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Controversial Map in Nepal’s Currency Note Irks India

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Controversial Map in Nepal’s Currency Note Irks India

The Nepali map features territories that India also claims and is in control of.

Controversial Map in Nepal’s Currency Note Irks India

Nepal’s foreign minister Pradeep Gyawali points to a map of Nepal during an interview with the Associated Press in Kathmandu, Nepal, Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Credit: AP Photo/Niranjan Shrestha

On May 2, Nepal’s cabinet decided that the country’s new 100-rupee note would feature the updated map of Nepal. Nepal’s map was updated in August 2020, when Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani territories were added to the map.

India also claims the territories and maintains de facto control over the areas.

The new notes might take a few months to hit the market, but it has already roiled Nepal-India relations.

Responding to the development, India’s Minister for External Affairs S. Jaishankar said the unilateral move will not “change the situation between us or the reality on the ground.”

Both countries claim the territories. It is based on the differing interpretations between the two states regarding the origin of the Mahakali River, the agreed-upon border in Nepal’s west that borders India’s Uttarakhand state.

In November 2019, India released a political map that included Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura, and Kalapani as part of India. Later, in 2020, Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a road to China’s Kailash Mansarovar that passed through the disputed territory.

Nepal under the leadership of then-Prime Minister K. P. Sharma Oli responded by amending the Constitution unanimously to include these territories as part of Nepal. New Delhi called the move an artificial enlargement of claims that were neither based on historical fact or evidence nor tenable.

Nepal-India relations went into freefall. Relations have recovered since. But the “cartographic war” could derail ties once again.

Nepal’s current decision is both customary and political.

After Nepal updated its official map in 2020, its parliament unanimously amended the Constitution. Although the government could have used the new map in all official documents, it did not. It took the government a few years to effect the changes. Why did it decide to feature the updated map of 2020 on its currency notes now?

The timing of the decision is not without political intonation.

First, the government’s decision comes within a few months of Prime Minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal changing coalition partners. He ditched his partnership with the Sher Bahadur Deuba-led Nepali Congress (NC). He joined hands with Khadga Prasad Oli-led Communist Party of Nepal- United Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), among others. Oli had led the way for the amendment of the Constitution back in 2020 and the latest move is simply the follow-up to the change in 2020. Dahal might be leading the government, but the real power rests with Oli, who leads the largest party in the ruling coalition. The move adds to Oli and the coalition’s nationalist credentials.

Earlier, the NC and a few Madhesh-based parties opposed featuring the new political map on the banknotes. They felt the move could harm an environment of negotiation to resolve the dispute with India. Even after the decision was made, Nepali President Ram Chandra Paudel’s  economic advisor Chiranjivi Nepal called the decision “too provocative and uncalled for.” He was forced to resign for the remarks. Paudel is from the NC.

Second, the decision came hot on the heels of Dahal seeking a vote of confidence in the parliament scheduled for 20 May. Anti-Indian sentiment has often been deployed by political parties trying to bolster unity when their backs are against the walls. Dahal was confident of the votes, but raising the ‘nationalist’ card would not hurt.

Third, the decision came amidst tense moments for the ruling coalition. Deputy Prime Minister and Home Minister Rabi Lamichhane of the Rashtriya Swatantra Party (RSP), a coalition partner, is in trouble over cooperative fraud during his term as the managing director of Gorkha Media Network. The opposition has demanded a probe panel primarily focusing on Lamichhane’s role. The controversy has engulfed political and media circles. The decision could have been intended to divert attention, though it has not succeeded.

Fourth, the move comes amidst territorial claims and counter-claims between India and China over the region India calls Arunachal and China Zhangnan. Beijing released a fourth list of 30 new names for various places in Arunachal Pradesh. New Delhi asserted that the “invented” names do not alter the reality that the territories are integral to India.

New Delhi’s reaction to Nepal’s latest move has been along expected lines so far.

It sharply criticized the move but knew that it did not change the reality on the ground. Jaishankar even remarked that politics and setbacks are part of diplomacy. He added that the Indian response should “balance our [Indian] interests with theirs [Nepal’s].”

Indian media and former Indian ambassadors to Nepal have been quick to see a Chinese hand behind the decision. They view the current coalition as orchestrated quietly by Beijing. Former Indian ambassador to Nepal, Manjeev Puri asserts, “There is little doubt that he [Oli] would have been urged on such a move by his Chinese backers.” He believes India would be comfortable with a Nepali government with the NC as a coalition partner.

This paternalistic attitude vis-à-vis Nepal is hardly new in New Delhi.

However, both nations agree that the boundary dispute should be resolved through established mechanisms. Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Narayan Kaji Shrestha said, “We want to fix it [the boundary issue with India] through diplomatic means and table talks.” His counterpart, Jaishankar, has also called for the dispute to be resolved via established channels.

It also underscores the fact that the current controversy of the updated map in the 100-rupee note is just a symptomatic manifestation of the greater issue: an unresolved boundary dispute and the political utility of India as the ‘other’ in Nepali politics and identity. The new note could further erode the already low trust between the two ‘special’ partners but will not dominate the news cycle for long. Nevertheless, the territorial dispute is unlikely to go away and manifest itself in some other ways, continuing to create waves in Nepal-India relations.

Hence, both countries need to address the larger problem of the territorial dispute. However, the territorial dispute is a political issue. The established channels for discussing the issue are ill-equipped to resolve the dispute. It requires a political engagement between the two.

As the bigger power and a strong government at home, India is better positioned to initiate the process. Territorial disputes are difficult to solve, with Nepal’s constitutional amendment limiting any potential flexibility on Nepal’s end. Therefore, expect further issues to emerge based on the overlapping claims to make waves in Nepal-India relations when it is politically expedient to do so in either capital.