Conflict Alerts # 112, 17 June 2020
In the news
On 13 June, Nepal's House of Representatives unanimously endorsed the Constitution Amendment Bill, paving the way for a new political and administrative map that includes Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. The region in dispute is of geostrategic importance for both, and has been under the Indian administrative control since the 1960s.
The India-Nepal bilateral ties have again come under strain after the Indian Defence Minister inaugurated an 80-km-long strategically crucial road in Kalapani which has been considered as disputed.
Issues at large
First, the unresolved border dispute. The contention over the Kalapani region is not new and it goes back to 2015 when both India and China without Nepal's consent agreed to hold negotiation on augmenting the list of traded commodities along with expanding the border trade at Nathu La, Qiangla/Lipulekh Pass and Shipki La. After this agreement, the Government of Nepal (GoN) had immediately expressed its disagreement, which was neglected without adequate diplomatic attention to address the disputed tri-junction. This issue intensified in 2019 when India updated its new political map, including the Kalapani region. Thereafter Nepal's MOFA sent a diplomatic note to India objecting the inclusion of Kalapani region as it violates the 1816 Suguali treaty between Nepal and the then British administration. According to Kathamndu, despite several serious efforts from the GoN to resolve this dispute and most recently through a diplomatic note dated 20 November 2019 in response to the new political map, New Delhi has ignored the request. As India inaugurated a newly constructed road, the tension has escalated further.
Second, Nepal's frustration with India. One of the questions that have been often asked is why Nepal rushed to endorse a new political map, as the issue was imminent since 1962 when the Indian Army camp was stationed in Kalapani after the India-China war. The rationale behind this unprecedented move by the Nepal parliament is the perception that India is bullying Kathmandu into unilateral action on the disputed territory.
Third, Nepal's attempt to steer clear from China rhetoric. Nepal's parliamentary endorsement needs to be looked beyond the China rhetoric. Nepal has severe reservations with China which were clear when Nepal sent a diplomatic note to China as well on the 2015 India-China bilateral trade agreement. Nepal has equally blamed China and held it responsible for agreeing to include Lipulekh Pass in the Sino-India bilateral trade route without consultation. Amidst the recent border crisis, Nepal might extend its diplomatic talks with China (once the issue is resolved with India) and perhaps pursue trilateral discussions. Viewing Nepal's concerns as "being raised at China's behest" (as stated by the Indian Chief of the Army) has led to an adverse environment in the Nepal-India bilateral ties and will create a fault line in the long-existing trust and friendly people to people relation between the countries.
First, the Nepalese people have wholeheartedly welcomed the current government's effort to endorse a new political map. Conversely, considering the government's elevated ultra-nationalism, some also see this nation-wide acknowledged action as intense political propaganda and vote bank politics that the ruling Communist Party would play in the upcoming national election.
Second, the critical challenge for the government of Nepal is to get back the claimed territory through diplomatic efforts and dialogue based on historical facts and documents. Despite its small size of 335 square kilometres, this tri-juncture holds a crucial geostrategic and geopolitical significance for India as it can keep an eye on any attempt by China to encroach or the PLA's move towards India. Therefore, the road ahead for Nepal is not easy and comfortable, despite having robust and indubitable evidence to claim the lost territory.
Mahesh Bhatta is a Research Officer at the Center for South Asian Studies (CSAS), a Kathmandu based think-tank.