The once cordial relationship between India and Nepal—the two neighbouring States—has been damaged after a border defined by a two-century-old treaty has come under dispute. India’s inauguration of a new road linking Dharchula in Uttarakhand with Lipulekh Pass for pilgrims has come under severe criticism, as both the States begin frantically to claim the territory by publishing contradictory maps, while the role of China is less than innocent.
All is not well on the eastern front for India. The inauguration of a new road linking Dharchula in Uttarakhand to Lipulekh Pass as a new route for the Kailash Mansarovar pilgrims on May 8, 2020 by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has attracted a strong response from the neighbour and an old ally, Nepal. Following this, the Government of Nepal under Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli published a new political map of Nepal and has claimed the territories of Kalapani, Limpidhuriya and Lipulekh which the Indian State calls its own. This move has caused a huge uproar in India with the Indian Army Chief General MM Navarane hinting that Nepal may be acting at the ‘behest’ of China.
The recent developments between the two nations are neither sudden nor insignificant in any way. In fact, there were a number of events in the past that set stage for escalated tensions between the once amicable neighbouring states. It all started with the demarcation of the boundary between erstwhile British India and the Kingdom of Nepal under the Treaty of Sugauli, signed after the Anglo-Nepalese war in 1816. Under this treaty, River Kali also known as Mahakali was determined as the acting border between the two States, the territories on eastern side of which belonged to Nepal while the territories on the west of the river came under British India. However, it was all agreed upon more than two centuries ago and the river Kali has changed course many times over these years. The root of the current border dispute lies in the fact that both parties disagree upon the origin and location of the river and cite separate colonial era maps to prove their claim. This instance, however, does not reflect the true picture of Indo-Nepal relations as both nations have had close economic and cultural ties for a long part of history. It is important to note that Nepal is the only other country, after Bhutan, with which India shares an open international border that runs for 1690 kilometres over the Himalayan territories and the Indo-Gangetic plains. India also provides Nepal with access to the sea as the latter is a landlocked country.
Given the close bond between the South Asian neighbours, one wonders how did things come to a boil? Let us rewind to the Indo-China War in 1962. The Chinese aggression on the eastern front awakened India from a defenceless slumber and approached its neighbour for help. Although India had a defence post on the Lipulekh Pass since early 1950s, the looming Chinese threat pressed for more troops and military presence in the Himalayan border region to which Nepal readily agreed. On Nepal’s insistence, India withdrew from 16 out of 17 border military posts but held the one at Kalapani to which the erstwhile King Mahendra of Nepal did not object. To understand the importance of the Kalapani post, it is imperative to mention that the region is located at the tri-junction of India, Nepal and China and the elevation at the Lipulekh Pass provides for a geopolitical strategic advantage which India is not willing to relent. Furthermore, the recent bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir into two union territories by the Indian Parliament called for the release of a new political map of India which showed the disputed region as Indian territory. The release of the new political map of India in November 2019 was met with large scale demonstrations and protests in Nepal, which the Indian media conveniently brushed aside. By releasing its own political map in May 2020, Nepal lodged an official complaint against India’s ‘unilateral’ act of flagging off the new road to Lipulekh Pass.
Many in India have questioned the intentions and rationale behind such a move on the part of the Government of Nepal. By far, the Chinese angle to the story bypasses other speculations by a mile. In India, it is widely believed that Kathmandu is acting at the bidding of Beijing as the new map of Nepal, that claims the above-mentioned territories, was released days after news of clashes between the Indian and Chinese defence personnels in Ladakh came to light. Few seem to acknowledge the dissatisfaction of the ordinary Nepali citizen against the Indian ambition, the citizen who stands in solidarity with his Prime Minister in calling out the infringement of their lands by the Indian forces. Anti-India sentiment has been on the rise in Nepal, especially, after the 2015 Indian blockade against the Oli Government. The blockade is considered one of the biggest economic and humanitarian crises faced by Nepal as the country was already suffering from the after-effects of a devastating earthquake. It is not the first time a country has tried to meddle with the domestic politics of Nepal; maybe it is the curse of a nation that is stuck between two regional powers. After the advent of democracy in Nepal, both India and China have tried to sway the internal politics of the Himalayan state in their favour, which has only fanned the fire of civil unrest in the country. In fact, the Nepali public is equally resentful of China for tacitly supporting India in building a road on a traditional tri-junction to increase the volume of bilateral economic activity while leaving Nepal out of negotiations. Clearly, it is public pressure that has shaped Kathmandu’s stance on the Lipulekh issue against New Delhi.
In lieu of all these, can we acquit China of foul play in the latest cartographic stand-off between India and Nepal? The answer is No. In this month alone, the Indian and Chinese armed forces have clashed at a number of sectors in two States, namely, Pangong Tso, Galwan Valley and Demchok in Ladakh and Nathu La sector in Sikkim over a 4036 kilometres-long Sino-India border. Although no bullets have been fired, soldiers on both sides have been injured, according to media reports. Such skirmishes have led to an increased military presence on the Indo-China border where around 10,000 PLA soldiers are believed to be camping on the Indian soil. In retaliation, India has also sent troops to safeguard its eastern front from trespassing. Both the governments have been downplaying the incident; however, it is the biggest military stand-off between the two regional heavy weights since Doklam in 2017. The two nations have a history of unresolved border disputes with competing claims over regions of Arunachal Pradesh and Aksai Chin and the current tensions can quickly take an ugly turn if left unaddressed. At this juncture, one can only speculate China’s motive behind such belligerence. With problems mounting on many fronts, such as protests in Hong Kong, deteriorating relations with the United States and salvaging a COVID-hit economy, Beijing is too full to instigate or deal with minor border skirmishes with New Delhi. Experts have cited two possible explanations for the ongoing confrontations; first, the recent hostilities are triggered by infrastructural activities by India along the border, and second, China is trying to divert international attention from its lack of transparency in handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Keeping in mind the aforementioned motives, the popular Indian claim of Nepal acting out of China’s bidding amidst COVID crisis cannot be overlooked.
The ongoing neighbourhood squabble has shed light on various inadequacies of each country involved, which must be dealt with for the benefit of the entire South Asian region. India has traditionally considered Nepal its strategic backyard, but the times have changed and India too needs to change its approach with respect to Nepal and treat it as an equal partner. Nepal, on the other hand, must learn to carefully balance between India and China as it can get easily sandwiched between the two nuclear armed superpowers. It is a precarious time for China when all the eyes are on the dragon, especially, after the COVID pandemic and any miscalculation on its part could wreak havoc in the region.
Aishwarya Pokhriyal is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.