It appears that India is fast losing its friends in the neighbourhood.
This time, the trouble stems from the Modi government’s most recent gift to Hindu pilgrims: a road to reach Kailash-Manasarovar in Tibet. The project was reportedly a top priority for the prime minister.
The road traverses territory claimed by Nepal. Hence, in a bid to assert its claim over the territory, the government of Nepal unveiled a new political map of the country which included the regions of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as part of its sovereign territory. Nepal has rejected India’s claim over these territories.
Releasing the new political map, Nepal’s minister of land management Padma Kumari Aryal said that Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli was committed to protecting the territorial sovereignty and integrity of the country. Nepal has also claimed a large tract of land across Uttar Pradesh’s Gorakhpur in Susta as a part of its territory in the new maps released on May 20 and has since asked India to remove “encroachments” from the area.
Indian army chief General M.M. Naravane’s remarks alleging that the Nepali government had protested the inauguration of India’s link road to Mount Kailash in Lipulekh at the behest of China were unfortunate and came at a time when all sections of Nepalese society – including all the political parties in the opposition – have objected to the construction of the road.
Shortly after Nepal released the new maps, India’s Ministry of External Affairs stated that Nepal’s revised map “includes parts of Indian territory” and that “this unilateral act is not based on historical facts and evidence”. It urged Kathmandu “to respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
However, India’s sovereignty over the Lipulekh Pass is yet to be established as it continues to be a disputed region. India’s claims do not acknowledge the fact that, in the last 26 years of discussions, the Nepal-India Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee, which was able to settle nearly 97% of the border, has failed to resolve the dispute over Kalapani and Susta. In 2009, the then Indian external affairs minister, Pranab Mukherjee, on a visit to Nepal said that both sides had “agreed to resolve the long standing border disputes between the two countries at various places, including Kalapani and Susta through further discussions.”
The popular protests, which erupted in Nepal a fortnight ago over India opening a link road to Lipulekh is a reprise of an old story. During my 17-year stay in Nepal, from 1997-2014, I witnessed many such popular protests by Nepalese political parties and people from almost all regions of Nepal against was seen as Indian encroachment in Kalapani and Susta. In India, news of these protests has been largely overlooked by the media, or when reported, Nepali complaints are treated as factually incorrect.
The Lipulekh Pass, which lies at the centre of the current dispute, is situated at an altitude of 5,000 metres. Nepal claims that the Indian army has encroached 372 square kilometres towards Limpiyadhura from Kalapani since the 1962 Indo-China war. At that time, Nepal, as a friendly neighbour, granted permission to the Indian army to set up a camp in the region.
Subsequently, despite several firm requests by Nepal’s prime minister at the time, Kirti Nidhi Bista, to evacuate the camp, Indian troops stayed put. Because of the asymmetric power relationship between the two countries, Nepal has not been able to force India to withdraw its troops from the area.
Demarcation of the modern India-Nepal border began on March 4, 1816, after the Treaty of Sugauli was signed between the British East India Company and the Kingdom of Nepal. The treaty, which declared the Mahakali River of Nepal as the border between the two countries, was expected to resolve border issues. It didn’t. Over the last six decades, the dispute over the border and the surrounding no-man’s land has continued to flare up every now and then.
It is noteworthy that nearly a hundred years after the signing of the Treaty of Sugali, in 1911 the Almora Gazetteer recorded that the Kali River “is formed by the union of two headwaters: the Kalapani river that originates below the Lipulekh Pas and the Kuthi Yankit river that rises below the Limpiyadhura range. Both the streams have been termed ‘Kali River’ on different occasions. The Kali River serves as the boundary between Uttarakhand (Kumaon region) and Nepal from Limpiyadhura (30.227°N 80.920°E). The Lipulekh pass, as well as the Limpayadhura pass (or Limpiya pass), are on Nepal border with Tibet”.
In addition to Mahakali/Sharda (West), Gandak/Narayani (South) and Mechi (East) are two other rivers which demarcate the border between India and Nepal. Around 600 kilometres of the India-Nepal border is defined by rivers: the Mechi in the east, Mahakali in the west, and Naryani in the Susta area.
Over the decades, these rivers have changed courses several times, giving rise to disputes, claims and counterclaims on land. The Nepal government claims that by taking advantage of Nepal’s negligence in guarding its borders, India has encroached on its borderland. Reports from Nepal claim that Indians from UP and Bihar have encroached on over 60,000 hectares of land in 23 out of the 75 bordering districts. There is a great deal of hue and cry in Nepal over encroachment, which unfortunately falls on deaf ears in India.
The former director-general of the Department of Survey of Nepal, claims that maps from 1850 and 1856, prepared by the Survey of India with the participation of Nepali authorities, clearly state that the Mahakal River originates from Limpiyadhura, 16 km northwest of Kalapani, thereby proving that Kalapani belongs to Nepal.
However, India has consistently refused to accept those maps as proof. Indian officials insist that a map drawn up by the British colonial government in 1875 should be considered instead. This map allegedly shows the origin of the Mahakali River to the east of Kalapani. Unlike the maps from 1850 and 1856, the 1875 map does not have Nepal’s certification.
The Nepalese people are fully aware of the precarious situation they are in. Long ago, Prithvi Narayan Shah – who unified Nepal and established the Shah dynasty – had described Nepal as a ‘yam’ between two hard rocks. Nepal continues to tread a careful path – maintaining cordial relations with two powerful neighbours and consolidating its independent status by reaching out to other nations and playing an important role in the United Nations.
The secretariat of SAARC is situated in Kathmandu. Nepal has also been at the forefront of efforts to secure the rights of landlocked countries in international law. Despite having gone through a series of political and social crises, the Himalayan nation has performed admirably in asserting and protecting its freedom of action vis-à-vis its two powerful neighbours, India and China.
The Indian army chief ‘s comments that Nepal has asserted its claim on Kalapani at the behest of China has clearly wounded Nepalese national sentiment.
The Nepali prime minister’s uncharacteristically harsh comment on India in Nepal’s parliament recently is an indication of a deepening sense of alienation, which India can ill afford. The army chief’s uncalled for foray into external relations and his attempts to drag China into this dispute may cause further complications.
Tapan Bose was secretary-general of South Asia Forum for Human Rights based in Kathmandu, Nepal.