In an unprecedented move, Nepal, which shares a border of over 1,850 km with five Indian states, unanimously voted to amend its Constitution and incorporate the country’s new map into its national emblem.
The problem is, the updated Nepalese political map incorporates India’s territory of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura. The fresh blow to seven decades of India-Nepal bilateral ties comes after India inaugurated an 80-km-long road connecting the Lipulekh pass in the north of Kalapani (a territory Nepal claims as its own) with Dharchula in Uttarakhand on May 8.
An extension of Pithoragarh-Tawaghat-Ghatiabagarh road, the Lipulekh–Darchula road terminates at Lipulekh Pass, the gateway to Mount Kailash in Tibet. The strategically crucial road is expected to help thousands of Indian pilgrims visit Kailash Mansarovar (the sacred abode of Lord Shiva) by vehicles instead of trekking for weeks across the border with China. Moreover, Lipulekh lies on the ancient trade route between India and Tibet, which has remained closed since the Sino Indian war of 1962. In a 2015 statement, China also recognized India’s sovereignty by agreeing to expand trade through the Lipulekh pass. Given the constant border standoffs with China, the future potential of trade, and the religious and cultural significance of the region, India is likely to exercise its control over the disputed land. But at what cost?
Understanding the ghosts from the past
The border dispute dates back to March 4, 1816, when the Sugauli Treaty was signed between British India and the state of Nepal declaring Nepal’s Mahakali River as the border. Over 200 years later, the dispute persists because the rivers (Mechi in the east, Mahakali in the west, and Narayani in the Susta area along the 600 kilometers border) have diverged from their courses.
Watch: Explained – The India – Nepal Border Dispute
According to Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, former director-general of the Department of Survey Nepal, maps from 1850 and 1856, prepared by the Survey of India with the participation of Nepali authorities, clearly state that the Mahakali River originates from Limpiyadhura (16 kilometers northwest of Kalapani) proving that Kalapani belongs to Nepal. However, India contends that a map from 1875 (which shows the Mahakali’s origin to the east of Kalapani and which does not have Nepal’s certification) should be considered instead.
While Nepal conducted a census in Kalapani in the early 1950s and elections in 1959 as well as collected land revenue from its residents until 1961, China recognized Kalapani as India’s in the early 1960s. In the absence of old maps and zero presence of Nepalese security forces on the other side of the border, India deputed its paramilitary security guards along the border right after the Indo-China war of 1962 and has been effectively in possession of the territory since then.
“Boundary disputes in Kalapani, Limipiyadhura, and Lipulekh remained unresolved for decades, largely due to Nepal’s failure to strongly raise the issue and India’s reluctance to recognize it as a major problem,”Ajay Moitra, a political observer and expert in Indo-Nepal issues
Why did Nepal up the ante now?
In November 2019, India released a new political map showing Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh as new union territories. The same map showed the disputed Kalapani region as part of the Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand. While it chose to ignore the boundary issue for nearly 60 years, Nepal immediately issued an objection, calling Kalapani an unsettled territory of the Dharchula district in the Sudurpashchim province.
Apparently, India’s May 8 announcement paved the way for the Nepalese government to mobilise public opinion against India – at the behest of China. Is it a coincidence that Kathmandu’s move came even as The People’s Liberation Army of China launched an incursion into Indian Territory in Ladakh on May 5 and in Sikkim on May 9? The Siasat Daily observes: “China, which is trying to rope countries across Asia Africa and Europe in its One Border One Road (OBOR) plan, successfully sold the idea to Nepal in 2017. Being a landlocked country with India as the only way out, Nepal was lured by China with plans of cross border railways, bridges, highways, transmission grids, special economic zones, and dry ports. The railway line from Nepal would lead to Europe via China. With promises of funding from the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank (AIIB) and Silk Road Fund – both Chinese controlled – Nepal has got excited. It did not realize the debt trap Nepal will fall into (many OBOR partners are now gradually realizing the indebtedness induced by the China-funded capital intensive projects).”
Watch: Nepal Parliament unanimously passes bill for New Map
Nepal officially released its new political map on 20 May, injecting fresh tensions into its ‘special relationship’ with India. Apparently, the latest Kalapani crisis is also an outcome of the 2015 economic blockade which gave rise to anti-Indian sentiments in Nepal as it took place right after the land-locked country was hit by a devastating earthquake.
As expected, India termed Nepal’s decision to update its political map as untenable. Anurag Srivastava, a Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson, commented: “We have noted that the House of Representatives of Nepal has passed a constitution amendment bill for changing the map of Nepal to include parts of Indian territory. We have already made our position clear on this matter. 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.”
A lose-lose situation?
While Lipulekh will continue to be in India despite the cartographic aggression by Nepal, the big border snub will have major economic consequences.
As per the latest official data, India’s total bilateral trade with Nepal in FY 2017-18 stands $6.82 billion, but it is highly skewed in India’s favor as India exports goods worth $6.38 billion and imports goods worth $437 million. Further, India is Nepal’s largest trade partner (two-third of Nepal’s trade is with India) and the largest source of foreign investments (Indian firms are among the largest investors in Nepal, accounting for about 30% of the total approved foreign direct investments).
Over 150 Indian companies engaged in manufacturing, services, the power sector, and tourism are operating in Nepal including ITC, Dabur India, VSNL, TCIL, MTNL, State Bank of India, Punjab National Bank, Life Insurance Corporation of India, Asian Paints, Tata Power, and GMR India. But if the bilateral ties are strained and the special relationship is to go, what would be the implications? Amish Raj Mulmi writes: “The first effect would be on the freedom of movement between the two countries. Nepalis will no longer be able to work or study in India without a visa, and Indians cannot do so in Nepal. It will also mean the Gorkha regiments will have to be disbanded; the regiments serving in the Indian Army (and the British) on the basis of a tripartite agreement made as the British left India and is at the heart of what makes India-Nepal ties special. It will mean an end to any existing preferential trade and economic relations between the two countries. And it will mean ending the fixed exchange rate system.”
Dr. Posh Raj Pandey, executive chairman of the South Asia Watch on Trade Economics and Environment (SAWTEE), a consortium of South Asian NGOs, says the economic impact of the constitutional amendment will depend upon how India reacts: “Nepal is not only a landlocked country but also India locked as it is surrounded by India from the three sides. The situation will be vulnerable. If India retaliates it will have a huge economic impact on the country. Nepal is dependent on India for the supply of essential goods. Our imports from India account for two-third whereas that from China is just 14%. We have trading points from Mechi in the east to Mahakali in the west with India, but with the northern neighbor, we only have a few transit points and that also lacks infrastructure.
“Nepal’s nearest access to the sea from the north is 4,000 km, which is three times more than the one it is having from the Indian side in Kolkata. So, our third country trade is being conducted mainly through the southern route. As far as our exports are concerned, India receives 60% of our total exports whereas China receives only 2%. In remittances, we receive around 15% of the total remittances from India and if we compare it with the Gross Domestic Product, it comes around 4-5%.”
Under the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship, India allowed Nepal to freely import from, or through, the territory of India, arms, ammunition, or warlike equipment for its security. The 70-year old treaty guarantees “national treatment” and concessions to the nationals of both sides, including shared privileges in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, and movement. “If the Modi government wants, New Delhi can terminate the treaty any moment. Yes, by doing this, India will also stand to lose in terms of privileges, but it will adversely Nepal more than it will impact New Delhi. All the special privileges that Nepali nationals enjoy in India will be gone,” said an identified veteran diplomat, and the former foreign secretary told The Print.
In a nutshell, both the countries – Nepal by signaling its readiness to take India head-on, and India by remaining silent on the issue – have allowed the seven-decades old cultural, political, and economic relationship to come to a very dangerous point. Rakesh Sood, Indian Ambassador to Nepal from 2008 to 2011, told PTI: “I think we have displayed a lack of sensitivity, and now the Nepalese have dug themselves deeper into the hole from which they will find it difficult to come out. We have a territorial dispute with China; our militaries are right now talking about disengagement. We have a territorial dispute with Pakistan; our militaries are eyeball-to-eyeball and there is firing across the Line of Control. Is that how we want to visualize our border with Nepal by making it a dispute when we have shared an open border with free movement of people since the British days and which has continued after 1947 as well?”