Nepalis in Kathmandu light candles on June 13 in celebration after parliament approved a map that includes territories disputed with India. Photo: AFP/Prakash Mathema

After losing the war against China in 1962, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru approached Nepal’s King Mahendra, seeking his consent to set up a military camp at Kalapani in the country’s far-west region. The monarch solicited the views of his cabinet members on Nehru’s letter before acquiescing. 

The two sides had an understanding that it was a temporary accommodation for the Indian soldiers who would leave the Nepali soil in due course. But six decades on, the Indian outpost continues to occupy the strategic site despite Nepal’s repeated requests to the Indian administration to vacate its land.

The issue has become like an albatross around the neck of the Himalayan nation, with serious geopolitical implications.

Factors 

What factors actually obliged King Mahendra to agree to Nehru’s plea? 

“India was like a wounded tiger following its defeat to China. If we had turned down Nehru’s petition, it could have harmed the country,” argued Bishwobandhu Thapa, home minister in Mahendra’s cabinet.

Thapa presented this line of argument while talking to a number of television channels recently in the wake of the raging diplomatic spat between the two countries over the territorial claims on Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura in Nepal’s northwestern tip bordering China. 

However, historians point to other hypotheses behind Nepal’s allowing the Indian Army to encamp at Kalapani. King Mahendra had established the autocratic Panchayat system by sacking a democratically elected government one year earlier. Nehru had formally protested the king’s move, so the latter did not want to antagonize India.

The shrewd monarch bided his time before making a decisive step. This was evident when he successfully maneuvered to send packing 17 Indian security check-posts deployed along the Nepal-China border in 1969.

Nonetheless, Nepalese authorities have been unable to produce Nehru’s letter as infallible evidence to establish the nation’s legitimate right to the territories in question. Why would Nehru make a formal request to the king if the Kalapani area belonged to India? 

The Nepalese side insists that it has collected a number of credible documents that support its position. The Sugauli Treaty, signed after the Anglo-Nepalese war in 1816, clearly stipulates that the Mahakali River originating from Limpiyadhura marks the border between Nepal in the east and India to its west. Those territories lie east of the river, which was referred as the River Kalee in the treaty. 

Subsequent maps, including those released by the British Survey of India in 1819, 1827 and 1856, clearly put these territories within Nepal’s geographical boundary. Nepal has other solid evidence – documents relating to voters’ lists, population censuses and land revenue receipts. The people in these areas had participated in the first-ever general elections in 1959 and the population census conducted in 2018 BS (AD 1961). 

For India, the entire Kalapani area covering around 372 square kilometers bears religious, commercial and military significance in view of its frequent territorial dispute with China. Lipulek pass is the shortest route from Indian capital New Delhi to Lhasa in Tibet via Taklakot and Shigatse.

India had recognized these territories as “disputed” and expressed commitment to resolving borderland disputes through bilateral negotiations. However, in November last year, it broke its own promise by unilaterally publishing a new administrative map including these places. The Nepalese government protested the new Indian map, which caused cracks in the bilateral relations that were back on track after the 2015 economic embargo.

Instead of pressing for diplomatic detente, India opened a link road to China that passes through Lipulek of Nepal in early May this year. It sought to help Hindu pilgrims to visit Kailash Mansarovar, a sacred lake in Tibet, but the unilateral step irked Nepal so much that the border dispute headed to a climax. In a tit-for-tat move, the Nepalese government also updated its political and administrative maps to incorporate the encroached areas into its territory on May 20.

Dealing a blow to the Indian government, Nepal’s political parties demonstrated unprecedented unity for retrieving its infringed territories from India. On June 13, the federal parliament unanimously amended the constitution to insert the new map in the coat of arms. 

What was more shocking for India was the new realignment of Madhes-based political parties, considered close to the southern neighbor by virtue of their ethnicity. The newly formed Janata Samajbadi Party stood together with the mainstream forces to bolster territorial integrity.  

On the other hand, India has outright rejected Nepal’s new map, terming it a “unilateral act” and “artificial enlargement of territorial claims.” The Indian government has ignored Nepal’s requests to start fresh negotiations to resolve the border imbroglio. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi deliberately snubbed his Nepali counterpart K P Sharma Oli’s initiative to break the impasse some time back.  

Nepal’s Foreign Ministry has sent at least three diplomatic notes to India since the latter released its political map in November. “We had offered talks in November, December, January and May but India rejected them,” said Nepalese Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali. India strangely said it would sit for dialogue only after the two nations overcome the Covid-19 pandemic. 

India’s heightened indifference has put the Nepalese government in a quandary. Analysts say India lacks supporting documents to justify its claim to the “disputed” territories. India may think it is not the right time to push for formal talks with Nepal as patriotic sentiments have gripped the Nepalis determined to recover their encroached land.

Seemingly, the world’s largest democracy has resorted to a dilatory posture to exhaust the Nepalese government and divide its unified political fraternity so as ultimately to weaken the latter’s agenda and diplomatic vigor. 

PM in a bind

Ironically, the map issue set the cat among the pigeons when Oli accused the ruling Nepal Communist Party’s senior leaders of dancing to the tune of the Indian establishment that is allegedly conspiring to remove him from the post to avenge the issuance of the new map.

Enraged by the PM’s remarks, a majority of the party’s Standing Committee members have demanded his resignation, charging that he has failed miserably to run both the government and the party. 

The bold and outspoken prime minister has boosted his nationalistic credentials by launching the historic map. But evolving internal and external dynamics have put him on the defensive: He is now fighting on multiple fronts simultaneously – the severe Covid-19 pandemic, the sworn nemeses within the party, and a haughty neighbor – to avert potential political and diplomatic debacles.

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Ritu Raj Subedi

The author is the deputy executive editor of The Rising Nepal, the country’s oldest English-language broadsheet.