalapani region to reach Mount Kailash.
- The next steps should be approval of the strip maps by the respective governments (that of the Nepalese Government is still awaited), the resolution of the differences of opinion over Kalapani and Susta, and speeding up the erection of damaged or missing border pillars.
Various facets of India-Nepal ties
1. Cultural ties
- While enjoying their own peculiarities, both India and Nepal share a common culture and ways of life.
- Religion is perhaps the most important factor and plays a predominant role in shaping the cultural relations between these two countries, marked by a cross country pilgrimage on Char Dham Yatra, Pashupatinath Temple and some Buddhist sites.
- A considerable section of Nepalese comprises of Madhesi population which has familial & ethnic ties with states of Bihar, UP.
2. Strategic ties
- Nepal is a buffer state between India and China.
- Several Nepali Citizens are also deployed in Indian defence forces as well.
3. Political ties
- Constitutional turmoil is not new in Nepal. India has played a vital role in the democratic transition in Nepal against the monarch King Gyanendra.
- Nepali Congress (NC) is one of the country’s oldest parties which supports relations with India, but the communist parties show a tilt towards China.
4. Economic ties
- Nepal is an important export market for India.
- Himalayan rivers flowing through Nepal can be used for Hydroelectric power projects which will benefit border states of UP, Bihar and other adjacent areas.
- There are three major water deals between Nepal and India, namely the Kosi Agreement, the Gandak Treaty and the Mahakali Treaty. India also exports Power to Nepal.
- Also, Nepal is the largest borrower of Indian Currency in South Asia.
India’s importance to Nepal
- India is the nearest foreign employer to Nepali Citizens, which provides various avenues of work and ease in assimilation into a foreign culture.
- Nepal’s reluctance to Mandarin has overturned several Nepali students into Indian universities.
- India is the only potential neighbour who could harness Nepal’s hydropower.
- Moreover, Indian tourists are the major movers of Nepal’s tourism sector.
Major Irritants in bilateral ties
1) Nepali nationalism and Anti-India sentiments
- Anti-India Sentiment in Nepal is largely politically motivated as it is wrongly perceived as India’s backing to Monarchy.
- The widening gap in understanding each other’s concerns has helped feed Nepali nationalism and create a dense cloud of distrust and suspicion between the two countries.
- The gap widened after India chose to impose an economic blockade in response to Nepal’s sovereign decision to promulgate a democratic constitution.
2) China factor
- Increasing Chinese presence in Nepal is one of the major concern for India. China’s move to extend the rail link to its border with Nepal can reduce its dependence on India.
- Fundamentally these Chinese agencies are building up anti-India sentiments in Nepal.
- Nepal’s assent for “One Belt One Region” (OBOR) initiative of China is viewed by India with suspicion.
- Nepal has been slowly fallen prey to China’s inroad debt trap policy.
3) India has ignored the changing political narrative for long
- The reality is that India has ignored the changing political narrative in Nepal for far too long.
- For too long India has invoked a “special relationship”, based on shared culture, language and religion, to anchor its ties with Nepal.
- The 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship which was sought by the Nepali authorities in 1949 is viewed as a sign of an unequal relationship, and an Indian imposition.
4) Open borders
- The issue of open borders has also been a point of debate in Nepal in recent years- Nepalese people argue that India is benefiting more from it than Nepal.
- It has an open border with India which leads to problems such as illegal migrants, counterfeit currency entry, drug and human trafficking.
5) Madhesis Issue
- Madhesis share extensive cross-border ethnic and linguistic links with India. India’s involvement in Nepali politics and the upsurge in Madhesi have deep roots in history and unless resolved.
- Madhesis protest and India’s blockade soured the relations for the worst.
- The onus is on India to rethink on a long-term basis how to recalibrate its relationship with Nepal provided Nepal should not ignore its relations with India.
- Broader engagement from both sides is essential towards finding a solution that satisfies both sides.
- There are many possible modalities. Maybe it could include joint military deployment, special access rights for Nepali citizens or even a free-trade zone with China.
- The India-Nepal border issues appear more easily solvable, so long as there is political goodwill and statecraft exercised on both sides.
The way to move forward is to formally approve the strip maps, resolve the two remaining disputes, demarcate the entire India-Nepal boundary, and speedily execute the work of boundary maintenance.
The Indian road was not built overnight and the Nepal government was surely aware and monitoring the situation in Kalapani over the preceding months and years.
But now the row appears to have reached an impasse. The Nepal PM’s earlier remarks on a solution, with possible road leasing to India, is a welcome step towards de-escalation. As both countries are laying claim to the same piece of land, the time has come for both countries to sit for talks to solve this issue.
But since then, we have only seen repeated moves from both sides that have raised the temperature, further politicized the issue and thus made the dialogue more difficult. Nepal’s earlier demands were focused on the withdrawal of troops from Kalapani; its recent position now includes the insistence of Limpiyadhura as the headwaters.
India may continue to defuse the crisis through back channels but this is no longer sustainable as the dispute had become a “permanent irritant” after Nepal’s new map.
Based on their history of friendly relations and driven by pragmatism, it should not be difficult for India and Nepal to think out of the box and find a practical solution. Delhi and Kathmandu could lead the way to liberate the subcontinent from the sovereignist, nationalist and territorial logic that continues to leave everyone in the region worse off.