Two of the world’s closest neighbours, India and Nepal, are locked in a cartographic, diplomatic, and to an extent, a political stand-off. The dispute is over the ownership of nearly 330 sq km of land called Kalapani near Nepal’s western tri-junction with India and China.
The dispute was triggered in November 2019 when India issued a new map to indicate the changed status of Jammu and Kashmir into a Union Territory. Nepal raised objections because the Kalapani area was shown as being in India. Indian maps have always shown it that way; therefore, there was no change in the map. This was followed by Nepal’s objections to the inauguration of a road from Darchula to Lipu Lekh Pass, aimed at strengthening India’s defence supply lines as well as facilitating smooth passage for pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet. Nepal said this road is an encroachment on its sovereignty. There have been street protests, parliament has agitated, and now the Nepal government has issued its map showing Kalapani as its territory. New Delhi has reiterated that the area belongs to India, and would be willing to resolve the dispute through diplomatic negotiations after the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) crisis is over.
Nepal’s claims are rooted in the Sugauli Treaty signed with the British in March 1816. In this, Nepal renounced “all claims to or connextions (as in original text) with the countries lying to the west of river Kali…” (Art.V). The land east of the Kali thus remained with Nepal. This claim is reinforced by some old revenue records and gazette notifications.
India accepts this position, but its claim arises from the ambiguity in the treaty on the identification of the Kali river and its origin. According to India, the river originates from Lipu Lekh and then merges into other streams and tributaries to become the Mahakali. Nepal’s contention is that Kali originates from Limpiyadhura and the stream originating from Lipu Lekh is called Lipu Khola. Hence the dispute. The area between these two streams is Kalapani. The treaty underwent some revisions to accommodate Nepal in the Terai (southern part) and was finally endorsed by the British government on November 15, 1860.
The maps issued by the British between 1816 and 1860 generally favour the Nepali position. But, the maps issued afterwards endorse India’s position. It is possible that the British administration changed this position through proper surveys or subsequently decided to manipulate this position, to serve its larger strategic and commercial interests in using the Lipu Lekh pass for access to Tibet. Independent India was handed over access to Kalapani and Lipu Lekh by the British.
Blaming India for any encroachment is baseless. It must be borne in mind that much before the British came, or the Gurkha kings annexed Kumaon and Garhwal regions — then surrendered under the Sugauli Treaty — Indians were using this route for the pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar. The route has deep spiritual and civilisational significance for India. China accepted Lipu Lekh as one of the cultural and commercial transit points with India under its 1954 Peaceful Co-Existence Agreement. This was reiterated in 2015 in a joint statement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China.
Nepal has endorsed India’s position for nearly 150 years. It used Indian maps showing Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipu Lekh in India. Objections to this were raised in the 1980s, but were ignored by the royal regimes. Since 2000, the two surveyed the length of their boundary to resolve outstanding issues, except in two areas, including Kalapani. It is mutually agreed that these issues will be resolved through diplomatic negotiations.
Why then has the Nepal government turned up the heat on the Kalapani issue? Prime Minister KP Oli faces serious internal opposition at the moment, including from within his ruling Nepal Communist Party. This is largely on account of his governance failures and lack of action on combating the pandemic. He has consolidated his nationalist image since 2015 by fighting India’s ill-advised diplomatic intervention on the constitution issue and the counterproductive economic coercion (partial economic blockade) that followed. He perhaps hopes that this face-off with India on Kalapani will give him a new lease of political life.
The strategic community in India apprehends that Nepal is also being prompted by China to get India out of Kalapani. Indian Army chief General MM Navrane’s indirect reference in an Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses lecture may be recalled here. This apparently conflicts with China’s endorsement of the Indian position in 1954 and 2015. However, China is seldom straight in diplomacy. It is unhappy with India’s growing strategic proximity to the United States. It has also objected to India’s defence infrastructure upgradation projects all along the border. The Darchula-Lipu Lekh road is one such project. Needling India and alienating Kathmandu from New Delhi serves China’s broader purpose. This explains why is it is playing an active role in preserving the unity of the Nepal Communist Party and protecting the Oli regime.
Prolonging this stand-off is not in the interest of either Nepal or India. It will be exploited by the third parties to their advantage. India and Nepal, keeping in mind their mutual stakes and concerns, should through resilient and mutually accommodative diplomacy, resolve this.
SD Muni is professor emeritus, Jawaharlal Nehru University, and a former ambassador
The views expressed are personal