When problems, real or imaginary, some new and some long-neglected, get compounded, they assume the form of a crisis. The only way out is to engage in loud rhetoric, accusing everyone else but oneself. This seems to be the present phase Nepal’s relations with India.
India would have like to focus on combating Coronavirus, manage a faltering economy, ensure smooth “ghar wapasi” of migrant workers and engage with the world on how to fight the pandemic, rather than be confronted with clash between Indian and Chinese soldiers in Sikkim or Nepal’s cartographic claims over areas bordering Uttarakhand.
And ideally, Nepal could stay afloat dealing with its myriad problems rather than needle, and be needled by, the “big brother” on a sensitive issue and deal with angry demonstrations in Kathmandu’s streets.
India built a highway to cut short the road for pilgrims to Manasarovar in Tibet. Nepal says the road runs through its territory. Not just Lipulekh and Kalapani, but other disputed areas have also found loud mentions by Kathmandu protestors.
The issue has triggered anti-India protests within Nepal, dominated newspaper coverage and criticised by all sides in the Himalayan nation, including by the Nepal Communist Party. Although there is an open border allowing free movement, some hot heads have even mooted fencing of India-Nepal border, something that has not worked anywhere in the world.
Both say they are ready to talk, but neither side is bracing to fix a date. So it is talking at, not talking to.
In comes Caronavirus, raging in China to Nepal’s north and in India to the south. Indeed, poor Nepal is ignored as the world looks at the two populous giants. But after miraculously escaping the epidemic’s wrath for many days, Nepal has finally succumbed with 357 positive cases, 106 quarantined and two deaths. It is blaming India for it.
It has closed borders in Kapilvastu border district till May-end. What is worse, Prime Minister K P Oli, as if looking for a new stick to beat India with, has accused the latter of exporting the disease that “looks more dangerous than China and Italy,” he told Parliament. And worst is he has clearly blamed “local representatives of bringing “those who are coming from India through illegal channels” for spreading the virus. Thus, domestic politics has come in. The Kathmandu Valley is never comfortable with Madhesis who inhabit the border areas.
China has only been a passing reference for Oli on Caronavirus. But responsible Indian quarters, led by Army Chief, Gen. M M Narvane have accused Nepal of raking up the border issue at China’s behest.
Confronted by “revised official map” issued by Nepal, India insists it is “not based on historical evidence and facts.” It warned on Wednesday (May 20): “Such artificial enlargement of territorial claim” and “unjustified cartographic assertion will not be accepted by India.” This is strong language. Each wants the other to respect “sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
India has put onus of creating “positive atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue” on Nepal, but Kathmandu says New Delhi is not keen to fix any dates for talks.
In his first speech in parliament since a health scare (before Coronavirus) had kept him away for several weeks, Oli vowed that Nepal would “bring back at any cost” the Kalapani-Limpiyadhura-Lipulekh area, which is part of Indian territory.”
India and Nepal share a 1,800 km (1,118-mile) open border. The Lipulekh Pass is claimed by Nepal based on the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli it entered with the British colonial rulers to define its western border with India. New Delhi reads the treaty differently.
Kathmandu also claims the highly strategic areas of Limpiyadhura and Kalapani, although Indian troops have been deployed there since New Delhi fought a war with China in 1962. It is crucial to India since the Lipulekh pass is a strip of land situated at the India, China and Nepal tri-junction or where the borders of the three countries intersect.
The spark was lit after a new road was inaugurated on May 8 by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh connecting the Lipulekh pass in Uttarakhand with Kailash Mansarovar route in China, Nepal has protested and is also considering putting up a security post in the area. India’s foreign office (MEA) spokesman says the road “lies completely within the territory of India”.
“Under the present project, the same road has been made pliable for the ease and convenience of pilgrims, locals, and traders,” the foreign ministry said.
Ruling Nepal Communist Party lawmakers have tabled a special resolution in Parliament demanding the “return of Nepal’s territory in Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh.”
The Lipulekh pass is a far western point near Kalapani, an alleged “disputed” border area between Nepal and India. Both India and Nepal claim Kalapani as an integral part of their territory. India claims it a part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district, while Nepal sees the part as Dharchula district.
On May 11, a diplomatic note was given to Indian Ambassador Vinay Mohan Kwatra stating disapproval over the road construction in the disputed territory.
Amidst all fire and fury in Kathmandu, there is no unanimity. The senior ruling party leader and member of Nepal Communist Party Standing Committee Ganesh Shah opposes the move. He believes that this will be a blow to the diplomatic relation between Indian and Nepal.
“The Nepal government should soon start a dialogue with India to resolve the matter through political and diplomatic moves,” he said.
Yet, at the highest level, attitude is firming up against India. Nepal’s President Bidhya Bhandari, addressing Parliament, claimed that “Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipulekh belong to Nepal” and appropriate diplomatic measures will be adopted to resolve the existing issues with India.
Kathmandu points out that it had objected when Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2015 agreed to boost trade through Lipulekh.
The relationship has seen many ups and downs, particularly since 2016, when Nepal began looking into weaning off its dependence on India after a blockade of the main border crossings with the Asian giant led to a shortage of fuel, medicines and other essential items. The misery of the 1988 blockade is still fresh.
India continues to wield influence in Nepal, which stands as a land buffer with China, but this has been under threat as Kathmandu increasingly reaches out to Beijing. This has accelerated under Oli who blamed India for engineering his ouster once.
Although the dispute would further deepen anti-India sentiment in Nepal, the fact is that both countries cannot afford to further damage bilateral relations.
At geo-strategic level, India feels ‘surrounded’ by China by land and sea. Nepal-Tibet-China rail links compound that feeling to its north. It is essential that it measures its words and actions without appearing angry or nervous. It is the biggest entity, after all.
Both need to move cautiously. Nepal is unhappy that India has banned palm oil imports. As the world’s largest importer of this commodity, India has resumed he imports from Malaysia. It may be only a matter of time before Kathmandu gets the same signal.
There is no better solution than to talk to each other while trying to find a solution. However, that talk has to be based on finding a mutually agreed formula.
Both countries have a lot in common: geography, history, culture, language, and religion. If they can’t talk and find a solution, who else can?