The inauguration of the “new road to Mansarovar” on May 8 in the midst of a global pandemic by India’s defence minister, Rajnath Singh, has strained the relations between Nepal and India. A section of the road passes through the territory of Nepal and links with the Tibetan Autonomous Region of China through the Lipu Lekh pass in Nepal. 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. 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. Lipu Lekh pass is 4 km northwest and Limpiyadhura 53 km west of Tinker pass.
The dispute over the Kalapani area has spanned the last seven decades. The issue of Indian presence in the area came to the frontline of Nepali politics after the advent of democracy in 1990. Since that time, Nepal has been raising this issue with India at prime ministerial levels. Both Nepal and India have recognised it as an outstanding border issue requiring an optimal resolution. In August 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Nepal in 17 years, Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala raised this issue again. The two prime ministers agreed to resolve the issue on a priority basis and directed their foreign secretaries “to work on the outstanding boundary issues including Kalapani and Susta”. In a 45-minute speech to Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, Prime Minister Modi “touched the hearts and minds of all the Nepalese people”. He erased many long-standing misperceptions about India and laid “the foundation for new relationship” between the two countries.
However, this euphoria took no time to evaporate. There was virtually no progress on the ground. In May 2015, Prime Minister Modi visited China, and the two countries agreed to “enhance border areas cooperation” and “transform the border into a bridge of cooperation and exchanges, at …Lipu Lekh pass”. The May 2015 agreement is a broad one compared to the 1954 India-China agreement “on trade and intercourse between Tibet Region of China and India”, which mentions Lipu Lekh pass as one of the six passes “through which traders and pilgrims of both countries may travel”.
Nepal protested against the inclusion of its territory, Lipu Lekh, in the joint statement without its consent and demanded that the two countries make necessary corrections to reflect the ground realities. The protest was ignored. This is a flagrant violation of the principle of “sovereign equality of all states”. Welcoming the improved relations between India and China and their greater cooperation as a development of great international significance, Nepal stands ready to facilitate connectivity between its two neighbours while also demanding that they “respect its core concerns of sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Nepal published a new map including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh. The chief of the Indian Army described Nepal’s protests as triggered at the “behest of someone”, widely considered to be alluding to China. This is an insult to Nepali people who are fiercely proud of their historic independence. Nepal judges every issue on its merits without “fear or favour” and takes positions in the supreme interests of the nation. Nepal’s political parties, despite their ideological differences, have shown the capacity to forge a consensus in safeguarding the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
The tone of Nepal-India relations appears to be dominated by frustrations of the past and traditional attitudes more than the opportunities of the future. 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. True friends on either side of the border should not want this to happen. The gap widened after India chose to impose an economic blockade in response to Nepal’s sovereign decision to promulgate an inclusive democratic constitution in September 2015 under the leadership of the Nepali Congress. It is no secret that the current ruling Communist Party of Nepal made people’s anger over the blockade its campaign plank during the 2017 general election , while projecting the NC as pro-Indian.
Nepal-India relations are deep, wide-ranging, and unique, but also fraught with complexities. Much of the complexity stems from the fact that the political leadership handles only a small part of this very important bilateral relationship. India as a big neighbour is rarely seen grasping the psychological dimensions of the relationship. Officials handling these multifaceted relations may momentarily influence the atmospherics but they rarely touch the core of these relations, let alone reorient or transform them in the rapidly changing context. This is manifest in the deferring of substantive conversations on the outstanding boundary issue for decades. The foreign secretary level mechanism has not met even once to discuss the border issue since its formation. There are over three dozen bilateral mechanisms between Nepal and India to engage at various levels. The meetings of these mechanisms are rarely regular.
Geography, history, and economy make Nepal and India natural partners, sharing vital interest in each other’s freedom, integrity, dignity, security and progress. People-to-people relations are unique strengths of bilateral relations. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the Indian Parliament in 1950, “…we desire above all a strong and progressive, independent Nepal… our chief need, not only our need but also the world’s need is peace and stability in Nepal at present”. Prime Minister Modi in 2014 told Nepal’s Constituent Assembly, “How can India be happy if Nepal is unhappy?” Nepal is unhappy with the developments at the border. Yet, the two countries who sit so close to each other are far from having solution-oriented dialogues, which are perceived to be an indispensable part of the “neighbourhood first” policy.
The border dispute looks minor, but allowing it to fester is likely to sow the seeds of immense competition and intense rivalry in the sensitive Himalayan frontier with far-reaching geopolitical implications. Nepal wants to prosper as an independent and sovereign state and be helpful to its neighbours, emerging as the main pillar of a world order that is struggling to be born, and remain productively and constructively engaged with the wider international community.
This article appeared in the print edition of June 10, 2020, under the name ‘How to be friends in deed’. The writer has been advisor on foreign affairs to prime ministers of Nepal and ambassador to the UN
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