India-Nepal Ties Need a Diplomatic Dialogue – and Not Ultra-Nationalism – to Recover

Only a political resolution of the dispute can show the way forward.

Just as one thought India-Nepal relations were on the mend – as New Delhi had resigned to the China-friendly, K.P. Oli-led Nepal Communist Party government lasting its full term till 2023 – with a focus on Nepal’s economic prosperity and timely delivery on projects, two map-making events, one by India and the other by Nepal, have marred the uptick.

On November 2 last year, India put out its new political map after the reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir. It showed Kalapani, claimed by Nepal in Uttarakhand, exactly as it was in the old map. This led to highly emotional protests that I witnessed. Following the exchange of diplomatic notes, Nepal said that despite two reminders for restarting a foreign secretary-level dialogue mechanism, India had not provided a date for talks. Despite demands for Nepal’s own new map incorporating claimed areas, Oli on November 16 said there would be no new map. But on December 12, minister for land and poverty alleviation, Padma Aryal, contradicted Oli and said Nepal will soon come out with its own map.

COVID-19 took over and the map issue became dormant.

On May 8, defence minister Rajnath Singh tweeted in the midst of the pandemic that he had inaugurated the blacktop road to Lipulekh pass under construction since 2012. The road acted as the second spike, as Kathmandu claimed that 19 km of the road upto Lipulekh was on its territory. The Army chief, General M.M. Naravane, who is honorary general of the Nepal Army, added fuel to the fire by saying the protests were at the behest of another country, alluding to China, though it could have been Pakistan.

Also read: The Kalapani Imbroglio: Has India Pushed Nepal Too Far?

This reignited country-wide protests despite the lockdown. Another exchange of diplomatic notes, followed culminating in Aryal issuing a new map, a dagger into Uttarakhand encompassing 335 square km of claimed land including Limpiya Dhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani. In parliament, Oli reiterated Nepal’s intent to reclaim areas under Indian occupation diplomatically but used insensitive language about the Indian emblem on the flag and rated the Indian virus more virulent than Chinese or Italian, injuring civilisational relations between the two countries. This is the first time since 1860 that Nepal has issued a new map with cartographic accretion of territory.

In addition, a parliamentary resolution on reclaiming land is in the making, as is a constitutional amendment incorporating the new map. Three new border posts are being established near the Indian Kalapani post. Nepali foreign secretary Shankar Bairagi met the Chinese ambassador in Kathmandu, Hou Yanqi, on the Lipulekh pass across which border trade between India and China commenced in 1954 and was formalised by a trade agreement in 2015 – China tacitly acknowledging India’s suzerainty over it. While Beijing said Kalapani is a bilateral issue between India and Nepal, the media on both sides has gone ballistic over the border dispute. India reacted exceptionally sharply to Nepal’s map:

“…what Nepal has done was contrary to bilateral understanding to resolve the issue through diplomatic dialogue. Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India and it hopes Nepalese leadership will create a positive atmosphere for dialogue and resolution of border dispute.”

Conflicting claims to Kalapani starting in 1816, after the Treaty of Sagauli between Nepal and British India, are based on contesting evidence: four to six maps of varying British vintage, the last in 1923, showing different sources of River Mahakali supported by historical documents and anecdotal records that 26 years of field reconnaissance by Joint Technical Boundary Committee (India-Nepal) starting 1981 could not resolve.

At the heart of the dispute is the source of the Mahakali, which demarcates the western borders of Nepal. Nepal claims Limpiya Dhura and India claims a tributary near Kalapani as a source of the river. For India, Kalapani has both spiritual (pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar) and strategic importance, since it overlooks Lipulekh Pass and is a foil to Chinese PLA garrison at Taklakot.

India’s new political map (left) includes the territory of Kalapani. Nepal’s official map (right) also shows Kalapani inside its border. Photo: India’s home ministry and Nepal’s survey department

Kalapani and Lipulekh are also linked to the India-China boundary question and the trijunction of India, Nepal and China which New Delhi says is east of Lipulekh. The ITBP posts at Kalapani and Navidang have been patrolling upto Lipulekh pass since the mid-1960s. Incidentally, when joint India-Nepal border check posts were established in the Nepal Tibet border in 1952 and vacated in 1970, Kalapani and Lipulekh Pass were not occupied. Ninety-eight percent of the 1,800 km India-Nepal border is settled, except for Kalapani and Susta.

Negotiations had stated in earnest in 1996, with the signing of the Mahakali Treaty by a Communist government in Nepal which required a two-thirds majority in parliament. Nepal would have refused endorsing the Treaty had it any serious reservations on the source of Kali river. Kalapani did come up and then Prime Minister I.K. Gujral said: “If Nepal can prove Kalapani belongs to it, we will give it up.” In 1999, foreign minister Jaswant Singh on a visit to Nepal said: “India is prepared to resolve Kalapani issue through negotiations.” This was repeated by other Indian prime ministers too. Some Indian diplomats though have said Nepal was not serious about negotiations, which has been repudiated by Kathmandu.

Between the publication of the Indian map in November and inauguration of road to Lipulekh Pass in May, a huge political row had erupted around May Day in Kathmandu within the ruling NCP, in which executive chairman Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda had challenged Oli’s leadership in the endless power struggle between them that was defused by China’s interference in Nepal’s internal affairs – an intervention that Beijing had previously said was inconsistent with its diplomatic tenets. A diminished and convalescing (his second kidney transplant) Oli clutched at straws of the border dispute to revive his political stock in the party. Oli has become adept at using ultra-nationalism for India bashing.

Also read: India Should Realise China Has Nothing to Do With Nepal’s Stand on Lipulekh

New Delhi could have handled the simmering dispute with more finesse. A date ought to have been fixed after re-ignition of the row over publication of India’s map and a roadmap drawn for negotiations. Singh need not have announced the inauguration of the road and let sleeping dogs lie. Equally, Naravane should have refrained from making inadvisable comments. Before Nepal released its map, India had said dialogue would resume after the pandemic had settled. India ceded a lot of goodwill in 2015 after its inept reaction to Nepal’s new constitution and Madhesi blockade that caused immense pain and hurt to ordinary Nepalis. The task of bridging the trust deficit is monumental and India was on the right path till the map and road combo derailed the process.

Kalapani is a highly emotive issue for Nepal as there is an Indian military post there allegedly on its soil. It is shown on its territory in official and tourist maps on Nepali. In its latest communique, India has asked Nepal to create a positive ambience for resumption of dialogue. Cartographic disputes, especially fixing the source of a boundary river involving watershed, are not easy to resolve as evidenced by the fruitless labour of the Joint Technical Committee. Possession is a tipping factor in the dispute. Only a political resolution of the dispute is the way forward. Although still not at that stage, both countries can consider the concept of joint sovereignty; Nepal leasing Kalapani enclave in perpetuity to India in exchange of India doing the equivalent elsewhere. But even if these ideas are anathema in present times of hyper-nationalism, they may need a shot.

Nepal is planning to legitimise its map through a constitutional amendment and internationalise it. This will be an extremely disruptive step and will irreparably damage India-Nepal relations. Diplomacy must pre-empt the constitutional amendment, with a virtual foreign secretary-level meeting held immediately.

Ashok K. Mehta, a retired Major General from the Gorkha Regiment, has known Nepal since 1959 and trekked extensively across the country.