South Asia

Announcement of India Foreign Secretary's Visit to Nepal Signals Thaw in Tension

India’s relationship with Nepal had worsened after Kathmandu had objected to a new political map released in November 2019 and then to a road inauguration at the border.

New Delhi: The Indian foreign secretary will be visiting Nepal this week, indicating that relations have thawed after a year of recriminations from Kathmandu over the lingering border dispute.

The dates for the visit were announced simultaneously by the Indian Ministry of External Affairs and the Nepal foreign affairs ministry.

“At the cordial invitation of Foreign Secretary Bharat Raj Paudyal, the Foreign Secretary of India, Harsh Vardhan Shringla, is paying a two-day official visit to Nepal from November 26 to 27,” said the press release from Nepal’s ministry of foreign affairs.

This will be Shringla’s first visit to Nepal after taking over office in January this year. 

According to the MEA’s readout, the Indian foreign secretary will meet with his counterpart and other Nepalese leaders “to discuss the wide-ranging bilateral cooperation between the two countries”.

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“India has historical and civilization linkages with Nepal. In recent years, bilateral cooperation has strengthened, with several major infrastructure and cross-border connectivity projects completed with India’s assistance. The visit will be an opportunity to further advance our bilateral ties,” it added.

India’s relationship with Nepal had worsened after Kathmandu had objected to a new political map released in November 2019. The map had been released to show the boundaries of the new Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, but it led to a negative reaction from Kathmandu which objected to Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura having been shown as Indian territory.

Nepal’s foreign ministry had publicly stated that it had proposed two dates to New Delhi to hold foreign secretary-level talks. However, India had remained non-committal, with official sources asserting that the issue had been deliberately provoked by Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Oli in an attempt to shore up his nationalist credentials.

While Shringla took over in late January 2020, the break out of the coronavirus pandemic worldwide, with countries shutting down borders meant that diplomatic travel was completely curtailed.

In May this year, the Nepal government lodged a protest after Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road to Lipulekh on the India-China border. Kathmandu called for urgent talks at the foreign secretary-level, even virtually, but India said that dates can only be decided after the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

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A month later in June, Nepal’s parliament passed a constitutional amendment bill to update the map in the national coat of arms to show areas claimed by India – Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh – within its borders. India had termed the move as “untenable”, and said it violated the mutual understanding that border disputes would be solved through dialogue.

Indian sources had asserted at that time that the responsibility lay on Nepal’s shoulder to create a “positive atmosphere” for any talks.

The first sign of thaw took place when Nepal Prime Minister called up Prime Minister Narendra Modi to convey greetings on India’s Independence Day.

In October, chief of India’s external intelligence agency, R&AW visited Nepal, followed by Army chief M.M. Naravane earlier this month, paving the way for Shringla’s long-awaited trip.

The visit will also take place when Nepal PM Oli is in the midst of yet another eruption of an ongoing intra-party power struggle. According to Nepalese media, the conflict in the ruling party has reached a “tipping point”, raising the spectre of a split again.