In November 2019, the Ministry of Home Affairs published a restructured Indian political map demarcating the new Union Territories of Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh. This stemmed from the events of August 2019, when the Government of India abrogated Article 35A and Article 370 of the Indian constitution that had provided a special status to Jammu and Kashmir. Bifurcation of state necessitated release of new political map. The same map unveiled the disputed ‘Kalapani’ region in the Greater Himalayas as part of India. Representation of ‘Kalapani’ region as part of the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand reopened the old wounds in the India – Nepal relationship. An objection was immediately raised by the Nepal government against the new political map of India, as it recognizes the area as an unsettled territory of the Darachula district in Nepal’s Sudurpashchim province.
Protracted territorial disputes have routinely soured India-Nepal relations. The present demarcation of the Nepal borders are as per the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli. According to the Treaty, Nepal has the territorial right over the region that fells to the east of River Kali. However, there is an old controversy over the actual origin of the River Kali. Both India and Nepal have their own interpretation and documents in its support. The recent inauguration of the Ghatiabargh-Lipulekh pass road has revived the boundary controversy. This paper deciphers the border dispute and gives an insight into the significance of the region and the series of past events that triggered Nepal’s outburst.
In response, India has maintained the accuracy of the map. This new map, followed by the objection from Nepal government – brought forth the disputed border issues between the two neighbouring countries. Apart from Kalapani, these disagreements also involved areas like Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Susta.
The Kalapani region is a 35 square kilometre area in the Greater Himalayas located in the easternmost part of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district. It is a tri-junction point where the borders of India, Nepal and the Tibet Autonomous Region of China meet – an area of strategic significance in South Asian diplomacy. The region resembles a slice of cake wedged in between Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura. Though India control’s the region, Nepal claims it due to historical and cartographic reasons.
Root Cause of Dispute
The border delineation has an age-old history. Prior to 1816, the kingdom of Nepal extended from the Sutlej River in the west to the Teesta River in the East.After Nepal lost the Gurkha War/Anglo-Nepal War (1814-16), the Treaty of Sugauli was signed in 1816 between the East India Company and the Gurkha rulers of Kathmandu. This Treaty restricted Nepal to its present boundaries.
The Sugauli Treaty stated that “the Rajah of Nipal [present Nepal] hereby cedes to the Honourable East India Company in perpetuity all the below mentioned territories”, that includes “the entire lowlands between the Rivers Kali & Rapti.” Additionally, it also stated “the Rajah of Nipal renounces for himself and successors, all claim to or connection with the nations lying to the west of the Kali River & pledges never to have any further concern with those nations or the inhabitants there of.”
Thus, as per the Treaty, Nepal lost all its control over the Kumaon – Garhwal region in the west and Sikkim in the east. This denotes that Nepal from then would have no further claims over the region lying to the west of the Kali River that originates in the Greater Himalayas and flows into the plains of Indian subcontinent, hence its territorial right is limited only to the region that comes to the east of the River Kali. And here exists the root of the dispute. It is due to the varying interpretation on the actual origin of the river Kali and its multiple tributaries that crave through the mountains.
Kalapani conflict begins from the controversial origin of River Kali. Nepal justifies the region as its inherent part as it views that the river flowing to the west of Kalapani is the main River Kali that either originates from Limpiyadhura or from the nearby Lipulekh pass (the stream there is known as ‘Lipu Gad’ – a tributary among several that merge into Mahakali near trijunction) – both of which are within the territories of Nepal. India argues that the River Kali originates from a smaller rivulet – Pankhagad. Pankhagad lies on the south of Kalapani and subsequently on the eastern side of this region lies the actual border, and thus the region comes within the territory of India. Moreover, administrative and revenue records since late 1800s also prove that Kalapani is a part of India’s Pithoragarh district. The confusion with river Kali gets further aggravated as it is called by different names in different parts. It is known as ‘Kali’ in the upper reaches while in the middle portion it is known by the name of ‘Mahakali’ and by the name of ‘Sarjoo’ or Gogra in the lower portion.
How India did gain control over the Kalapani territory?
Kalapani was occupied by the Indian armed forces in 1950s after control of Tibet was taken over by China. In 1981, the Nepal-India Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee was established for demarcating 1850 km shared borders between the two nations and for resolving any territorial disputes. However, no objections were raised from part of Nepal and the dispute was effectively ignored until 1996 before Kathmandu and Delhi began diplomatic dialogues for resolving existing territorial dubiety. Administrative and revenue records from late 1800s supported India’s claim in proving Kalapani as part of India’s Pithoragarh district. By the end of 2007, the committee finalized the preparation of 182 strip maps, approved by the surveyors of both the sides, covering 98% of the boundary except the two disputed regions of Kalapani and Susta. Furthermore positions of 8,533 boundary pillars were also ascertained. For dealing with the remaining disputes, both the nations agreed on establishing high level bilateral mechanisms.
Significance of the Tri-Junction
The Lipulekh Pass is the most flexible and shortest route to reach Kailash Mansarovar. The government of India has branded its road construction exercise as essentially the “new road to Kailash Mansarovar” – a sacred site of pilgrimage which previously was only accessible through two long & difficult routes via either Nathu La Pass or Nepal. The new road will bring ease and reduce the time taken for the pilgrims.
Moreover, there are certain other evident advantages as well for India in controlling the region. With enhanced connectivity, the construction of the new road will boost Sino-Indian trade. More importantly, this enhanced connectivity in border region is critical for Indian strategic interests. It will facilitate security and observation over Kalapani and also help in maintaining peace with ‘difficult’ neighbours. Additionally, its elevation provides an additional bonus to the Indian forces in monitoring the Tibetan highland passes. This strategic necessity is clear with a Chinese official reportedly stating during 2017 Doklam crisis that if the PLA desired it could had entered into India with ease through trijunctions like Kalapani or Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. India’s apprehension regarding intentions of China for the Kalapani trijunction were reflected in the comment by Indian army chief General Naravane’s where he said that Nepal might had raised those issues “at the behest of someone else,” insinuating a possible Chinese instigation. In response, K.P. Oli said “everything we do is self-guided,” for several in India there remains an apparent correlation between Chinese strategic intentions and the resurrected Nepalese claim of Kalapani.
What Triggered Kathmandu’s Outburst?
Nepal’s outburst was repercussion of subsequent events from the past. First, in 2015 during India-China Lipulekh agreement that renewed India’s Mansarovar pilgrimage connection, both New Delhi and Beijing neglected Kathmandu’s concern. Neither side considered to consult with Kathmandu or sought its opinion before signing in the agreement that eased pilgrimage and boosted trade to Tibet. Following this agreement, then Nepal’s Prime Minister Sushil Koirala had cancelled the visit to Delhi.
The next flashpoint transpired in November 2019 after New Delhi released the new political map of India following reorganization of Jammu & Kashmir. Kathmandu alleged the new political map of India unveils the disputed territory of Lipulekh pass and Kalapani as part of India.
Lastly, on 9th May 2020 came the biggest outburst after inauguration of Ghatiabargh-Lipulekh pass road which connects Dharchula in Uttarakhand with Lipulekh. According to India, the road completely lies within the district of Pithoragarh while Nepal argues that almost 19Km of the road falls within their territory. According to Nepal, the construction of the new road goes against the understanding reached between the two countries for resolving territorial dispute through diplomatic dialogues. Subsequently, a new map was also issued by the Nepal government unveiling Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani as its territory.
Apart from the above, a combination of domestic politics of Nepal and geopolitical ambitions of China also explains this. China interfered in the domestic matters of Nepal, particularly in backing the formation of the New Communist Party (NCP), has also played a significant role in rising the trust deficit between the two friendly neighbours. This perception of Kathmandu ‘tilting’ towards Beijing was exacerbated during the protests for a new Nepalese constitution post the Indo-Nepalese border blockade of 2015. The blockade had choked supplies of essential commodities that had whipped up Nepalese sentiments against India which was accepted as a golden opportunity by China to its influence there.
In the early May of 2020, the above Chinese concern of India was justifiably reconfirmed when Beijing intervened into Kathmandu’s politics to save the New Communist Party from an internal rift between the party’s two chairman – PM Oli and Maoist leader P.K. Dahal, which threatened to split the ruling party. Simultaneously, it is also true that Kathmandu wants to get rid of New Delhi’s traditional ‘big brother’ attitude. The perceived unilateral actions of India has only pushed Nepal to further dig its heels and reduce the probabilities of a compromise with recent mocking remarks and questions by PM Oli on Indian foreign policy as “Seemameva Jayate or Satyameva Jayate?”
Too Early to Conclude
The current point of inflection in the India-Nepal territorial tension has transformed into an awkward standpoint from where neither India nor Nepal can realistically backdown without losing face. PM Oli’s statement like “India virus seems more lethal than Chinese” with addition to the previous remarks on Indian foreign policy have further reduced his ‘room to manoeuvre’. If such kind of statements were made by India, Nepal citizens would have had hit the streets immediately.
India and Nepal both needs to consider the recent events and invest in negotiating new border management. The more the trouble festers, the more it will be beneficial to those who stand to make profit by deteriorating Indo-Nepalese relations. As both the countries are now facing a common threat from COVID-19 pandemic, India could perhaps use this COVID diplomacy for strengthening the bilateral relation and tide over the territorial dispute and deal with it at some point later when national tension reduces.
Being a larger regional power, it is incumbent upon New Delhi to take the first step and demonstrate its munificence. India could push from establishing a new joint territorial dispute resolving committee for more efficiently dealing with the current issues. This will also endorse role of India as a responsible regional player also acknowledge the concerns of Nepal. However, leaders of Nepal must also understand that reckless orientation towards India, as manifested by PM Oli through his recent statement, may create disruptions in finding out an amicable solution.