India- Nepal relations are about people, culture, economics and politics. In short, many like to describe it as ‘bread – bride’ relations to signify economic interdependence and people to people contact. These two neighbours share more than 1500 km of open border which is something unique in the South Asian context. Anyone having the slightest idea of South Asian borders is well aware that in this post-colonial and post-partition region, borders are an integral part of nationalist political discourse (Tripathi and Chaturvedi 2019). The India-Pakistan border conflict and unresolved tension of the Durand Line between Pakistan and Afghanistan are few well – known examples of border complexities in South Asia. Still, there are few noteworthy examples of border cooperation in South Asia and India-Nepal border is in this category. People of India and Nepal don’t require a visa for travelling across the border. While this explains the cordial relationship between the two, there has been certain changes in the last few years.
The Present Controversy
In the last couple of months India- Nepal border issues remained in news and surprised many who have an idea about their relationship. It started when Indian Defence Minister Mr Rajnath Singh on 8th May 2020 through video conferencing inaugurated a road link between “Dharchula (Uttarakhand, India) to Lipulekh (China Border)” (Ministry of Defence, Government of India 2020). Interestingly, India and China signed an agreement in 2015 to enhance border trade “at Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass” (PTI 2015 ). Nepal’s Parliament objected to this agreement because Lipulekh pass comes under Kalapani area which Nepal claims as an unresolved border with India.
As per the report, Nepal raised the Kalapani issue with India in 2006 but it acquired a diplomatic row between the two only in 2019 “when India published a revised political map showing the newly created Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh” (Bhattacherjee 2020 ). The 2019 Indian map showed “Kalapani as part of Pithoragarh district of India (Bhattacherjee 2020 ). Nepal lodged a protest and both sides decided to discuss it at official level. Now after the construction of the road, Nepal has reacted strongly and amended the constitution thereby updating the political map that now includes “India’s territories in Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh” (Bhattacharjee 2020). India objected to the new political map of Nepal. The point is that after the endorsement of Parliament with zero dissents, no political party in Nepal in the near future will make any changes in the map. On the other hand, it is highly unlikely that India will ever accept the new map of Nepal.
How Did We Reach to This Point?
One disturbing question is, how India and Nepal that are regarded as close friends reached to this point of border stalemate. To get the answer we have to start our analysis from the year 2015. In 2015, Nepal after several political cleavages finally agreed to adopt a new constitution. Although not every social group was happy with the new national rule book. Madheshi groups raised certain objections and started a protest against the new constitution. New Delhi just before the promulgation of new constitution raised the concern of the Madheshi community and sent then foreign secretary S. Jaishankar to Nepal for holding deliberation with leaders of different political parties. The purpose of this visit was to convince the political leadership of Nepal to accommodate the concern of Madheshi groups (PTI 2015 ). This last-minute request by New Delhi was not received well with many political leaders of Nepal and they overlooked Indian concern and demand of the Madheshi community and passed the constitution. New Delhi was apprehensive of a Madheshi protest. Madheshi community is “ethnically, linguistically and culturally close to the people of Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh” (Pokharel 2015 ).
As per the New Delhi’s assessment, any political disturbance in the Madheshi dominated areas of Nepal may have a spillover in India and therefore it approached Kathmandu. The disgruntled Madheshi community vehemently opposed the new constitution, started protesting and blocked the border with India on 25th September 2015. As a landlocked country, Nepal is dependent on India for its imports and this border blocked disrupted the supplies of essential commodities. Earlier in 2015 Nepal suffered a massive earthquake and was in a desperate need of medical and other necessary supplies including fuel (Tripathi 2019). The people of Nepal particularly of hill areas suffered immensely due to this blockade and started blaming New Delhi for this. Although, New Delhi rejected this allegation but politically a perception was created in Nepal that New Delhi is behind this blockade as the Madheshi community is culturally close to India. The blockade was lifted in early February 2016, just before the visit of Nepal’s PM to India (PTI 2016 ). Afterwards, Nepal’s academia, media persons and politicians started giving a call for better partnership with China to reduce dependence on India. Unfortunately, New Delhi failed to approach the people of Nepal on this issue.
Thereafter, there is a wave of anti-India sentiments and New Delhi has not taken enough proactive steps to reach out to different sections of Nepal. In the last few years Kathmandu under the political leadership of Mr. K.P Sharma Oli cemented ties with Beijing. PM Oli is a communist and few also view his closeness with Beijing as ideological proximity. Nevertheless, PM Oli kept a rhetorical opposition to India and used Nepal’s nationalism for electoral gains. Right now he is regarded as one of the strongest PMs of Nepal who is taking a firm position against the big neighbour India. While there are critical observations of experts on Nepal’s growing ties with China but New Delhi is yet to learn from its earlier mistakes and still hesitant in reaching out to Nepal.
What is to be Done?
A few analysts in India blame China for the present India – Nepal border controversy. This understanding is problematic as things in the India-Nepal ties changed after 2015 and Kalapani is a disputed territory between the two sides. Thus, after the construction of the Indian road, Nepal’s objection was obvious. Also accusing China obstructs any attempt of serious introspection on the part of India. Indeed there is a need for a fresh outlook on Nepal. For that, when Nepal raised concerns on India’s road construction, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), Government of India while emphasizing on dialogue failed to act on urgent basis. As per the MEA communique, “[B]oth 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” (Ministry of External Affairs, Government of India 2020 ). While the Indian government immediately started discussion with China on border issues, it wanted Kathmandu to wait till the end of COVID -19 emergency. Although the context is different, on the side of Nepal this could be interpreted as Indian arrogance.
Moreover, we have also witnessed very chauvinistic commentaries on Nepal in several Indian newspapers. At times even retired Ambassadors used harsh and undiplomatic language in presentencing their views on Nepal on national television. Nepal’s media that kept a close watch on Indian media presented this to their citizens. In brief, this is like adding fuel to the fire. Some politicians in India tried to patronage Nepal in terms of religious-cultural affinities. This again is not received well by the people of Nepal.
New Delhi has to realise that with the active involvement of China, South Asia is now a different region. Nonetheless, India’s rise as a world power is directly linked to its role and status in the region. New Delhi at present cannot match China in material terms but certainly can win the hearts and minds of the people across the region. Indian values and democratic culture is respected all over the region and China cannot match this. Coming back to Nepal, there is an urgent need to start diplomatic engagement with Kathmandu with an open mind. Similarly, New Delhi must involve academicians, politicians, activists and media persons from both sides for some track II dialogue on the future of India-Nepal relations. Indian media needs to be sensitive while reporting on neighbours. The same goes for Indian policymakers and politicians.
Undoubtedly, India-Nepal relationship is more than just state to state ties. It is about people and culture and this is an unbreakable connection. Unfortunately, in the last few years, New Delhi struggled in its Nepal policy and it is now high time that New Delhi make prominent amendments. Let us not forget the fact that both India and Nepal share open borders and a few controversies can be handled without much difficulty.
Dhananjay Tripathi is a Senior Assistant Professor in the Department of International Relations of South Asian University at New Delhi, India.
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