ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Neighbours in Strife

India and Nepal should resolve their border dispute through diplomacy and negotiations.

Indo–Nepal relations are in the limelight, but for the wrong reasons. Both countries have entered into a dispute that has flared up once again over a territory that has mostly remained out of public view. On 8 May 2020, the defence minister of India inaugurated an 80-kilometre (km) road going up to the Lipulekh pass—the trijunction of India, China, and Nepal. India, for various reasons—“strategic, religious and trade”—considers this high altitude road important. From the Indian point of view, it facilitates connectivity until the China border and cuts down considerably the travel time of the Kailas–Manasarovar Yatra. However, the question remains as to what was the urgency to digitally inaugurate a still incomplete road at a time when India is struggling with the COVID-19 crisis, and moreover, when it had already entered into a conflict with another neighbouring country. The news of the Chinese incursion and scuffles breaking out between the troops of the two countries in Ladakh was filtering in from 5 May.

Both India and Nepal lay claim over the Kalapani region. Under the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, the areas falling east of Kali river were to belong to the Kingdom of Nepal and west of the river formed the Kumaon region of British India. The origin of the river, however, remained a matter of mutual discord. Nepal maintains that the headwaters lie in Limpiyadhura mountains, hence claiming the entire stretch downwards as theirs. India claims that the river originates from down south in Kalapani, hence the name Kali, and thus, it is from here that the treaty applies. It has considered this area as part of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand. Nepal had so far claimed 35 square (sq) km of Kalapani area. However, it is now officially staking a claim on a 370 sq km area comprising Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh, and Kalapani.

This disagreement has surfaced time and again. It came to the fore earlier in 2019 when, in a newly published map, India included the disputed area within its borders. In 2016, Nepal again showed its displeasure when India and China entered a bilateral treaty for trade through the Lipulekh pass. It also raised the issue after the Mahakali Treaty of 1996 with India that envisaged the Pancheshwar multipurpose hydro project over the Kali river. It was subsequently agreed in 2014 that the matter would be resolved through discussions at the foreign secretary level meetings. This has not happened so far. During the current conflict, while India deferred such a meeting until the pandemic passes, Nepal, despite showing inclination for it, went ahead with what India has called as “unjustified cartographic assertion.”

Mutually cooperative relationships are the basis of survival in difficult mountain terrains. Villagers on both sides of the border do not live divided lives. In fact, they share sociocultural similarities and relations. On both sides, they have been left in want of the government’s attention in terms of region-specific development initiatives. In fact, due to open borders, often the relationship between the two sides is described as that of roti–beti, that is, sharing bread and marital bonds. The footbridges over Kali river connect people who use the markets on either side. Students from Nepal cross over for tuitions to the Indian side and Indians use Nepali network for phone and radio, with poor connectivity existing on their side. Both countries are a source of remittance for each other.

In such a scenario, the dispute gets further flared up, perhaps due to political compulsions and sometimes irresponsible statements. The Indian Army chief’s contention that Nepal raised the dispute at the “behest of an external force,” referring to China, was answered with a jibe by the Nepal Prime Minister that the “Indian virus looks more lethal than Chinese.” Nepal since then has released a new map that includes all the disputed territories, and had gone ahead with its efforts to legitimise it through a constitutional amendment. A staunch anti-India stance has strengthened the current Prime Minister’s waning popularity and political position. This sentiment took deeper roots in Nepal after India publicly expressed its dissatisfaction with the new Nepal constitution in 2015, and extended “tacit support” to a five-month-long blockade halting supplies to the landlocked country. During the present quandary, facing serious challenges from within the party, the Prime Minister’s “nationalist” stand, looking more justified due to India’s unrelenting approach, has given him a new lease of political life.

India and Nepal share vast open borders. Rivers demarcate many hundred of kilometres of these borders, even though they are not known to follow borders. Being rivers, they keep changing their courses, giving rise to territorial disputes. It is indeed ironical that under the same political leadership in India and Nepal, the 5,040 megawatt Pancheshwar dam on the Kali river, the world’s tallest, and slated to submerge and adversely affect a land mass not less in comparison with the contested area, was pushed for. This also raises a question about how the modern nation states are looking at their ecology and people striving at the boundaries. Their unresolved and long-standing border issues cannot have quick and hardline nationalist solutions. What is needed is the sustained process of negotiations and more equal bilateral relations that would involve not just security and trade concerns, but encapsulate such a distinctive and multifaceted relationship that India and Nepal share.


Updated On : 15th Jun, 2020


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