The Pulse | Diplomacy | Security | South Asia

India and Nepal’s Slow-Motion Border Dispute

Alleged Indian encroachment on Nepal’s border area is a persistent cause of tensions.

By Ishaal Zehra for
India and Nepal’s Slow-Motion Border Dispute
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Rahul bag

As Nepal prepares to fix a date for talks with India to resolve their border issue, it’s time to realize both the seriousness of India’s resolve and the depth of the matter.

India surrounds Nepal from the east, west and south. The two share a 1,808 km long border. The history of the demarcation of the modern India-Nepal border began on March 4, 1816, after the signing of the Sugauli Treaty between British India and the state of Nepal. The Treaty declared the Mahakali River of Nepal as the borderline between both countries. The treaty was expected to resolve the border issues, but it did not. Over 200 years later, the dispute regarding the border and the surrounding no-man’s land area flares up now and then in different areas of the Indo-Nepali border.

The reason the dispute persists today is that the rivers, which were counted on as a border, have diverged from their courses several times. Around 600 kilometers of the border is defined by rivers: the Mechi in the east, Mahakali in the west, and Naryani in the Susta area. The unavailability of old maps and documents to revise demarcations has made the situation even harder to resolve.

Taking matters into its own hands, the central government of India deputed its paramilitary security guards of the special services bureau (Shastra Seema Bal) along the border, whereas the presence of Nepali security on the other side of the border is almost nil. Taking advantage of Nepali neglect toward border guards, India started encroaching on the border land. Reports from Nepal claim that India has encroached on over 60,000 hectares of land in 23 of the 75 bordering districts, with 71 total  areas of dispute. There has been a lot of hue and cry over the encroachment by Nepali people, which unfortunately fell on deaf ears in India.

The major areas of dispute include Kalapani, Limpiyahura, Susta, Mechi, and Tanakpur. Both countries often adopt an opportunistic tone regarding the ownership of such disputed border points. Hence, to permanently resolve the issue, an India-Nepal Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee has been set up and tasked to find a reasonable solution.

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The encroachment by India started right after the Indo-Sino border war of November 1962. After facing defeat, the Indian Army set up a camp inside Nepali-claimed territory at Kalapani to monitor Chinese activities. But the Indian troops never left, and now claim that the area belongs to them. However, reports prepared by Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, former director general of the Department of Survey Nepal, claim that maps from 1850 and 1856, prepared by the Survey of India with the participation of Nepali authorities, clearly state that the Mahakal River — declared as the border in the 1816 Sugauli Treaty — originates from Limpiyadhura, 16 km northwest of Kalapani, proving that Kalapani belongs to Nepal. But India refuses to accept those maps as proof. They say that an Indian map from 1875 should be considered instead, which shows the Mahakali’s origin to the east of Kalapani. Notably, 1875 map does not have Nepal’s certification.

The other major disputed area is the Susta area to the east of the Naryani River, which has seen the most tensions owing to encroachment. A few years back, over 1,000 Indian villagers backed by the Indian border police force (SSB) forcibly entered Nepali territory in Susta. They completely destroyed sugarcane crops in about 10 hectares of land and also manhandled men and women alike. The locals of Susta complain that such incidents are rampant. Also according to reports, land disputes among locals are usually won by Indian nationals, who have the support of the armed SSB.

The main reason behind the dispute is the changing course of the Naryani River over the past decades. The river has reportedly changed its course toward the Nepali side in the west. India has encroached on about 14,500 hectares of the reclaimed land because of this. The intrusion happened in stages over a period of decades.

Susta is surrounded by Indian territory on three sides, the north, south, and east, with the Naryani River to the west. Hence, cutting off Susta from Nepal becomes much easier for India to occupy it, which will bring the “Greater India” dream of Hindus closer to reality.

Considering the situation, the people of Nepal launched a “save Susta campaign.” The organizers called on the students of Nepal join them and launch a valley-wide campaign from Nepal’s capital Kathmandu. The purpose of the campaign was to inform the world about the wicked plans of Nepal’s “polite” neighbor, India.

The other most talked about point of dispute is Mechi. India’s disapproval of using the “Junge pillars” as the main boundary pillars has sparked the Mechi border dispute. The map published by British India right after the Sauguli Treaty clearly indicates those pillars to be the main boundary pillars, and history is evident that the British erected those pillars as monuments of the Nepal-India border. But India continues to deny that these pillars form the border.

According to the official records, Nepal covers a total area of 147,181 square kilometers. But in reality, the territory of Nepal is gradually shrinking because of the increasing encroachment by India. The district level authorities of Nepal and India earlier agreed not to allow the use of encroached land for any purpose and passed the issue to their central governments for resolution. But despite the agreement, Indian farmers have been cultivating in the disputed area.

The Maoists’ Young Communist league (YCL) once submitted a memorandum to the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, demanding immediate return of the encroached land by the Indians in Susta area but the political chaos in Nepal left the issue unresolved for some time. They demanded that scientific demarcation of the border land must be done as per historical maps, the encroached territories should be given back to Nepal, and the bilateral bordering area should be regulated.

The Nepal-India Joint Technical level Boundary Committee is supposed to have completed 97 percent of the task of strip-mapping the border, as per the 1874 “Persian map” adopted by the committee. According to them all the disputes, except those over Susta and Kalapani, have been resolved. But when the border is traced in the field, many instances of encroachment are found. Plus, the unwise decision of the Nepali side to accept the Persian map as the basis of demarcation cost Nepal  1,630 hectares of land, which now lay in Indian territory. Indeed, Nepal’s government has failed to make firm decisions regarding border disputes on several occasions, such as the presence of Indian paramilitary force in Kalapani since 1962.

India has many interests in Nepal and has gradually strengthened its political, diplomatic, economic, and cultural influence there. The main strategy is to keep Nepal dependent on India. In this regard, India has provided arms to the establishment as well as anti-establishment groups in Nepal, according to the former Prime Minister B.P. Koirala’s biography. India has a history of formulating efforts on multiple fronts to weaken the already fragile country to facilitate its swallowing.

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It is high time for all Nepalis, currently divided among various political affiliations, to come together against the onslaught on Nepali territory and understand the strategies of their hegemonic neighbor. And India also should realize that the flame ignited in Nepal could very well extend to its own territory. Keeping in mind the ongoing protests in India on account of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the changed status of Kashmir and Ladakh, this possibility is too real and near both.

Ishaal Zehra is an MS scholar who writes on regional security, politics, and strategic affairs with a special focus on the South Asia, Central Asia, and Indian Ocean regions.