Conflict Alerts # 96, 27 May 2020
In the news
India inaugurated the 80 km newly-constructed road in Uttarakhand to Lipu Lekh Pass in early May. Nepal protested immediately and has asked India first to resolve the border dispute through negotiation and then complete the road. Nepal has termed it a 'unilateral act' with potentials to jeopardize the bilateral understanding. Subsequently, Nepal has released its new map including Kalapani as part of its territory.
Issues at large
First is the long-standing border dispute between the two countries. India has a border dispute with Nepal in two areas: 372-sq km Kalapani and 148.6 sq km Susta. The road to Lipu Lekh is a part of Kalapani dispute. India has been showing Kalapani as part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand state. Nepal has been objecting since 1998, claiming it a part of its Dharchula district including the Lipu Lekh, marked by Kalapani river, one of the headwaters of Kali River in the Himalayas.
India regards east of the pass as Nepalese territory and Lipu Lekh as trijunction. China considers it as part of India, allowing it as a route to Tibet. Earlier Nepal first disputed it when on May 15, 2015, India-China joint statement included Lipu Lekh pass as a bilateral trade route.
Second is the failure of the two countries to resolve the issue during recent years. The dispute came into prominence in November 2019 when India released a new map after bifurcation of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Nepal objected claiming that Indian map has wrongly included Nepal's territory. India rejected and said that it had not done any alteration of an old boundary in the map. Subsequently, Nepal released a new map in May 2020 including Kalapani as part of its territory which has been rejected and objected by India.
Third is the religious significance of the road that India wants to build in the region that Nepal disputes. It is one of the three arduous routes to Kailash Mansarovar in China which is revered as Lord Siva's abode by Hindus in India. Other two routes are through Sikkim and Kathmandu in Nepal. The route through Uttarakhand consists of three stretches: first, 107.6 km long road from Pithoragarh to Tawaghat; second, 19.5-km single lane road from Tawaghat to Ghatiabgarh; and third, 80 km from Ghatiabgarh to Lipu Lekh Pass at the China border, negotiable only on foot. The third stretch takes nearly five days to traverse. Government of India is converting the second stretch into a two-lane road. 80-km third stretch is being converted to facilitate commutation through vehicle to shorten the time taken to travel. 76-km stands completed, and last 4-km is expected to be completed by this year. Most of the pilgrimage journey through this route ensure on Indian territory, unlike other two routes.
Fourth is the economic and strategic significance. It is also a trade route; Indians and Tibetans have been holding border trade at the Lipu Lekh Pass. Lipu Lekh was closed by India in the wake of Indo-Chinese war in 1962 which continued till 1991, creating hardships for local's trade with Tibet.
Situated at over 17,000 feet altitude, Lipu Lekh runs along the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, thus of great strategic significance. The area falls at the trijunction of India, China and Nepal. China also threatened to enter Kalapani when Dokalam stand-off took place.
Oli's Left government in Nepal is pro-China and given their relationship the protest may have been more at the behest of China, which has been pro-active to enhance its influence in India's neighbourhood. It could also be Chinese pressure tactics to force India to soften its stand and support China when the global majority is castigating it on COVID-19.
Dr Alok Kumar Gupta is an Associate Professor, at the Centre for Political Studies, in the Central University of South Bihar, Gaya.