South Asia

Nepal Takes First Parliamentary Step to Ratify New Map, 'Untenable' Says India

India says Nepal should have resolved the issue of disputed territory through dialogue but Kathmandu's call for a meeting between the two foreign secretaries was rejected by the Indian side.

New Delhi: After the lower house of Nepal’s parliament unanimously agreed to change the map of the country to include territory claimed by its southern neighbour, India described the move as “untenable” and said it violated the understanding that boundary disputes would be solved through dialogue.

The constitutional amendment bill was passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday. “All 258 lawmakers present in the meeting voted for the bill while there was no vote against it. I announce that the bill has been endorsed by more than a two-thirds majority,” said speaker Agni Sapkota, as reported by Kathmandu Post.

While the bill has to still get through the upper house and then be signed by Nepal’s president, the passage today is significant as the ruling Communist Party of Nepal did not have a two-thirds majority in the lower chamber.

Out of the 275 member house, four lawmakers are suspended, while 12 members, including four from the ruling party, skipped the proceedings on various grounds.

After the bill was passed, Indian external affairs ministry spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said that India has already made its position clear on the issue.

“This artificial enlargement of claims is not based on historical fact or evidence and is not tenable. It is also violative of our current understanding to hold talks on outstanding boundary issues,” he added.

Earlier in the day, before the voting in Nepal’s federal parliament, Indian army chief General Mukund Naravane had struck a conciliatory tone.

“We have a very strong relationship with Nepal. We have geographical, cultural, historical, religious linkages. We have very strong people-to-people connect. Our relations with them has always been strong and will remain strong in the future,” General Naravane told reporters on the sidelines of the passing out parade of the Indian Military Academy (IMA).

These were his first remarks on Nepal after his previous ones – where he indicated that Nepal’s position on the boundary was a prop for India-China rivalry – had caused outrage in Kathmandu, prompting a rebuttal from the Nepalese defence minister.

The Indian statement on Saturday echoed New Delhi’s earlier riposte after the Nepali cabinet had approved a new political map showing the areas of Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh within Nepal’s borders.

The May 21 statement by India had the additional phrase calling upon Nepal to “refrain from such unjustified cartographic assertion and respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”

It had also stated that India hoped Nepal would create a “positive atmosphere” for talks.

Earlier, after Nepal had furiously objected to India’s inauguration of a link road till Lipulekh and called for urgent high-level talks, India had said the meeting between the foreign secretaries could be finalised “after the two societies and governments have successfully dealt with the challenge of COVID-19 emergency”.

Even as the two neighbours are easing their lockdown rules, both Nepal and India are witnessing an upward trajectory in the number of new cases of COVID-19 infection being reported daily.

The current boundary issue has flared up since last November after India issued a political map to reflect the fact that the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir had been split into two newly created Union Territories – Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh. Nepal had then objected to the inclusion of Kalapani in the map of India.

Nepal’s  foreign ministry has publicly stated that it had given two dates to India to hold the foreign secretary-level talks, but there had been no response. India had also apparently not agreed to a visit by a special envoy from Nepal.

The latest episode, which is about Lipulekh on the India-China border, began after an announcement by the Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh in early May.

The two countries share an open and porous border which stretches over 1,690 kilometres. While 98% of the boundary has been settled by the exchange of strip maps in 2007, two areas – Kalapani in Uttarakhand and Narsahi-susta in Bihar – continue to be disputed. The joint statement issued during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Nepal in 2014 had a substantial paragraph on solving these two disputes, with the two leaders emphasising the “need to resolve pending Nepal-India boundary issues once and for all”.

While Nepal is insisting that the doors of dialogue still remain open after the passage of the bill, New Delhi is unlikely to move fast to hold talks in the near future. Indian sources claim that Nepalese prime minister K.P. Oli, who had spearheaded the move on the constitutional amendment bill, has used nationalist sentiment to tide over challenges from within his own party and growing criticism of his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

India continues to control the disputed territory, with Nepal highly unlikely to use any military means to press its point. With Oli having played one of his most important cards in this matter, there is no indication that New Delhi will feel any heat to sit at the dialogue table with Nepal soon.