In this first article of a three-part series, recent actions, decisions and reactions of the governments of India and Nepal that compelled the Himalayan republic to take the startling step of cartographic assertion are laid out in chronological order. The second part examines the so-called China Card through a series of decisions/agreements and responses of all three countries while also demonstrating how Indian responses are shaped by their perceived threat of China. The last part analyses the diminishing influence of Indian in Nepal and probes into the possible reasons behind Nepal’s audacious response to what it considers Indian encroachment of its territory.
This startling action is in stark contrast to Nepal’s behaviour in the past, dating back to the late 19th century and particularly the last 70 years. During much of that period Nepal either ignored or feebly reminded India of the latter’s continued encroachment and occupation of the area. Nepali rulers have been hesitant, even retiring at times, when it came to articulating and presenting the country’s stand on the Kalapani issue. This was mainly to safeguard their power in Kathmandu as challenging India, Nepali rulers thought, somehow threatened their regime. This was particularly true for king Mahendra who is said to have ignored the issue despite knowing about illegal Indian presence within Nepali territories. This time around a government enjoying parliamentary supermajority on the one hand but facing an internal party revolt and public criticism for its lamentable Covid-19 response on the other, opted to confront India head on solidifying its base. (More about this in the next part.)
In June 1997 Deputy Prime Minister Bam Dev Gautam raised the issue of Kalapani encroachment with the visiting Indian Prime Minister IK Gujral and making it a bilateral issue between two countries. Since then Nepal has been hoping that an incredibly slow-paced and almost ineffective diplomacy would persuade India to stop occupying Nepali land. Instead, India not only continued to occupy the land but started to publicly taunt Nepal by issuing a political map including the contested area followed by displays of road-building activity in the region.
Here’s a chronology of key events of the past 7 months that culminated in Nepal confronting India with a new map.Tweet
On 6 November 2019,
Nepal’s foreign ministry issued a statement saying that the new Indian map was unacceptable. The statement read:
“The Government of Nepal’s attention has been drawn towards various news reports and commentaries related to Nepal’s Kalapani region with regard to the new political map recently published by the Government of India.
The Government of Nepal is clear that the Kalapani area belongs to Nepal.
Through the meetings of the joint commission at the levels of the foreign ministers of Nepal and India, responsibility has been assigned to the foreign secretaries of both the countries to resolve the remaining border-related issues between two countries in consultation with concerned technicians.
All the outstanding issues relating to the border between the two countries need to be resolved through mutual understanding and it is clear that any unilateral move is unacceptable to the Nepal Government.
The Nepal Government is committed to protecting Nepal’s international border and is firm in the belief that border-related problems between the two friendly countries need to be resolved through a diplomatic channel on the basis of historical documents and evidences.”
That was Nepal’s moderate and conciliatory, if not timid, response to the Indian occupation of Kalapani, an issue that has dominated Nepali politics for the past 58 years or so, particularly since 1990 when Nepal regained multiparty democracy. (The statement, issued in Nepali language, appears to have been targeted at the domestic audience, not India).
On 7 November 2019,
a spokesperson of the Indian foreign ministry at a press briefing in New Delhi said:
“Our map accurately depicts the sovereign territory of India. The new map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal. The boundary delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing under the existing mechanism. We reiterate our commitment to find a solution through dialogue in the spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations. At the same time, and I think this is very important to note, both countries should guard against vested interests who are out there to create some differences between the two countries.”
The “existing mechanism” that the Indian spokesperson referred to is, as the Kathmandu Post explains, a foreign secretary-level channel that has been mandated to resolve boundary disputes in Kalapani and Susta, with the technical support of the Boundary Working Group (BWG) at the Surveyor General level. The third meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission at the foreign ministerial level in 2014 had decided to form the BWG mechanism. The most recent (and sixth) meeting of the Joint Commission was held in Kathmandu on 21 August 2019. Foreign minister Gyawali and his Indian counterpart Subrahmanyam Jaishankar co-chaired the meeting and led their respective delegations, according to a MOFA press release. The meeting didn’t even discuss the outstanding border issues. The BWG’s most recent meeting was held in India’s Dehradun a week later on 28-30 August 2019.
On 10 November 2019,
Nepal’s foreign ministry issued another press statement (in Nepali) after Prime Minister Oli held an all-party meeting on “Nepal-India border problem“. According to the release, “the meeting concluded that the political map recently issued by India incorporating Nepal’s Kalapani region was unacceptable”.
On 20 November 2019,
Nepal sent a diplomatic note to India “in response to the new political map issued by the latter.” In the note (as well as “several times in the past”), Nepal “reiterated” its “consistent” position “that as per the Sugauli Treaty (1816), all the territories east of Kali (Mahakali) River, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh, belong to Nepal.”
Six months down the line…
In that note, Nepal proposed a meeting to sort out the issue. India did not respond. Instead, six months down the line India came up with yet another taunt.
On 8 May 2020,
India’s Defence Minister stated on Twitter that he was “delighted to inaugurate the Link Road to [Tibet’s Hindu holy mountain of] Mansarovar”. Singh also mentioned that the road connected India’s Dharchula, just across Nepal’s Darchula, “to Lipulekh” which he identified as “China Border”.
On 9 May 2020,
Nepal’s foreign ministry issued a press statement asking India “to refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal“. It said:
“The Government of Nepal has learnt with regret about the ‘inauguration’ yesterday by India of ‘Link Road’ connecting to Lipu Lekh (Nepal), which passes through Nepali territory.
The Government of Nepal has consistently maintained that as per the Sugauli Treaty (1816), all the territories east of Kali (Mahakali) River, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani and Lipu Lekh, belong to Nepal. This was reiterated by the Government of Nepal several times in the past and most recently through a diplomatic note addressed to the Government of India dated 20 November 2019 in response to the new political map issued by the latter.
This unilateral act runs against the understanding reached between the two countries including at the level of Prime Ministers that a solution to boundary issues would be sought through negotiation. The Government of Nepal remains committed to seek diplomatic solution to boundary issues on the basis of the historical treaty, documents, facts and maps in keeping with the spirit of close and friendly ties between the two countries.
In light of this development, the Government of Nepal calls upon the Government of India to refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal.
It may be recalled that the Government of Nepal had expressed its disagreement in 2015 through separate diplomatic notes addressed to the governments of both India and China when the two sides agreed to include Lipu Lekh Pass as a bilateral trade route without Nepal’s consent in the Joint Statement issued on 15 May 2015 during the official visit of the Prime Minister of India to China.
It may be noted that the two Governments had constituted the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India Relations with a mandate to recommend measures and institutional framework with a view to elevating the existing relations to a new height. The Group has concluded its task and prepared a consensus report. The Government of Nepal is ready to receive the report and believes that it will be in the interest of the two countries to implement its recommendations which will also help address the outstanding issues left by the history, thereby paving the way for ever stronger neighbourly relations.”
On 9 May 2020,
An Indian foreign ministry spokesperson told media:
“We have seen the Press Release dated 9th May 2020 issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal pertaining to the inauguration of a road in India.
The recently inaugurated road section in Pithoragarh district in the State of Uttarakhand lies completely within the territory of India. The road follows the pre-existing route used by the pilgrims of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. Under the present project, the same road has been made pliable for the ease and convenience of pilgrims, locals and traders.
India and Nepal have established mechanism to deal with all boundary matters. The boundary delineation exercise with Nepal is ongoing. India is committed to resolving outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue and in the spirit of our close and friendly bilateral relations with Nepal.
Both sides are also in the process of scheduling Foreign Secretary level talks which will be held once the dates are finalised between the two sides after the two societies and governments have successfully dealt with the challenge of COVID 19 emergency.”
On 11 May 2020,
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali summoned the Indian ambassador to Nepal, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, to his office and handed a diplomatic note to protest the road construction.
The note was more like “a position paper from Nepal on the disputed territory” and it highlighted “the positive aspects of Nepal-India ties” according to the Kathmandu Post. “While stating that Nepal gives special importance to its relations with India, Nepal through the note has expressed its displeasure over incidents happening at unpredictable levels after the issuance of the political map by India in November”, an unnamed foreign ministry official told the Post. The note gave “the historical context of the dispute starting from the Sugauli Treaty”, stated “that Kalapani, Lipulek and Limpiyadhura belong to Nepal”, urged “India to stop unilateral construction of the road” and called for talks to resolve the boundary issues at the earliest date possible.
The Nepali embassy in New Delhi also submitted a copy of the note to India’s foreign ministry.
On 13 May 2020,
Prime Minister Oli held another all-party meeting to discuss “the inauguration by the Indian side of road that goes through Nepal’s Lipulek and issues related to Nepal-India border”, according to a press statement issued by the foreign ministry. The statement read:
सम्माननीय प्रधानमन्त्री श्री केपी शर्मा ओलीज्यूले नेपालको लिपुलेक हुँदै जाने बाटोको भारतीय पक्षबाट हालै भएको उदघाटन एवं नेपाल-भारत सीमा सम्बन्धी विषयहरूमा छलफल गर्नका लागि प्रधानमन्त्री निवास वालुवाटारमा सर्वदलीय बैठकको आयोजना गर्नु भयो। उक्त बैठकमा पूर्व प्रधानमन्त्रीहरू र संघीय संसदमा प्रतिनिधित्व गर्ने राजनीतिक दलका नेताहरूको समुपस्थिति रहेको थियो।
बैठकमा उपस्थित सबै राजनीतिक दलका नेताहरूले सुगौली सन्धि अनुसार काली (महाकाली) पूर्वका लिम्पियाधुरा, कालापानी र लिपुलेक लगायतका भू-भाग नेपालको भएकोले सो क्षेत्र सहित दुई देशबीच सुल्झाउन बाँकी सीमा सम्बन्धी विषयहरू कूटनीतिक माध्यमबाट समाधान गर्न सुझाव दिनु भयो। साथै, उहाँहरूले उक्त कार्यका लागि नेपाल सरकारलाई सबै राजनीतिक दल तथा नेपाली जनताको तर्फबाट पूर्ण साथ रहेको विश्वास दिलाउनु भयो।
सम्माननीय प्रधानमन्त्रीज्यूले नेपालको सार्वभौमसत्ता, स्वाधिनता र अखण्डताको रक्षाका लगि नेपाली जनता र सबै राजनीतिक दलहरूबीच समान धारणा हुनु सुखद पक्ष रहेको व्यक्त गर्दै ऐक्यवद्धताका लागि सबै राजनीतिक दलहरूलाई धन्यवाद प्रकट गर्नु भयो। उहाँले राष्ट्रिय हितलाई सर्वोपरि राख्दै सुल्झाउन बाँकी सीमा सम्बन्धी समस्याहरू वार्ताद्वारा समाधान गर्न नेपाल सरकार प्रतिवद्ध रहेको कुरा व्यक्त गर्नु भयो।
On 15 May 2020,
President Bidya Devi Bhandari presented the government’s annual Policies and Programs at the joint session of parliament. She said, “Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani are the territories of Nepal and a concrete diplomatic initiative shall be made to secure them. A new political map shall be issued by incorporating the missing land accordingly.”
On 16 May 2020,
Indian Army Chief Manoj Mukund Naravane, speaking at a webinar organised by the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (MP-IDSA) in New Delhi, blamed that Nepal was raising the “issue at the behest of [China]”. As the newspaper Indian Express reported, Naravane said:
“There is reason to believe that they [Nepal] might have raised this issue at the behest of someone else [read China] and that is very much a possibility.” Responding to a question on Nepal’s objection to the road, according to the newspaper, Naravane said: “In fact, the Nepalese Ambassador has mentioned that the area east of the Kali river belongs to them. There is no dispute in that whatsoever. The road which we made is in fact to the west of the river.”
Blaming the invisible Chinese hand in every Nepali action that the Indian establishment does not like is symptomatic of the deep psychological trauma inflicted by the humiliating defeat of India in the 1962 Sino-Indian War combined with the feeling of inferiority vis a vis China (more on this in the next part of the article). Additionally, it exposes the persistently patronising attitude of India when it comes to its diplomatic ties with Nepal.
With reference to River Kali, what Naravane failed to mention is Nepal’s position that the river begins at Limpiyadhura, not Lipu Lek. Naravane added: “I don’t know what they are agitating about. As we go ahead, it literally shows as to where the tri-junction should be. There have never been any problems on this score in the past.” Here too, Naravane appears to be ignorant of the fact that Indian Government has not only acknowledged the border disputes in Kalipani and elsewhere with Nepal but is also part of bilateral mechanisms to resolve the issues. It is another matter altogether that these mechanisms have failed to make any progress.
General Naravane’ s statements, however, further instigated the Nepali public who were already protesting and the political class that exerted further pressure on the Nepal Government to act. As a Nepal Government minister told the Kathmandu Post on 18 May: “The government had been tolerating [the Indian encroachment] until India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the new road. We thought India was taking our calls for talks seriously but we felt nervous after the Indian Army chief made a controversial statement and decided to issue the new map.”
On 18 May 2020,
the Nepal Government decided “to publish Nepal’s map incorporating land areas including those of Limpiyadhura, Lipulek and Kalapani and outlining administrative demarcation of seven provinces, 77 districts and 753 local units”, according to a tweet posted by Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali. Gyawali also said the Land Management Ministry would “soon publicise the official map”.
On 19 May 2020,
while responding to the questions raised by MPs on the government’s policy and program, Prime Minister Oli reiterated that his government would bring Nepal’s territory back. He said:
“Yesterday we [decided to] publish Nepal’s new map [by] the council of ministers that incorporates Limpiyadhura, Lipulek and Kalapani. They belong to us….Particularly in 1962, after the Indian Army was stationed in Kalapani, we were blocked from going into the area west of Kalapani. The then rulers [of Nepal did not] speak up and the issue got overshadowed.
As the prime minister of the present government I want to inform this prestigious House that the issue of Limpiyadhura, Lipulek and Kalapani will not be allowed to be overlooked. We will resolve this issue. We will take our land back. India has occupied our land for no reason and has made it part of a dispute.
We are not afraid that anyone might be angry because we did not create the problem. We have not erred. That is why we will not allow this issue to cool down and we will take concrete diplomatic initiatives to negotiate and take our land back.
With this promise, and as we stated in the Policy and Program that Limpiyadhura, Lipulek and Kalapani are ours, we will initiate concrete diplomatic efforts and take them back. With this promise, as stated in the Policy and Program, we will make a map incorporating those areas.
There is nothing clever about this and this has not been done for so-called nationalism. However, it is not unnatural [for me to be accused of acting for so called nationalism] in a situation where [people have] seen and experienced so-called nationalism… This is not a part of any tamasha. This is being done to take back our land. The map has been adopted yesterday and will be made public by tomorrow. I trust that the whole nation will be happy with this. A proposal to amend Annex 3 of the constitution that has our national emblem will be tabled at this house… “
On 20 May 2020,
Minister for Land Management, Cooperative and Poverty Eradication, Padma Aryal, formally unveiled the revised official map of Nepal which was also published on the ministry’s website.
Indian reaction to Nepal’s map
Indians have reacted furiously to Nepal’s cartographic response.
On 20 May 2020,
in “response to media queries on the revised map of Nepal released today by Government of Nepal” the official spokesperson of the Indian foreign ministry, Anurag Srivastava, branded Nepal’s action as “unilateral” and “not based on historical facts and evidence.” He said:
“The Government of Nepal has released a revised official map of Nepal today that includes parts of Indian territory. This unilateral act is not based on historical facts and evidence. It is contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue. Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India.
Nepal is well aware of India’s consistent position on this matter and we urge the Government of Nepal to refrain from such unjustified cartographic assertion and respect India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We hope that the Nepalese leadership will create a positive atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues.”
It is embarrassing to observe the Indian spokesperson borrowing many words and phrases, and even the tone, from statement(s) that Nepal has issued in the past reacting to Indian “unilateral” actions. These words include: “unilateral act”, “historical facts and evidence”, “contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue”, “is well aware”, “consistent position on this matter”, “refrain from such unjustified …assertion”, “respect … sovereignty and territorial integrity”, “diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues”.
The spokesperson markedly avoids mentioning Nepal’s calls for, to use his own words, “diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues”, particularly after India’s “unjustified cartographic assertion” in November 2019. For example, on 10 November 2019, Nepal’s foreign minister Gyawali was quoted as saying that Nepal “have sent a request to activate the foreign secretary-level mechanism to resolve the boundary dispute that surfaced recently.”
On 22 May 2020,
the Nepal Government tabled a bill in parliament to amend Annex 3 of the Constitution to accurately reflect the country’s new map in its national emblem.
Part 2: The China Card. Who played it?
Part 3: Waning influence of India in Nepal and the reason behind it.