Decoding the India-Nepal dispute – analysis
Things are not looking good in the Himalayas. And it’s not just because of India’s long-running border dispute with China and the recent skirmishes on the Current Line of Control.
On Tuesday, Nepalese Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli called a meeting of all parties to seek consensus on modifying the constitution to include the Northwest Strategic Union with India and China – Kalapani, Limpiadhura and Lipulekh – within the Nepal territory. It could turn out to be a significant political move, although the amendment has not yet been endorsed by Parliament at the time of writing. Oli obviously wants to negotiate with New Delhi from a position of strength.
Nepal maintains that the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, ratified by both parties, designates (Maha) kali as the border river. It considers the treaty as the only authentic document on boundary delimitation and all other documents as “subsidiaries”.
Much has changed in Nepal since India’s Defense Minister Rajnath Singh paved the way linking India and China through the disputed territory on May 8. Struggling for political survival amid a serious inter-party dispute, the problem with New Delhi has given Oli a new lease on life. For the second time since 2015, New Delhi’s foreign policy decisions have reinforced Oli’s nationalist credentials.
Here is a bit of electoral history. In 2017, Oli’s party, the Communist Party of Nepal (unified Marxist-Leninist) came to power in a strong nationalist wave, following India’s undeclared border blockade to express its discontent at the new constitution that it believed was not inclusive enough. After a formal merger between his party and Prachanda’s Maoist party, Oli now heads the strongest government in Nepal in 30 years. If Indian pressure increases, there is a good chance that Oli’s nationalist position will triumph over all intra and inter-party differences, eroding all nuances. Nepal could be pushed back to China. From now on, the Nepalese strategic community and political leaders are at least wondering why China in 2015 agreed with India to allow the construction of a link road through the disputed Lipulekh. Is China telling us the full story? Do you consider your ties to Nepal to be independent of your ties to India, a power in Asia and the Pacific?
In 1963, when Nepal and China signed a border agreement, the two sides decided to remain “open” to the triple union in northwestern Nepal (where Kalapani is located) and for the triple union in the northeast to be discussed at some point with India. . The Indochinese border war had just ended, and there was too much aggression for the three sides to sit down to talk, recalls Bhek Bahadur Thapa, who was secretary of the government of Nepal at the time. When Thapa became Nepal’s ambassador to India in 1997-2003, Prime Minister IK Gujral and his counterpart in Nepal formed a joint Foreign Secretary-level team to resolve pending border issues.
When India unilaterally released a new map in November last year, with the Kalapani region within its terrorist territory, the Nepalese side felt the move violated the status quo and international conventions on the disputed border, Thapa argues. From Nepal’s point of view, if inaugurating the Lipulekh runway through disputed territory in the midst of a pandemic was bad enough, the claim by the head of the Indian army, General Manoj Mukund Naravane, that Nepal was acting on “someone’s request”, a clear reference to China, only added to the complications. India’s position is that the new map was published in light of Ladakh, and the change of status of Jammu and Kashmir as Union territory and that the disputed region has always been in its possession.
As both sides pounce on cartographic interpretations, a political solution is the only way out. The recent border agreement between India and Bangladesh offers a good example.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi got much of the South Asian Regional Cooperation Association (Saarc) and certainly Nepal, excited about his “Covid-19 Diplomacy” on March 15 when he called a video conference inviting leaders of the region to work together. But the initiative was later sidetracked due to India’s own battle against the pandemic and is now affected by the border dispute. All this time, China is seen as a great success in containing the outbreak. President Xi Jinping is politically asserting himself internally and China is projecting his power externally. Nepal continues to import urgent medical supplies from China.
The pandemic offers India, a regional power in its own right, a similar window of opportunity to make its presence felt in the region. A strong case can be made for further engagement with Nepal, given our vast open border and strong person-to-person ties. Nepalese professionals who worked alongside their Indian counterparts after the 2015 earthquake still remember their familiarity with languages, cultures, and even standard operating guidelines (for example, during medical treatment).
New Delhi and Kathmandu need to immediately engage with each other through public diplomacy to lower the temperature. It could even mean establishing communications at the highest level, among prime ministers. And with populations reassured, they can let their respective bureaucracies handle the problem.
Many in India’s strategic community believe that Oli is playing the “nationalist card” for his political survival. Some in Nepal also offer a similar analysis. If that’s the case, it’s one more reason to resolve the border dispute early. India’s future response will significantly shape the emerging narrative in Nepal. The main opposition, the Nepalese Congress and other parties, the Janta Samajbadi Dal and the Rastriya Prajatantra Party, want to be seen as independent contributors to the solution, rather than giving the impression that they simply followed Oli. A hard-line approach by New Delhi will further strengthen Oli. India has a difficult decision to make.
Akhilesh Upadhyay is a senior member of IIDS, an expert group, based in Kathmandu.
The opinions expressed are personal.