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India Needs to Fast-Track a Border Solution, Lest It Lose Nepal

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India Needs to Fast-Track a Border Solution, Lest It Lose Nepal

With anti-India sentiment growing in Nepal over the border dispute, it’s time for New Delhi to take action toward a resolution.

India Needs to Fast-Track a Border Solution, Lest It Lose Nepal

A Nepali student shouts slogans during a protest near the Indian embassy in Kathmandu, Nepal, Nov. 8, 2019.

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

Contrary to a recent Indian media report about Nepal’s unwillingness to engage in border talks, Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali has said that India was dragging its feet, despite repeated requests for a border dialogue from Kathmandu. Gyawali made these comments both before the press and at the official party meeting of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), which commands nearly a two-thirds majority in both houses of Nepal’s federal parliament and controls the state governments in six out of seven states of Nepal.

After two noteworthy developments in the border dispute – the inclusion of the Kalapani-Lipulekh area in an Indian political map on November 2, 2019 and the formal inauguration of the roadways to Kailash Mansarovar via Lipulekh pass on May 8, 2020 — there have been several visible attempts to jumpstart a border dialogue from the Nepali side.

First, Nepal sent diplomatic notes to India seeking a peaceful solution to the border tension on November 21, 2019 and May 11, 2020.  Second, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Indian envoy to Nepal, Vinay Mohan Kwatra, to protest Indian steps regarding the Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura area, which has been controlled by India since 1962.

The Nepal government was under pressure from both the streets and the parliament on the border issue. Finally, on May 18, a cabinet meeting of Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli decided to issue a revised political map of Nepal including the India-controlled territories of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura. Nepal’s lower and upper houses passed the updated map unanimously on June 13 and 18, respectively. Not a single vote was cast against the motion to amend the new coat of the army with the revised map of Nepal.

Meanwhile, India kept procrastinating on an official border dialogue in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic. Gyawali, however, said Nepal could not wait for the pandemic to be over to start a border dialogue — Nepalis were protesting in the streets and on social media platforms over the Nepal government’s response to the Kalapani, Lipulekh, and Limpiyadhura dispute.

At a time when the Indian side was ignoring Nepal’s requests to have a high-level video conference meeting on the border issue, a high-ranking Indian official was in direct dialogue with Chinese side over their border tensions. This added to the already brewing anti- India sentiments in Nepal, with many Nepalis questioning why India is eager to talk borders with China but not with Nepal.

Fast-Track a Border Solution to Prevent Feuds Among Friends

Nepal-India camaraderie was cemented even before Nepal and India appeared as modern nations in South Asia. People-to-people ties between the nations are exemplary, to the point that Sukh Deo Muni calls them the “world’s closest neighbors.” Muni, an Indian expert on Nepal affairs, has solid footing for his description.

Nepal and India have a roughly 1,800-kilometer-long open border, many cultural similarities, and a shared history. Nepal and India both are crucial for each other. For India more than 30,000 Nepali Gurkha soldiers are an instrumental forces to protect contested borders. Likewise, a report from the U.S.-based Pew Research Center ranks Nepal as India’s seventh largest remittance-sending country. On trading front, Nepal is the top border-trading partner among India’s six neighboring nations of Bhutan, Bangladesh, China, Nepal, Pakistan, and Myanmar. India’s trade surplus with Nepal is in the billions of dollars.

For Nepal, India is the biggest and most accessible next-door market, as it borders Nepal to the east, west, and south. Despite Nepal’s Transit and Transportation Agreement (TTA) with northern neighbor China, allowing access to Chinese roads and ports for third-country trade and transit, land-locked Nepal heavily relies on Indian ports for international trade and transit. Millions of migrant Nepalese are working in India. Most importantly, India is one of the biggest development partners in Nepal.

Leaders of both countries must understand these deeply inter-linked historic, civilian, economic, and diplomatic factors. As the most powerful country in the subcontinent, the Indian state establishment must take the lead to resolve border tension with friendly neighbor Nepal. If Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes up with a border solution, he can turn the tide of anti-Indian sentiment, as he did with his first Nepal visit in 2014.

The Nepali side has claimed Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura for three reasons. First, based on the Sugauli Treaty (1816), Naya Muluk Treaty (1860), and the supplementary treaty of 1875, the areas of Lipulekh, Kalapani, and Limpiyadhura belong to Nepal.

Second, Nepal has recorded official data — the census, voters’ lists and other governmental registration documents – from these areas until 1962.

Third, New Delhi urged Nepal to allow its territories to host 17 Indian “check-posts” before its war with China. After the Sino-India war of 1962, India withdrew 16 out of its 17 military check-posts from Nepal. However, the post at the Kalapani area was not removed, causing the present-day border row in the region. The question in Nepal is this: If the Indian military post of Kalapani was set up on India’s own land, why did it ask permission from Nepal?

The Indian side must listen to these legitimate claims and iron out the differences at the negotiation table, ending this unnecessary feud forever. It is said that agreement has been reached on 98 percent of the Nepal-India border. The remaining 2 percent, however, is generating troubles from the public to the press. Both countries are seen trading insults.

On the journalistic front, Zee News has run fake news insulting Nepal’s Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli over his relationship with Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi. This prompted the cable operators of Nepal to ban all privately owned Indian news channels, although the Indian government-owned DD News and other entertainment channels go unhindered. This does not bode well for both countries.

The border rows is the roots of this latest development. India must take the lead to end this fiasco by organizing a dialogue between top leaders of the both countries at the earliest.

The Template of Nepal-China Border Agreements

Some Indian television and print media outlets have argued that China was behind Nepal’s assertive moves on the border issue. Indian Army Chief also took a similar tone. However, this was not at the backing of China.

The Oli government was pressured to act from multiple fronts after India’s new political map and the inauguration of the roadways via Lipulekh Pass. From parliamentary voices to the street protests, Nepal was united on the issue of its cartographic positioning. All political parties, including the main opposition Nepali Congress and Madhesi parties, were on the same page on the map issue.

On the contrary, Nepal has reservations with China on the Lipulekh issue. China and India agreed to “boost border trade at Quiangla/ Lupulekh Pass” in the 28th point of the joint communiqué issue by Modi and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang on May 15, 2015. Nepal expressed its clear protest at this pact by sending diplomatic notes to both countries.

In the past few weeks, there were some media reports claiming China has occupied Nepali territory, citing a report by the Ministry of Agriculture of Nepal. It turned out to be a hoax, as the Agriculture Ministry has nothing to do with the border issue. The Nepal government has also made it clear that the reported story was untrue. Nepal’s leading daily, Kantipur, apologized for the false story.

Unlike Nepal-India border tension, Nepal and China have long since settled their border. The Nepal-China Boundary Agreement and Boundary Treaty were signed on March 21, 1960 and October 5, 1961, respectively. Interestingly, Nepal’s diplomatic relationship with China was formally established only on August 1, 1955.  According to an extensive article penned by the former Director General of the Survey Department of Nepal, Buddhi Narayan Shrestha, who has written a book titled Boundary of Nepal, China and Nepal had “disputes, conflicts, debates, controversies, claims and counter-claims in 32 places, including the question of Mt. Everest.”

The final border settlement between Nepal and China was made with land swaps. According to Shrestha, Nepal gave 1,836 square kilometers of land to China while China agreed to give 2,139 square kilometers of land to Nepal.

Interestingly, Nepal successfully settled its border demarcation with northern neighbor China within just seven years of establishing its diplomatic relationship. Tragically, Nepal and India are still at loggerheads on the territorial demarcation settled between British India and Nepal more than 200 years ago. The Nepal-China border demarcation would not have settled without China’s lead. In a similar manner, India needs to be a leader in finding a perpetual and technical solution to all borders tension with its friendly neighbor Nepal.

Birat Anupam is the senior English language reporter at Nepal’s official news agency, National News Agency. He mostly writes about tourism, diplomacy and the environment.