Conflict Alerts # 91, 20 May 2020
In the news
The dispute over the riverine border of Kalapani and Lipulekh pass has worsened the current bilateral relation between India and Nepal. Three incidents have contributed to the escalating tensions in the relationship.
On 8 May Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road-link connecting Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet, China that is expected to help pilgrims visiting the pilgrimage site. The road is around 90 km from the Lipulekh pass. Protesting against India's border road development near the pass, Nepal President Bidhya Bhandari, in her address to the Parliament last week, reiterated its claim that Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh belong to Nepal and appropriate diplomatic measures will be adopted to resolve the existing issues with India.
This was followed by tabling of a special resolution by Nepal's ruling Nepal Communist Party in the Parliament demanding return of territory in Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh. Nepal's cabinet has endorsed the resolution and a new political map showing Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura under its territory will be made public for the first time by the Minister of Land Management in the subsequent weeks. By announcing the desire to bring out a new map, Nepal Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali was also responding to the Indian Army Chief General Naravane's statement that the reaction from Nepal could be "at the behest of someone else" thereby indicating at the dragon in the room.
Issues at large
The first issue is the historicity of the border. The Lipulekh pass is a far western point near Kalapani, a disputed border area between Nepal and India. Both India and Nepal have claimed Kalapani as a part of their territory - India as part of Uttarakhand's Pithoragarh district and Nepal as part of Dharchula district. As Nepal goes on to restore its cartographic rights on the disputed territory by including the 335-km land area of Limpiyadhura into the Nepalese territory, the new map draws its historical claims from the Sugauli Treaty of 1816. The treaty signed between Nepal and the then British India government primarily suggests Limpiyadhura, from where the Kali river originated, as Nepal's border with India.
Second is the geo-economic importance of the border. The road connecting India with China has been one of the agreed agendas of the May 2015 India-China summit in Xian. The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Chinese President Xi Jinping had signed an agreement to use the Lipulek pass for trade between the two countries. Hence as the road turns into an economical route between India and China, Nepal's has swiftly moved to clear the dispute over Kalapani.
Third is the rocky history of recent India-Nepal relations. Nepal has raised the issue of Kalapani for many years with India. The current decision to publish new maps comes after repeated deadlocks in the border talks. Nepal's current strong message to India is also due to the past heavy-handed policy of an economic blockade by New Delhi in 2015-16. In addition, India's repeated retort at Nepal being soft to China has not borne well with the political leadership in Nepal.
First, since November 2019, the Indian Government has been fully aware of Nepal's position on the issue. Hence it remains unclear why India would 'inaugurate' an unfinished road amid the pandemic without addressing Nepal's concerns first. The likely answer could be on the economic value of the Kailash Mansarovar route. With a much easier alternative for trade between India and China, Nepal's economic prospect as a transit could considerably reduce.
Second, with the present call for a new map, there has been a distinct change in the narrative that Nepal has taken while negotiating with the border issue with India. Since 1950 till now, Nepal has gone from political silence under the Rana monarchy to rigorous persuasion by the Nepali people. It is noteworthy that while the panchayat institutions in Nepal has been silent about the triangle in the northwest, the elected governments under democracy post-1990 have pursued the "Kalapani agenda", supported by growing scholarship built on the historical revisiting of the Sugauli treaty and the British-era archives. Meanwhile, regular communications with New Delhi has also been undertaken to keep the matter current.
Sourina Bej is a Research Associate at the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS)