Kathmandu: “There has never been any problem in the past. There is reason to believe that they might have raised the issues at the behest of someone else…” Indian Army chief General M.M. Naravane was quoted as saying on May 15.
He was referring to Nepal’s recent official complaint with India over the latter’s inauguration of a new 75-km track to Lipulekh, a tri-junction point between Nepal, India and China. On May 8, Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh had remotely flagged off the road that will now be the shortest route to Kailash Mansarovar for Indian pilgrims.
The Indian army chief’s statement sparked a furore in Nepal after he hinted at China’s hand behind Kathmandu’s decision to lodge a complaint against the new road. Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, summoned Vinay Mohan Kwatra, the Indian envoy to Nepal, and handed him an official note of protest.
Naravane’s statement was both inaccurate and insensitive. The fact is that the government took India on over Lipulekh because there was immense public pressure to do so; China had absolutely no role in this issue. In fact, most Nepalis are as angry with India as they are with China over the recent developments. Why did China let India build the road on a traditional tri-junction point without consulting Nepal, they asked. Did the Indian action have tacit Chinese support? Foreign minister Gyawali has met the Chinese envoy to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, seeking clarification. Nepal is also preparing to hold high-level discussions with China.
Perhaps what upset the Indian army chief was Nepal’s Armed Police Force (APF) setting up a new border post close to Lipulekh following India’s inauguration of the new road to Kailash Mansarovar. The APF is a paramilitary outfit in which China has invested heavily, partly because its deployment on the border with China has helped stem the tide of Tibetan refugees entering Nepal.
Recent Chinese activism
Chinese engagement in Nepal has increased in recent years, particularly after the 2016 ouster of K.P. Oli during his first stint as prime minister. Oli was replaced by a Nepali Congress-Maoist coalition, led by Sher Bahadur Deuba. China had been, for some time, cultivating the Nepali communists and urging the two top communist forces in the country—the CPN-UML and the UCPN (Maoist)—to unite. This was part of Beijing’s plan to have a strong and stable power centre in Kathmandu after the abolition of the Nepali monarchy in 2008. It calculated, rightly so, that the communists would soon be the strongest force in the country.
Partly on China’s urging, the two large communist parties united in May 2018 to form the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), following the communist coalition’s resounding electoral victory in 2017. Oli became the prime minister for the second time. But infighting soon started to plague the new party, and the NCP again appeared close to a split. It was then that Chinese envoy Hou Yanqi stepped up her activism in Kathmandu and President Xi Jinping even phoned his Nepali counterpart Bidya Devi Bhandari—all supposedly to keep the NCP intact. The split was forestalled.
Yet it would be wrong to infer that China was solely responsible for the NCP’s formation or for keeping it intact. It was just one factor. And such Chinese meddling has not come without a cost. Many Nepalis now see Beijing as openly interfering in Nepali politics, much like India has traditionally done. Recently, the Chinese embassy in Nepal issued a veiled threat against a Nepali newspaper editor, sparking fears that China was trying to export its restrictive press freedom to Nepal. All these things have marred China’s image.
Now, China is seen as tacitly supporting what is seen by Nepal as Indian encroachment in Kalapani. The Indian army chief’s statement is thus confounding. It didn’t just misread facts on the ground; the tone also reminded Nepalis of India’s traditional ‘big brother’ attitude.
India has had an army base in the Kalapani region near the Lipulekh pass since the early 1950s. Following Nepal’s request, India withdrew 16 of the 17 border army posts in 1970 but not the one at Kalapani. The Nepali monarch at the time, King Mahendra, whom the Indians saw as close to China, did not want to further alienate the Indians and didn’t object to India’s retention of the post there. Since the revival of democracy in Nepal in 1990, successive Nepali governments have requested India to remove the post and return the land to Nepal. India has stayed put.
Things came to a boil in November 2019 when India published a new edition of its political map t0 take into account the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir. This map showed the Kalapani territory, including Lipulekh pass, whose ownership Nepal disputes, as falling entirely within Indian territory.
Even though Lipulekh is acknowledged to be a tri-junction point, most Nepalis have grown up believing that the rest of the Kalapani region belongs entirely to Nepal. So each time India’s cartographic assertions come as a shock.
The new road in Lipulekh and the Indian army chief’s unequivocal statement that most of Kalapani falls within India has reignited anti-India fervour that had reached an apogee during the 2015-16 border blockade.
India had kept its army installation in Kalapani as the area was of high strategic value. The high ground of India’s army post there allows it to monitor the highland passes with Tibet far into the distance. Following the 1962 war, India felt that it could not leave the sector unattended.
India has given Nepali officials reason to believe that the army post is as important to it today as it was in 1962, even though it can now monitor the movement on the segment through drones or satellites.
Then there is the economic logic. Since 2009, India and China have repeatedly tried to develop Lipulekh Pass as a bilateral trade route, by bypassing Nepal, supposedly because that is what India wants. Separately, Chinese President Xi Jinping is believed to be keen on the development of Tibet. Xi reckons Tibet can develop only via greater linkages with India, the economic giant next-door.
Another reason for India’s interest in Kalapani is religious. The Hindu nationalist Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to get the credit for opening a direct route to one of the holiest Hindu religious sites.
Given the high importance India attaches to Kalapani and China’s seeming nonchalance over the issue, the common feeling in Kathmandu is that China is not ready to compromise its important relationship with India over Nepal.
Therein lies the great paradox. On the one hand, India and China are seen to be vigorously competing for influence in Nepal, and on the other, they seem to be on the same page when it comes to buttressing their trade ties by impinging on Nepal’s sovereignty.
Indian strategic thinkers have not minced their words in condemning China’s growing inroads in Nepal, and the need for New Delhi to stem this tide. But two respected Nepali geopolitical analysts I spoke to for this article saw the inauguration of the Lipulekh road, in the middle of a pandemic, not as a reflection of Oli’s proximity to China, but on the contrary, as India’s warning to ‘pro-China’ Oli to maintain a safe distance from China. In this reading, if Oli gets the message, India could be amenable to a three-country solution over Lipulekh, say, by including Nepal in a new trade arrangement via the pass.
If Oli doesn’t get the message, Nepali requests to settle Kalapani will continue to fall on deaf ears, and New Delhi could further harden its position vis-à-vis the Oli government. Just as China has been consolidating its political constituency in Kathmandu, India too is quietly putting together an anti-Oli coalition, for instance, by brokering the recent merger between the two biggest Madhesi parties.
One much-discussed option for Nepal is to ‘internationalise’ the Kalapani issues. But it is hard to see what the country will achieve by this, save for further alienating India. China too will not be pleased with the Nepali government it helped form dragging it into international arbitration. In other words, notwithstanding the outpouring of public anger against the perceived land grab, Nepal’s options are limited.
Among the more extreme (and unlikely) options being floated by protestors angry at the stalemate: the complete sealing of the Nepal-India border, sending the Nepal Army into Kalapani, resurrecting the old demand for ‘Greater Nepal‘.
The demand for Greater Nepal—the restoration of nearly half of Nepal’s territories ceded to India’s former British rulers—is an interesting one. If India is seemingly not ready to accept the borders demarcated by the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, the argument goes, why can’t Nepal too claim all the land it gave to British India?
More realistically, India won’t be ready to easily settle the Kalapani dispute, and will look to drag it on indefinitely. But that should not hinder India and China from developing Lipulekh as a bilateral trade route. Nor should it stop Indian pilgrims from taking the new road to the abode of Shiva. Nepal, meanwhile, will continue to be reminded of the harsh realities of a small country wedged precariously between two giants.
That’s the long-term prospect. The latest development in Nepal is the government’s publication of the country’s new map including all the disputed territories of Kalapani. Most Nepalis have been astounded with this display of chutzpah against the regional hegemon, and are now firmly behind their prime minister on the border dispute. K.P. Oli’s popularity will now soar again after hitting a nadir earlier this year following his attempts to engineer a divide in an opposition party. First the 2015-16 blockade and now the new road at Lipulekh, India keeps giving him one shot after another at a phoenix-like political resurrection.
Biswas Baral is the editor of The Annapurna Express, a weekly newspaper published from Kathmandu. He tweets @biswasktm