Human rights activists hold placards during a protest against India's newly inaugurated link road to the Chinese border, near the Indian Embassy in Kathmandu on May 12, 2020. Photo: AFP / Prakash Mathema

Protests have erupted in Nepal over the recent opening of a link road by India up to Lipulekh for the Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrimage to Tibet. The territories encompassing Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh and are historically considered by Nepal to be its land.

Lipulekh Pass, situated at an altitude of 5,000 meters, has geo-strategic value as Tibet is on its northern side. It was an ancient route for traders and pilgrims transiting between Nepal and Tibet.

After the Sino-Indian War of 1962, the Indian forces did not retreat beyond these territories. Because of an asymmetric power relationship, Nepal could not force Indian troops to withdraw from these areas.

Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs came out with a strong statement last Saturday asserting its sovereignty over the territories. It also urged India not to carry out any further activity and proposed to solve the issue through diplomatic negotiations.

In response, India’s Ministry of External Affairs asserted that the construction was carried out within Indian territory. It also stated that it was committed to resolve pending boundary issues with Nepal through diplomatic dialogue. The Indian ambassador to Nepal was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and handed a diplomatic note to express Nepal’s displeasure.

Kathmandu had dispatched a diplomatic note to New Delhi last November after it published a new political map following the reorganization of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh that depicted these territories on the Indian side.

Nepal and Britain’s East India Company fought a war from 1814 to 1816. The Treaty of Sugauli signed thereafter determined the River Kali as Nepal’s western border and defined all territories to its east as those of Nepal. Based on historical facts, documents, tax receipts, cartographic evidences, census details and hydrological conventions, Nepal has maintained throughout that the Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipulekh areas are Nepal’s sovereign territory.

While Nepal asserts that the River Kali originates in Limpiyadhura, India counter-claims that the origin of the river is way east of Limpiyadhura in the Kalapani area. Nepal’s claim is substantiated by the fact that various documents and maps published by the East India Company between 1816 and 1856 indicate that Limpiyadhura is indeed the source of the River Kali.

This dispute has resurfaced in Nepal’s domestic politics from time to time for decades. A stable domestic political environment is a prerequisite for an effective foreign policy. Issues related to sovereignty and territorial integrity in international relations are driven by the dictates of realpolitik.

Because of the strategic and commercial value of these territories, it is certain that India would not want to change the status quo. This time, however, Nepal seems to have decided to take up the matter proactively, as the government has received wide-ranging support from the political parties, civil-society organizations and the general public.

Nepal and India constituted a foreign-secretary-level committee in 2014 to look into border disputes and recommend suitable measures for resolution. However, not even a single meeting has taken place since its formation. In its statement, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry called for a meeting immediately.

In response, India has offered to resume talks only after the normalization of the Covid-19 situation. It is certain that the foreign-secretary-level mechanism or talks between the two countries’ foreign ministers will not be able to resolve the issue.

There are a couple of initiatives that Nepal can do at the moment in relation to this dispute. First, Nepalese Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli should directly hold talks with his Indian counterpart Narendra Modi. A top-to-bottom approach is needed to tackle this issue rather than the opposite.

Once there is a certain consensus at the highest political levels, various mechanisms down the line could then take up the issue for bilateral negotiations. The Nepalese side should highlight its case with all the historical evidence available. Because of Nepal’s perennial political instability and India’s strong influence in its domestic politics, Nepalese leaders have never sought to raise the issue seriously. Therefore, this is an opportune moment, as there is a strong government in Nepal with a huge mandate.

Second, the Nepalese government should come out with a map that includes these disputed territories on its side. Historically, Nepal has been reluctant to produce such a map so as not to antagonize India. Both India and China publish maps based on their own interpretations of disputed boundaries and territories, including Kashmir and Arunachal Pradesh. Therefore, Nepal should not hesitate to publish a map that it deems to be correct.

Third, Nepal should also urge China not to open its border for the movement of goods and pilgrims through this route, claiming such an act would be an infringement upon Nepal’s sovereignty.

It is to be noted that Nepal sent a diplomatic note in 2015 not only to the Indian government but also to the Chinese government after the 2015 Sino-Indian agreement on trade and pilgrimage through the Lipulekh Pass. India claims that the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through Pakistan-administered Kashmir, infringes its sovereignty. Making a similar analogy, Nepal should make a strong case to both India and China that this link-road also seriously undermines Nepal’s sovereignty.

Fourth, security at the bordering areas of the disputed territories should be strengthened. It is a pity that Nepal has no administrative or security presence in the areas currently under its control. After this new development, the government has finally decided to send a small contingent of paramilitary forces to the border. Logistical and security needs of Nepalese troops should be fully taken care of by the government, as the terrain is treacherous and isolated. This could form a basis for regulating the Indo-Nepalese open border.

Fifth, Nepal should look for other ways to resolve the issue if India does not pay heed to its concerns. Nepal could propose to settle the dispute through the good offices of the United Nations secretary general. Some have even advocated taking up the issue at the International Court of Justice as a last resort.

However, such a move could be detrimental to the bilateral relationship between Nepal and India. Therefore, the best way forward for Nepal would be to hold diplomatic negotiations with India at various levels for a peaceful resolution of the dispute.

It has been observed worldwide that territorial disputes are always difficult to resolve. When it comes to sovereignty and territorial integrity, every state takes a nationalist approach.

All sovereign states in the world have equal standing in international law irrespective of their size, population, economy, resources and military might. The Nepalese take a lot of pride in the fact that theirs is one of the few countries in the world that have remained independent throughout history.

Nepal and India share deep geographical, historical, socio-economic, cultural and people-to-people links. The Indian prime minister has always advocated a “neighborhood first” foreign policy, and although the outcomes might have painted a different picture, both Oli and Modi have a chance to settle this issue and write their names with golden letters in the history of Nepal-India relations.

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Gaurab Shumsher Thapa

Gaurab Shumsher Thapa is an analyst and writer on topics related to international relations. He is the president and managing director of the Nepal Forum of International Relations Studies (NEPAL FIRST).