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KALAPANI, LIPU LEKH ROW: RIFT BETWEEN INDIA AND CHINA SERVES NEPAL 

Dr Geeta Kochhar Writes : The Kalapani issue has been raised as ‘India’s encroachment of Nepal’s territory’ and infringing upon its sovereignty. Although India states the road is on Indian territory, Nepal has demanded foreign secretary level talks immediately. I

Dr Geeta Kochhar Writes : 

With the news of Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurating Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra Route, Nepal has witnessed an uproar of protests claiming the territory. It has established a 25-member armed police border force near Kalapani at Chhangru, spending NPR 11 crore, 18 kms from Lipu Lekh Pass.[i] On May 18, Nepali Cabinet also approved a new political map of Nepal incorporating the territory. The issue has seen a sequence of protests in November 2019 over Kalapani when India published a new map showing Ladakh as an independent UT, with this area being shown as part of India.

The Kalapani issue has been raised as ‘India’s encroachment of Nepal’s territory’ and infringing upon its sovereignty. Although India states the road is on Indian territory, Nepal has demanded foreign secretary level talks immediately. In 1981, Nepal-India Joint Technical Committee resolved 76 out of the 78 border points.[ii] In 2014, Foreign Minister’s Joint Commission meeting and an Eminent Persons Group (EPG) in 2016 was formed to revisit 1950 Peace and Friendship Treaty and border issue. The EPG report is yet not accepted, and its recommendations are neither public nor a binding document for the governments.

The critical issues, however, are: Why Nepal is protesting over this barren land which India has controlled and managed since Independence, and the British prior to it? India has agreed for talks and there is a mechanism for border issues, what is the urgency for foreign secretary level talks? Why is Nepal’s Foreign Secretary meeting the Chinese Ambassador to appraise her of the Kalapani and Lipu Lekh issue, when the Armies and bureaucracies of both countries enjoy exceptional relationship. Is it just the nationalist sentiments that are on a high or there are political motives behind? What are the reasons for heightened anti-India narrative?

The issue of anti-India statements and invoking nationalist sentiments on border demarcation does not seem to stem from the mere 35 kms of land. There appear to be greater domestic political power plays and geopolitical changes that evolve the complexity in bilateral relations. It is imperative to understand the internal political tussle of the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) and the main opposition Nepali Congress (NC) along with other parties, while figuring out the entire issue.

What is the Lipulekh and Kalapani Issue?

Lipu Lekh is a strip of land between India, Nepal, and China (Tibet region). Nepal claims the southern part of the pass and recognizes the trijunction as Limpiyadhura and not Lipu Lekh. The pass is a far western point near Kalapani. India claims Kalapani as a part of Uttarakhand’s Pittoragarh district, while Nepal claims it as a district of Dharchula. Nepal’s floated narrative blames late King Mahendra for giving India the territory during 1962 India-China conflict.

India, however, has administrative and revenue records of 1830 British Raj with the Uttar Pradesh State government revealing Pithoragarh district governance and 1879 map with Kalapani as British Indian territory. The UP State police managed the area from 1956 and, after 1979, the Indo-Tibetan Border Police controls the surveillance operations. As per the Article 5 of the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, Nepal renounced all claims to the areas west of Kali river. However, the area is in controversy after 1996 Mahakali Treaty.

Mahakali Treaty and the Dispute

In January 1996, India and Nepal agreed for Integrated development of the Mahakali River including Sarada barrage, Tanakpur barrage, and Pancheshwar project, called the MahakaliTtreaty. It was ratified by the then PM Sher Bahadur Deuba, NC leader in February. Since then, there has been a political with the main contention being that the treaty was ratified without resolving the origin of Kali River that has multiple interpretations: one, the stream from Limpiyadhura; two, the stream from Lipu Lekh; and three, the stream from Kalapani Lake. India claims that the river begins at Kalapani; while Nepal claims it from Lipu Lekh.

The CPN (UML) blames the NC for enforcing an unequal treaty; and the Maoist used it as a political tool to criticize successive governments. Now that Khadga Prasad Oli from the former CPN (UML), also the coordinator of Mahakali treaty, is the PM and heads NCP (a unified party of former UML and Maoists), the opposition parties are raising the issue of Kali river and invoking nationalist narrative with which the NCP gained power. Among the former UML members, some senior leaders had opposed the draft treaty, thus there is an intense NCP inner-Party rift on this aspect. Therefore, this issue has gained significance.

India-China Trade Route: Nepal worried about its poor Railway and Infrastructure

The year 2015 witnessed the rise of anti-India sentiments in Nepal, since the  alleged Indian blockade, in support of the Madhesi objections to the Constitution, restricted the movement of essential goods causing greater suffering to the Nepalese. However, soon after the earthquake on 25 April 2015, India was the first country to respond with Operation Maitri, and largest donor with cash of USD 1 billion aid apart from other non-monetary reliefs.[iii] Yet, by September 2015, India was blamed for blockade and anti-India slogans reigned high in Nepal. There are internal and external context to the scenarios evolving in 2015.

First, the internal context related to the protests in Madhes. Following the promulgation of the new Constitution on September 20, 2015, many Madhesi parties held huge protests with clashes resulting in deaths of many. This is the constant internal turmoil, where Madhes based parties have been protesting for equal rights and citizenship. 2015 was the third wave of protests as Madhes-based party leaders felt betrayed by the promises made in the draft resolutions and felt that the Madhesis were being marginalised.

Second, the external context of India-China economic corridor through Nepal. China had proposed to link the three countries with road and rail connectivity which India was not keen on, since these projects were part of the BRI. Chinese President Xi Jinping in meeting with Indian PM Narendra Modi in Xi’an on 14 May 2015 proposed to reduce competition and have joint investment in Nepal. Later in June end, the then Indian EAM Sushma Swaraj held discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Kathmandu.[iv] The opening of the Lipu Lekh road is in furtherance of the understanding. The press release of Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued on May 9, 2020 states, “Nepal had expressed its disagreement in 2015 through separate diplomatic notes addressed to the governments of both India and China when the two sides agreed to include Lipu Lekh Pass as a bilateral trade route without Nepal’s consent.” This makes clear that the discontent lies in the India-China cooperation on trade route.

Road connectivity

India inaugurated 80 km link road to shorten the journey for the pilgrims. The road originates at Ghatiabagarh and ends at Lipu Lekh pass, the entry point to Kailash Mansarovar, in Tibet, that is 90kms away. The Indian Border Roads Organisation (BRO) is constructing the Tawaghat-Ghatiabagrah-Lipulekh road, which began in 2008 and was scheduled to be completed in 2013, but got delayed due to tough terrain in the portion between Nazang to Bundi village.[v] Nepal states the road is connecting the trilateral point through Nepal’s Darchula-Dharchula border point; while it was not a party to the decision in 2015.[vi]

Railway Line

In 2015, China had also proposed to extend the railway line to India, via Nepal, which India did not agree to. If it had gone through, this would have limited Nepal’s benefits from China, which was demanding an international airport in Pokhara and infrastructure development rather than just being a transit and connecting route to India. China-Nepal Railway has an estimated the cost of US$ 2.8 billion; Nepal, having trade deficit with China, lacks investment funds. Prakash Upadhyaya, a former senior bureaucrat and an infrastructure expert, states China expects Nepal to bear 30 percent cost and rest it will finance in grants and loans; while China actually wanted 60:40 partnership.[vii] Even with the 70:30 ratio, Nepal needs US$800 million, which is huge considering its annual budget of US$15 billion.[viii] There is political tussle between the NC and NCP with each wanting to spread the total cost burden for ten years or five years respectively even while the concerns for debt-trap are high. Besides, the railway invokes concerns from environmentalists and conservationists as it will pass through two conservation areas: Langtang and Shivapuri.

India-China Cooperation Evokes Small State’s Insecurity

Nepal is a small power between two giants – India and China, and hence, carries lot of insecurities over its existence and sustenance. Nepal remains a geo-politically relevant for many powers, including western, due to its strategic location. Nepal would not want India and China to be close enough, as that would threaten its relevance. Nepal has therefore used ‘China card’ against India, and vice-versa, to reap benefits from both powers, and which is imbibed in its foreign policy objectives.

When Modi and Xi agreed to open trade route in 2015, Nepal appears to have floated the anti-India sentiments. Most Nepali politicians understand even with deep rooted cultural and historical ties, there are layers of dissatisfaction looking at Indians as superiors, exploiters, rulers, or even hegemonic power. Nepali politicians promote these frictions in the name of nationalist sentiments for successive elections.

Nepal is coaxing China to join the foreign secretary level talks, though officially Chinese government has refused. As the real significance of SAARC has declined, Nepal seems to be looking for a way into SCO. Nepal looks at alternative alliance partners to re-negotiate with India and gain China’s support. As Kalapani is a strategic point, Nepal will try to successfully play the China card against India, considering the India-China tensions along the LAC and its own strategic significance for India. Unless, the Indian government resolves these critical issues, the irritants will impact India’s role in the region and dent its international image. Nepal will surely use the deft smart power bargain, using each other as a bogey, to gain the benefits from both its neighbours. Hence, a calibrated approach to manage the sentiments of Nepalese and rooting out future probabilities is the need of the hour.

 

End Notes

[i] Punetha, Prem (2020) “Nepal Puts Up Armed Police Outpost for 1st Time Near Border”, Times of India, May 16, at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/after-protest-on-kailash-mansarovar-road-nepal-puts-up-armed-police-outpost-for-1st-time-near-border/articleshow/75768780.cms (accessed May 16, 2020)

[ii] Himalayan Times (2019) “Use Diplomacy”, November 8, at https://thehimalayantimes.com/opinion/editotial-use-diplomacy/ (accessed November 8, 2019)

[iii] BBC News (2015) “Nepal Earthquake: India and China Pledge Millions in Aid”, June 25, at https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33266422 (accessed April 20, 2020)

[iv] Krishnan, Ananth (2015) “China Keen for Road, Rail Corridor to India through Nepal”, India Today, July 2, at https://www.indiatoday.in/world/story/china-india-road-rail-link-nepal-silk-road-initiative-280150-2015-07-02 (accessed on October 20, 2019).

[v] Times of India (2020), “Nepal Raises Objection Over India Inaugurating Crucial Link Road Passing Through Lipulekh Pass”, May 9, 2020, at https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/nepal-raises-objection-over-india-inaugurating-crucial-link-road-passing-through-lipulekh-pass/articleshow/75648322.cms?utm_source=twitter.com&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=TOIDesktop (Accessed on May 9, 2020).

[vi] News Karobar (2020) नेपाललाई थाहै नदिई भारतले बनायो लिपुलेकमा बाटो, May 9, at https://www.newskarobar.com/news/93886.html (accessed May 9, 2020)

[vii] Sangraula, Bikash (2019) “To Decrease its Dependence on India, Nepal Eagerly Awaits China Rail Plan”, The Japan Times, October, 11, at https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2019/10/11/business/dependent-on-india-nepal-awaits-china-rail/#.Xr-vX5MzY1g (accessed November 15, 2019)

[viii] Ibid., Sangraula, Bikash (2019)

 

 

Dr Geeta Kochhar is an Asst Prof at the JNU, Centre for Chinese and South East Asian Studies, School of Language Literature and Culture Studies. She is also part of the Resource Faculty of the USI of India

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that she belongs to or of the USI of India.

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