Nepal’s House of Representatives passed a constitutional amendment Bill on June 13, 2020, for the inclusion of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipulekh in the political and administrative map of Nepal and so altered a constitutional status.
The 275-member House of Representatives passed the constitutional amendment with an overwhelming majority of 258, which speaks both to the Nepalese resolve and alarm with regard to the three areas, where Indian construction and control are being increasingly viewed as encroachment in Nepal. The amendment is to be passed by the National Assembly to see the amendment through, but given the support in the lower house, the amendment is unlikely to see much opposition, if any, in the upper house. The constitutional amendment marks — if not cements — a major low in the Indo-Nepal relation and may have done “irreparable damage” to Indo-Nepal ties, as Dr. Karan Singh put it. There is some factual weight in that apprehension, for a constitutional amendment with such a staggering majority is not the same as off the cuff political statements.
Apparently, what made Nepal as uncomfortable as to make a constitutional move seems to have been the urgency with which India’s Defence Minister inaugurated, by videoconferencing during the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown, the Link Road built by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) opening a new route for Kailash Mansarovar yatra through Lipulekh Pass, and broke the news by a tweet on May 8, 2020. Nepal was quick to respond with disappointment and regret to the inauguration of the Link Road, which, Nepal maintains, has been built on Nepal’s territory and could not have been built without its express consent.
Watch: What is the India-Nepal Border Dispute?
India promised a dialogue with Nepal over the border issues in question after the lockdown, but that made little sense.
If the Link Road could be inaugurated by videoconferences, the border issues could also be discussed the same way, particularly when the issue had a direct bearing on the Link Road itself. It sounded so much like casual stalling. However, in the face of the protest from Nepal, there has been a welcome change in New Delhi’s perspective on the urgency of the issue. But that alone is unlikely to change between India and Nepal, given the developments that have taken place on both the side after the inauguration of the Link Road and Nepal’s reaction to it. On the Indian side, unhelpful remarks are part of the problem, particularly by the people who have no business speaking on the issue.
On June 12, 2020, Army Chief, General MM Naravane, said that “there is reason to believe” that Nepal “might have raised this issue at the behest of someone else” implying a Chinese hand.
Watch: Indian Army Chief hints at China’s hand in dispute with Nepal
The pointless speculation, which was eminently avoidable, drew sharp reactions with Nepal’s Defence minister, Ishwor Pokhrel, calling it “an insulting statement made by ignoring Nepal’s history, our social characteristics, and freedom.” He further added, “With this, the Indian CoAS (Army chief) has also hurt the sentiments of the Nepali Gurkha army personnel who lay down their lives to protect India. It must now become difficult for them to stand tall in front of the Gurkha forces.”
Matter of careless statements
Army Chief’s statement sounds even more careless and foolhardy in the context of a long tradition of defense cooperation between the two countries, which includes a reciprocal tradition of conferring honorary generalship on the chiefs of each other’s armies, and in continuation of which President Ram Nath Kovind conferred the honorary rank of General of the Indian Army upon the Army Chief of Nepal, General Purna Chandra Thapa in January 2019.
Not only does General Narvane’s statement undermines his own position and the position of his counterpart in the Nepal army as honorary generals, but also breaches the chain of command because neither is he in a decision-making position nor do his opinions matter — except as a citizen speaking in private — in matters of international relations and foreign policy. In addition, the statement also targets China, a giant and powerful nation with which India has not always had a cordial relationship, and has a long history of several boundary disputes such as the one it seems to be having with Nepal now. To displease two neighbours with one pointless statement is perhaps the worst instance of hitting two proverbial birds with one ill-directed stone.
Speaking out of turn
Naravane is hardly the only one to speak out of turn on the Nepal issue. Yogi Adityanath, the outspoken Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, did his bit by pitching in with an unveiled threat to Nepal and said, “Before determining its political boundaries, Nepal should think of the consequences and should recall what happened to Tibet.” The offensive remark drew criticism from no less than Nepal’s Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli, who condemned Yogi’s remarks, called them “disrespectful” and drew attention to Yogi’s lack of “decision-making capacity”.
“Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Adityanathji has said certain things about Nepal. His comments are inappropriate and not legitimate. He is not in a decision-making capacity in the Central government of India. His comments are in the capacity of a chief minister and these should not have been made. If he is trying to threaten Nepal with these comments, this is condemnable. His remarks showed disrespect to Nepal. I want to tell Yogiji that Nepal does not accept these insults”,Nepal PM KP Sharma Oli
This is not the first time Yogi has irked Nepal’s political circle. In November 2018, Yogi’s presence at a religious event in Janakpur had raised more than a few eyebrows in Nepal with many political quarters objecting to Yogi’s visit because Indian Prime Minister had been invited by Nepal’s Prime Minister, KP Sharma Oli, to the Bibaha Panchami ceremony and the two prime ministers were to inaugurate the newly constructed Janakpur-Jaynagar railway. However, assembly elections in India got the better of Modi, who deputed Adityanath to stand in for him at the ceremony, cancelling his visit.
To make the obvious starker, Indian Prime Minister preferred party politics at the state level above friendly relations with a neighbouring country.
Some Nepalese leaders also feared that Yogi’s presence at the religious event in November 2018 could carry religious undertones, which they did not find acceptable in a secular Nepal because Yogi, in their opinion, was brazen in his support “for the restoration of Hindu state in Nepal and he is in contact with former king Gyanendra Shah”.
Watch: Uttar Pradesh CM Yogi Adityanath says Nepal should again declare itself a Hindu state
New Delhi’s conciliatory stance
Of late, New Delhi has taken a conciliatory stance on the issue but has maintained that “the recently inaugurated road section in Pithoragarh district in the State of Uttarakhand lies completely within the territory of India. The road follows the pre-existing route used by the pilgrims of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra…”. However, Nepal’s objections to India’s treating Lipulekh pass as its own territory are not new.
During the visit of Prime Minister Modi in 2015, India and China issued a joint statement on May 15, 2015, wherein the countries agreed to “expand border trade at Nathu La, Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass and Shipki La” without taking Nepal into confidence, which was immediately objected to by Nepal.
Not heeding the sensitivities of Nepal was a diplomatic misstep on part of both India and China.
The Link Road was being built for quite some time, and the Nepal government could not have been oblivious to it. Also, the border dispute involving Lipulekh Pass and Kalapani territory is also not new with Nepal claiming, since 1998, that the territory is its part, which India disputes. Both sides agree on the validity and binding nature of the Treaty of Sagauli signed in 1816 between East India Company and Nepal after the Anglo-Nepalese War of 1814-16.
Undermining a special friend
The Treaty of Sagauli demarcates the boundary between India and Nepal recognizing river Kali (Mahakali or the Sharda river) as the border with the territory to the east of the river belonging to Nepal and to the west to India. That much is not in dispute. The dispute centers around the origin of river Kali. Nepal claims that the river originates from a stream at Limpiyadhura, north-west of Lipu Lekh, which makes Kalapani together with Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh fall to the east of the river and thus form a part of Nepal’s Dharchula district whereas for India river Kali originates in the springs well below the pass, which is a denial of Nepal’s claims. Both sides have the British era maps to support their respective positions.
It is true that China and India have been treating Lipulekh as their border trading point since 1954. In fact, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Resumption of Border Trade signed between India and China in December 1991 as well as the Protocol of Entry and Exit procedure for border trade signed in July 1992 mention Lipulekh pass. Nepal was neither a party to either of the agreements nor was it consulted in that regard. Since 1954, Lipulekh has been a trading and pilgrim route between China and India. It was only in 1997, after the signing of the Mahakali treaty in 1996, that Nepal took the issue up with India by the then deputy PM Bamdev Gautam during the Nepal visit of the then Indian Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral. It was agreed that the issue would be decided by a Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee headed by the surveyors-generals of both nations. The committee was formed in 2002 but has not been able to make progress.
The role of Nepal’s domestic politics in the current flare-up cannot be ruled out. It is just as true that India has not been sensitive to the position Nepal has been taking with regard to the border disputes.
The amendment by way of which Nepal has constitutionally declared the disputed territories to be its part is not only a setback to Indo-Nepal relations but is also a major diplomatic failure on India’s part. The constitutional amendment, particularly with such massive support, makes talks extremely difficult, and the situation should never have been allowed to go as bad as to push Nepal to take such a drastic, near-irreversible step. Reckless statements from the quarters that have no role to play and should have maintained complete silence on the issue have only worsened the situation. An urgent dialogue with Nepal is necessary although it is unclear how far would that help the current situation.