Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent visit to Nepal coinciding with the 2566th Buddha Jayanti celebrations at Lumbini gave an impetus to the India-Nepal relations. Bilateral relations between India and Nepal have witnessed rough patches in the past – Nepal’s economic blockade from the south during the Madhesi agitation in 2015-2016 and the boundary issue raised by Nepal. Before proceeding to Nepal, Modi had tweeted that civilization and people-to-people contacts between India and Nepal formed the enduring edifice of the close relationship and that his visit is intended to celebrate and further deepen these time-bound linkages that have been fostered through centuries and recorded in our long history of inter-mingling.
At Lumbini, Prime Minister Modi laid the foundation stone of a Centre for Buddhist Culture and Heritage. He also announced building an International Convention Centre at Lumbini and revamping the Indian-built museum with a sound and light show, which would boost Nepal’s tourism. During Modi’s visit, India and Nepal signed six major deals, one among them being India building a 695 MV hydropower plant in Nepal. These, along with other Indian projects in Nepal would help Nepal’s Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba in the upcoming general elections in Nepal in November 2022.
Nepal has been in the cross-hairs of China from the era of Mao Zedong, in whose times Beijing initiated the bloody Maoist insurgency in Nepal that eventually led to communist rule in Nepal, which comes up intermittently. Nepal joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative in 2017. Whenever Kathmandu came under communist rule, Pakistan’s ISI has made bigger inroads in Nepal.
Deuba arrived in India on April 3 this year in his first bilateral visit abroad after becoming prime minister for the fifth time in July 2021. He discussed the boundary issue with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urged him to resolve it through a bilateral mechanism. As per our media reports, the Indian response was- the “general understanding” was to address it responsibly and “avoid politicization”.
It will be recalled that on June 13, 2020, Nepal’s Parliament passed a new map that showed Lipulekh, Kalapani and all area north of the River Kuthi Yangti upto its source at Limpiyadhura on the main Himalaya watershed (totaling about 370 sq km) in its territory. The then Prime minister of Nepal,was KP Sharma Oli – a known Chinese protégé. These Nepalese claims were rejected by India since the areas in question falls in Pithoragarh District of Uttarakhand and the population is Indian citizenry. India has also posts in Kalapani since 1962 but Nepal claims these areas were given to Nepal by the 1816 Treaty of Saguali between British India and Nepal.
The Indian map released in October 2019 of the reorganized state of Jammu & Kashmir naturally showed Lipulekh, Kalapani and the Himalayan watershed upto Limpiyadhura as part of India. The map drew adverse comments from China and Pakistan, which was observed by the KP Shrma Oli’s government in Nepal. What raised the commotion in Nepal was inauguration of the 75 km trekking route, made motorable from Tawaghat to Lipulekh Pass on the India-Tibet border by Defence Minister Rajnath Singh on May 8, 2020, amid media publicity; which has become the norm with Indian politicians! Nepal called this violation of its sovereignty even though the road is on the West bank of the Kali River.
A veteran Major General from the Gorkha Regiment, who had served in the area, has the following to say:
- I commanded my battalion in the area. After the 1816 Treaty of Sagauli, Nepal was given all the territory East of the River Kali.
- The Kali as it comes down from the watershed consists of two channels. The western channel is called the KuthiYankti and is the main channel. This channel originates near LampiyaDhura and joins the other channel at Gunji. Kali River originates at Lipulekh.
- From Gunji to Kalapani, the last post before Lipulekh, is an easy 15 km walk.
- Nepal claims that prior to 1860, the KuthiYankti was “supposed” to be the boundary with Nepal and hence the controversy.
- The Nepalese have not made a song and dance about it but they’ve always raised this issue with all new Indian governments that were sworn in.
- Now we’ve built a road ahead to Lipulekh, the Nepalese didn’t protest much. Only after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated it amid publicity that they objected.
- We are not discussing and resolving the issue despite being the bigger neighbor and are being paid back in the same coin by China.
On May 28, 2022, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba while addressing the Nepalese Parliament said, “The Nepal government is ready to defend its territories. The areas of Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani are Nepali and the government has firm understanding about it. The issue of border is sensitive and we understand that this can be resolved through dialogues and talks through diplomatic channels. Acting on it, we have been making our efforts through diplomatic channels. This issue has been given proper space in the plans and policies introduced by the government.” Deuba further said the government of Nepal had always kept national interest as priority and worked on issues of mutual benefits when it came to its neighbours and other countries.
It is no surprise that instead of discussing the border with India, the KP Sharma Oli government issued the new map on June 13, 2020, showing the areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura as Nepalese territory.During Oli’s prime ministerial tenure, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Nepal on October 12-13, 2019 – first Chinese President to visit Nepal after 1996. During Xi’s visit, the Nepal-China bilateral partnership was elevated from ‘Nepal-China Comprehensive Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship’ to ‘Strategic Partnership of Cooperation Featuring Ever-lasting Friendship for Development and Prosperity’. Both sides inked 18 agreements and two letters of understanding; most significant was intensifying execution of the MoU (signed in June 2018) under the Belt and Road Initiative to enhance connectivity, encompassing vital components of ports, roads, railways, aviation and communications within the overarching framework of Trans-Himalayan Multi-Dimensional Connectivity Network.
Deuba’s address to Nepal’s parliament on May 28 this year may be viewed as a political compulsion because of the forthcoming general elections in Nepal in coming November. But at the same time it is also in India’s interest to resolve the issue, which involves just two percent of Nepal’s border with India, rather than let the issue linger on. After all, India converted the erstwhile 75-km trekking route to Kailash Mansarovar into a motorable road and both Indian and Nepalese pilgrims visit Kailash Mansarovar.
China has been trying to draw Nepal more and more into its strategic sphere, using Nepal’s communist parties and has been fairly successful despite backstabbing Nepal; grabbing Nepalese territory and establishing PLA posts in these areas. Resolution of the Nepalese claims to Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura through dialogue would only be possible when Nepal has a non-communist government in power. When India has resolved a much more complex border with Bangladesh, we must focus on resolving our borders both with Nepal and Myanmar.