Today, Nepal-India border issue has been being discussed as if the issue is being raised for the first time in history. And the main narrative within India is such that the issue is not coming solely from Nepal but at the behest of China. The main source for such a story was the initial statement made by Indian Army Chief Naravane on the issue. According to him, “there was no dispute…there has never been any problem in the past…they (Nepal) might have raised the issues at the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility”. It seems most of the media and even academia of the largest democracy in the world subscribed the view of an Army Chief without being critical and analytical. While doing so, they have not realized that Nepal and India are the closest neighbors with “special” relations.
In fact it is true that Nepal and India have some of the unique provisions which made the relations ‘special’. Semi- open nature of border management, equal treatment to citizens of both the countries in the matter of residence, ownership of property, participation in trade and commerce, movement and other privileges of a similar nature insured by article 7 of 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty, and a long-standing tradition to accept the chiefs of the two armies also as honorary chiefs of the other country’s national defense force are some of the evidences to claim the relations distinctive than relations of any two neighbors.
Nepal’s Border Settlement
Nepal’s border was outlined through a couple of treaties and agreements. The Sugauli Treaty of 1816, the 1860s agreement between East-India Company and Nepal to return some parts of Plain lands of West Nepal, 1875 agreement to renegotiate with a small land of Dang (Duduwa) are amongst them to demarcate Nepal’s Eastern, Western and Southern borders. However, northern border was outlined along with the Betrawati treaty-a tripartite treaty signed by Tibetan, China and Nepal in 1792.
Documents state that those treaties and agreements were not ‘even’ to finally demarcate Nepal’s border with both the neighbors; it took almost 170 years for Nepal to sign border protocol on northern border with China but it could not sign similar agreement with another neighbor India as yet. That is why Nepal and India are still struggling to address claims and counter claims before signing the border protocol. As far as current controversy is concerned, Limpiadhura area was in a debate just after the 1816 Treaty; the then administrator Chautaria Bom Shah in 1817 had claimed the territory belongs to Nepal. Then, the acting Chief-Secretary of East-India Company J. Adam wrote to his representative Edward Gardner in Kathmandu agreeing to the assertion made by Bom Shah. But the same East India Company came up with a new map shifting the river not coming all the way from Limpiadhura but from Lipulekh.
Interestingly it was around the same period; East-India Company was returning a big chuck of fertile land back to Nepal for Nepal’s support to suppress ‘sepoy’ mutiny and uprising against British rule in India in 1857. Nepal’s then Prime Minister helped the British deploying 9000 Nepal Army personnel under his own command and in return British gave some plain land of Nepal’s Western Tarai which was taken away from Nepal with the 1816 treaty. But , the same British regime also shifted Nepal’s border Point of Kali River in its map from original Kuti Yangti, coming from Limpiyadhura to Tinker River starting at Lipukekh (Shown in Figure 1). However, no document could be traced to explain the reasoning behind British decision.
Available documents tell that the territory i.e. Nabi, Kuti, Gunji which were taken away from Nepal with a revised map were not under the full control of British India. That is why, residents of those areas were taking part in Nepal’s 1959 parliamentary election, and they were enumerated by Nepali Census conducted in the year 1961. However, the area was slowly left behind by Nepal in the recent years, and Nepal has no idea how many of them still identify themselves as Nepali. As far as Kalapani area, which is situated towards the east of Tinker River coming all the way from Lipulekh, the then Home Minister of Nepal Bishwo Bandhu Thapa recalls a letter by Indian Prime Minister Nehru to King Mahendra once the former realized the geo-political importance of the land. But after some years, India constructed a temple replicating Kali temple in Limpiadhura, changed the alignment from Tinker River to Pankha Gad, the north-east streams, thus arguing the border as just below Kalapani.
Border Dispute in Bilateral Forums
Though India was not in the fore to discuss about Nepal-India border issue, Nepal has been raising this issue; the issue which was seen informally before 1990, started being the major agenda on the formal bilateral table or two country forums. For example, the issue which was officially discussed in Prime Minister IK Gujaral’s Nepal visit in 1997 was again debated while Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh was in Kathmandu in 1999. In-between, Indian Ambassador KV Rajan was given a protest letter on the June 8, 1998 by the then GP Koirala government by publicly expressing Nepal’s displeasure over Rajan’s remarks, which according to Koirala, could “nullify the whole process” of border negotiations. It was Rajan who had issued a statement against the charges that India was occupying Nepali land at Kalapani, stressing that successive British-Indian and Nepali governments had acknowledged Indian sovereignty over Kalapani. Along with Nepal’s protest, Rajan had to issue another statement saying his remarks were “misinterpreted”.
The same issue could be seen enlisted in the important documents i.e. joint communiqué of the high level visits of two countries later on. Firstly, the issue was covered by the Point 27 of India-Nepal Joint Press Statement issued on March 23, 2002 after an official goodwill visit of PM Sher Bahadur Deuba to India. Through the document, the two Prime Ministers not only noted the importance of a scientifically demarcated alignment of the international boundary between India and Nepal, but also directed the Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee to complete its task by 2003.It was the joint statement which had mentioned the Kalapani area acknowledging that “there were differences in perceptions of the two sides. Likewise, Point 13 of Joint Press Statement issued on the Official Visit of Minister of External Affairs of India Pranab Mukherjee to Nepal from 24-26 November 2008, reads, “the two Ministers noted that Joint Technical Committee on the boundary had completed scientific strip mapping of about 98% of Nepal-India border and agreed to take further necessary steps for signature of the agreed strip maps at an early date. They also directed the officials concerned to expeditiously resolve the outstanding issues relating to the boundary”.
Also, Point 12 of the Joint Press Statement issued on the August 04, 2014 after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s official visit to Nepal states, “The two Prime Ministers also underlined the need to resolve pending Nepal-India boundary issues once and for all”. In between, the border issue was handed over to the Joint Commission, a foreign minister-level bilateral mechanism between the two countries established in 1987 with a mandate to review the entire gamut of bilateral matters. But, just before Modi’s visit to Nepal in August 2014, the commission had directed the foreign secretaries to work on it. That is why the Joint Press Statement reads, they (the two Prime Ministers) had also welcomed the Joint Commission’s decision to direct the Foreign Secretaries to work on the outstanding boundary issues, including Kalapani and Susta receiving required technical inputs from the BWG as necessary. The Indian side stressed on early signing of the agreed and initialed strip maps of about 98% of the boundary. The Nepalese side expressed its desire to resolve all outstanding boundary issues”. Since all these documents are in the MEA’s archive, Indian academia and intelligentsia could have suggested to their own Army Chief to read those papers before making such a controversial remarks.
Whether China is behind Nepal to raise the issue?
Another question to be engaged here is that whether it was China behind Nepal on the issue. A couple of occasions and events suggest that India and China take consent of each other if they have to deal with Nepal on major issues, and that is what was the case of Kalapani and Lipukekh. Nepal is well aware not only about India-China Agreement on Tibet signed on the April 29, 1954 that firstly acknowledged Lipulekh as one of six borders allowed to Indian pilgrims. The road which was inaugurated by Indian Minster of Defense in May 8, 2020 was also part of India and China agreement to expand a trade route via Lipulekh agreed in 2015 during Modi’s China visit. Once Nepal government knew the agreement on Lipulekh, the then Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had lodged protests with both Delhi and Beijing by sending diplomatic notes.
Beijing has also come up with a statement on the 19th of May 2020 on the Kalapani border issue between India and Nepal in which China suggested to properly resolve the disputes through friendly consultations. It was Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s remarks at a media briefing while replying to questions on India-Nepal differences over the border, which stated that Nepal and India also should “refrain from unilateral actions that might complicate the situation”. The statement itself is seen as an ambiguous one as it was not clearly pointed towards any developments-neither the inauguration of road by India nor Nepal’s assertion to issue new map adding the territory of Limpiadhura area. The confusion occurred because of the fact that it was China which was consulted at Prime Minister Level by India in 2015 while constructing the road. If it is the case, the question here could be whether Chinese recent statement to ‘refrain from unilateral actions’, is the message only to Nepal not to go ‘unilateral’ with new map?
This outstanding border problems have complicated Nepal-India relations in a big way. Border related studies including one I was a part of , had recommended both the governments to realize the fact that most of the problems including anti-India rhetoric were outcomes of the border dispute, and many issues would automatically be resolved once the border related issues were addressed. Nepal is very much aware of the fact that there is no way except to go for negotiation to resolve it; we are also familiar to use ‘give and take’ method to resolve claims and counter claims in the territory as it was practiced while resolving border dispute with northern neighbor-China in 1960s. But the problem here is that Indian bureaucrats seem to have briefed New Delhi that border issue including Kalapani is not a serious bilateral issue but a political tools to be consumed domestically in Nepal. While saying so, they had misled high level leadership of India forgetting the small country syndrome on the issue of territory.
It is high time for India to learn from the past mistakes, and resolve the issue through high level political dialogue. Instead of blaming a friendly neighbor’s tilt elsewhere, a quick arrangement of such dialogue is way out for India to show its smartness so that Nepal will not be able to use the issue domestically anymore.
Uddhab Pyakurel is an Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Master Program at the School of Arts of Kathmandu University, Nepal.