Nepal needs a shakedown before it becomes a bone for China
“You can change friends but not neighbours,”- that is what our late Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee always upheld. Wise it may be, India has often found itself riddled with thorns that grew along the roses we planted. Bangladesh, Maldives, Sri Lanka and now Nepal.
Vajpayee’s statement has always reminded me of one context, our relations with China and Pakistan. We have been a very tolerant neighbour to Pakistan, with an elder brother attitude, forgiving, guiding, helping and a lot more can be added here. However, one must admit that Pakistan will never be a reciprocate neighbour in a foreseeable future primarily because of how India and Pakistan define secularism. On the other hand, Nepal is the same country which has been beloved, trusted and cared for neighbour of India since times immemorial. So when Nepal throws in the towel all of a sudden; we should be worried given the open border policy and social relationship structure that both of us have lived with. To understand the present, we need to take a peep in the past to understand the nuances of being Nepal.
India inherited the boundary with Nepal, established between Nepal and the East India Company in the Treaty of Sugauli in 1816. Kali river constituted the boundary and the territory to its east was Nepal. The dispute relates to the origin of Kali. Near Garbyang village in Dharchula Tehsil of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand, there is a confluence of different streams coming from north-east from Kalapani and north-west from Limpiyadhura. The early British survey maps identified the north-west stream, Kuti Yangti, from Limpiyadhura as the origin, but after 1857 changed the alignment to Lipu Gad and in 1879 to Pankha Gad, the north-east streams, thus defining the origin as just below Kalapani. Nepal accepted the change and India inherited this boundary in 1947. In the spirit of letter it was resolved that Kali river in the Kalapani region demarcates the border between India and Nepal. The treaty of Sugauli signed by the Kingdom of Nepal and British India (after Anglo-Nepalese War) effected in 1816 located the Kali river as Nepal’s western boundary with India. However, over decades, the discrepancy in locating the source of the Kali led to boundary disputes between India and Nepal with each country producing maps supporting its own claims.
While India considers the issue as a discrepancy between two brotherly states, Nepal has elevated this into a formal rhetorical spit in the face dispute. Nepal has allowed itself to be entangled to affirm Kali originates from a stream at Limpiyadhura, north-west of Lipulekh. It states that Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipulekh fall to the east of the river and are part of Nepal’s Dharchula district. Nepal further states that Lipulekh was deleted from the country’s map by the kings to get favours from India. It goes to the extent to say the territory of Kalapani was offered to India by King Mahendra– after the 1962 India-China war– who wanted to help India’s security concerns due to perceived lingering Chinese threats. Kalapani was not a part of Nepal-India dispute. It was Nepal’s territory that the king had allowed India to use temporarily – to conclude, Nepal states the new map is in fact a document that was in circulation in Nepal till the 1950s.
India’s stand has been far less stern with diplomatic messaging that reaffirms that Kali originates in springs well below the Lipulekh pass, and the Sugauli treaty does not demarcate the area north of these streams. India has a deep rooted administrative structure especially for revenues and land records that state Kalapani was on the Indian side and counted as part of Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. Nepal’s deliberate effort to make the Lipulekh pass a disputed tri-junction (between India, China and Nepal) in which Nepal has an equal share; is easily perceivable just like Nepal’s communist regime’s bonhomie with China. On the other hand, despite the continued open border between both countries and the people to people contact, the levels of distrust in Nepal about India have only increased. Way back in the 1980s, the two sides set up the Joint Technical Level Boundary Working Group to delineate the boundary. The group demarcated everything except Kalapani and Susta area. Officially, Nepal brought the issue of Kalapani before India in 1998. Both sides agreed to demarcate the outstanding areas (including Kalpani) by 2002 at the prime ministerial level talk held in 2000 which is yet to happen.
Nepal’s current political angel, KP Sharma Oli and his not so stable career as Prime Minister also needs a deep perspective. Oli did fight and win the elections in 2017 by flaunting his Nepali nationalism card, the flip side of which is anti-India stance. This is not a new phenomenon but has become more pronounced in recent years. Oli donned the nationalist mantle vowing to restore Nepali territory and marked a new low in anti-Indian rhetoric by talking about “the Indian virus being more lethal than the Chinese or the Italian virus”. His domestic political situation was weakening since the day he became the PM. Under the Nepali constitution, a new PM enjoys a guaranteed two-year period during which a no-confidence motion is not permitted. This ended in February 2020 creating a do or die situation for him as he was supposed to choose between being NCP co-chair or the PM of Nepal. On the sidelines, the re-eruption of the Kalapani controversy coincided with Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurating the 80-km road on May 8 thus providing Oli a political lifeline. A subsequent comment by the Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Manoj Naravane, on May 15 that “Nepal may have raised the issue at the behest of someone else” was perhaps a little too early as some political analysts in India believe.
Way forward :
Nepal has enjoyed a historical and cordial relation with India. It’s in the best interest of these two countries to wipe out the differences and act mature. India needs Nepal’s presence as a good neighbour for various reasons, most of them connected with strategic indications whereas Nepal will need to maintain good relations with India to ensure a free trade route for its inbound purchases from China via Kolkata port and then road route. A choke on this route has in the past and can always crush Nepal beyond redemption. Also livelihood of close to 6 million Nepalese nationals entirely depends on India. Looking at Indian point of view, India would like to maintain good relations with Nepal primarily to keep a check on all possible offence which may be planned by two of its notorious neighbours- China and Pakistan. So being together with and for each other is the only way to create a win-win situation. So is there a way forward without having to discipline Nepal? Perhaps no, and if India lets go of Nepal that easily then India perhaps is still not ready to accept that socio-cultural bonhomie has no place to drive foreign policy in the sub-continent. China and Pakistan have time and again proved that the “Bhai Bhai” rhetoric no matter how good it may sound on television news – has always resulted in an inundated India.
(The author is a business leader and a bestselling author)
Tuesday, 02 June 2020 | Ashish Kaul
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