When South Asian countries are battling Corona Pandemic, Indian Govt. has taken a step which has soured relations with our neighbouring country, Nepal. On 8th May Defense Minister Rajnath Singh remote-flagged off a new road to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet (China). Nepal immediately registered its protest against this road saying that 22 kms of the road passes through Nepal’s territory which is under India’s occupation. There was widespread anger in Nepal over this. Earlier, after dissolving the state of J&K and forming two union territories, India had published a new map in November 2019 wherein this area was shown to be Indian territory. Nepal had objected to this at the time as well. In fact Nepal has seen increasing protests on the issue since 2015 when India and China agreed to open a trading post at Lipulekh.
The 80-km. long road in question is built by India to five kilometers short of the Lipulekh pass which lies at the trijunction between India, Nepal and China. The road when completed will considerably shorten the distance to Kailash Mansarovar. For the rulers in Delhi, their Hindu Rashtra project takes precedence over Hindus, who like other Indians are battling Corona outbreak and Govt.’s handling of it.
It is not the question of existence of a border dispute with a neighbouring country. It is the attitude adopted by Indian govt., its timing and the Govt. response to objections by Nepal govt. It has been a display of arrogance and big brotherly attitude all the way. To the objections by Nepal Govt. on laying of the road by India, Indian Army Chief General M.M. Naravane responded on May 15 speaking in a Webinar on “Covid and Indian Army: Responses and Beyond” organized by Manohar Parrikar Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses. He said Kathmandu might have objected to the Indian road to Kailash Mansarovar via Lipulekh pass, “There is a reason to believe that they might have raised the issue at the behest of someone else and that is very much a possibility.” Though he did not name China directly but his response to a question left no one in doubt about country he was referring to. (Statesman, 16.5.20) This added fuel to the raging fire of anger in Nepal. Nepal’s foreign minister, Pradeep Gyawali, summoned Vinay Mohan Kwatra, the Indian envoy to Nepal, and handed him an official note of protest.
The area in dispute between the two Govts. is referred to as Kalapani area. It comprises Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani areas which Nepal considers as being part of their Drachula district and Indian Govt. calls them part of Pithoragarh district in Uttarakhand. This has been one of the two main disputes between India and Nepal- other being Susta in Nepal’s South Central border (Nawalparsi district) with West Champaran district in Bihar.
After flagging off of the road by Rajnath Singh, Nepal asked for senior official level talks with India to discuss the issue. But India answered that this could be done only after Corona pandemic is over, in a way refusing such talks. Nepal Govt. was frustrated over this denial. In this situation, came the statement of India’s Army Chief. Besides lodging protest, Nepal Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli told Parliament on May 18 that he would not let the issue of Kalapani disappear. He also accused his predecessors of not having taken up the issue earlier as strongly as they should have. He asserted that Nepal will take recourse to diplomatic efforts to solve the issue. Next day, Pradeep Gyawali announced that Nepal will republish its maps. On 20th May Nepal did so which according to Nepal media increases Nepal’s total area by 335 kilometres. “The areas including Guni, Navi and Kuti near Kalapani, which had been left out in earlier maps, are also included in the new map” said Aryal, Minister of Land Management, Cooperatives and Poverty Alleviation in Nepal. To this cartographic declaration of not succumbing to India, Indian Govt. reacted through a statement by the Spokesperson for the Indian Ministry of External Affairs Anurag Srivastava. He said, “The government of Nepal has released a revised official map of Nepal today that includes parts of Indian territory. This unilateral act is not based on historical fact and evidence. It is contrary to the bilateral understanding to resolve the outstanding boundary issues through diplomatic dialogue. Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by India.”
This allusion to diplomatic dialogue by the MEA spokesperson is not quite honest as India had not accepted Nepal’s demand for Foreign Secretary level discussion on the issue. Refusal to engage diplomatically while showing diplomacy as the sole method of engagement is a favourite symptom of big power syndrome while dealing with smaller neighbours.
Before discussing the dispute, it is important to see that General Naravane’s statement of Nepal protesting at the behest of someone else is both insensitive and inaccurate. It shows that Indian rulers think that a small neighbouring country like Nepal should acquiesce in everything big brother India does in the region. That Indian rulers do not attach much importance to any country’s love for its own independence is clear and has been drilled deep by nearly two centuries of colonial rule over India. The elite that came to power after its transfer from British colonialism put no store by it. The Indian Govt. could not appreciate that Nepal govt. was acting under pressure of the people. It can be gauged from a report in major Nepal daily Kantipur that decision to stand up to India and publish Nepal’s new map is so popular that there is a race among the sections of ruling NCP to take credit for it. While Prime Minister Oli and his friends are giving Nepal govt. credit for it, his rivals within ruling Party are claiming that this was done after a unanimous decision by the ruling Party leadership. Hence credit for this should go to all the leaders and not Oli alone.
The assertion by the Army Chief is inaccurate as well. As Mr. Biswas Baral the Editor of a weekly published from Kathmandu, The Annapurna Express, wrote in The Wire, “The feeling in Kathmandu is that China is not ready to compromise its relationship with India over Nepal.” In fact Nepal had raised the issue with China after its agreement with India in 2015 to open a trade point at Lipulekh. Nepal Foreign Minister Gyawali met the Chinese Ambassador to Nepal seeking clarification “Whey did China let India build the road on a traditional tri-junction point without consulting Nepal?” China too has come under criticism in Nepal on this issue. While the form of expression of the dispute between India and Nepal will be conditioned by the attitude of major powers, particularly China which shares a long border with Nepal like India, but the very anger among the people of Nepal is due to what they consider attack on the sovereignty of their country. Nepal had not been under direct colonial rule and its elite did not have training of the kind Indian elite had.
Border between India and Nepal is governed by Suguali Treaty in 1816 between British colonial power ruling India and Nepal. The treaty demarcated the border according to geographical landmarks. The treaty was followed by another in the latter part of that year and subsequently many border demarcation efforts putting up pillars. Indian rulers who succeeded the colonial power, combined colonial arrogance with visions of ancient aryavrata with Nepal a part of it. Colonial rulers took Nepal, Bhutan and Sikkim as buffer between British India and China like they insisted on incorporating Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan to link it with China geographically cutting off Russia from British India. Post-1947, Indian rulers modified the approach to the extent that these became more than mere buffers and were sought to be made vassals. Sikkim was incorporated in India in 1975.
The two disputes relate to geographical demarcation in terms of rivers. While Kalapani dispute relates to identification of the course of a river, Susta dispute relates to a river changing its course. Border in the Kalapani area is identified as Mahakali river with Nepal to the east and India to the West. The dispute arose as to which of the two tributaries of Mahakali should be taken as the border. It means the dispute is over the area between two tributaries of Mahakali. India takes the eastern tributary as a border and Nepal the one that lies to the west. No pillars were erected due to this being a river area. The matter can be solved by ascertaining the actual possession of the area by the respective state if there is a political will to resolve the dispute. There are reports that the records of the village revenue collections show that these villages were part of Nepal. However, facts can be ascertained if the principle is agreed on and the dispute can be resolved with mutual goodwill.
Susta dispute relates to river Gandak (called Narayani in Nepal) shifting its course thus bringing some villages earlier in Nepal to that bank of the river which is deemed to be part of India. When the river changes course, if it is through avulsion i.e. sudden change, in that case border remains as earlier but when it is through accretion i.e. change over a very long period, then border shifts accordingly. India bases its claim on accretion principle. However, the underlying reason behind this principle is that when change takes place over a very long period of time, people also adjust i.e. keep on shifting so that in terms of people, the border does not change. However, in case of avulsion i.e. sudden change, people do not shift and even if they are forced to flee the area they wish to come back i.e. are not settled in a new area. This dispute too can be solved on the basis of whether people have continued to live as from the period before river changed its course or they are settled afresh. There are enough records from which this fact can be ascertained if the principle is accepted. Nations are not mere geography but people living in a geographical area.
In Kalapani area India has maintained a military post since early 1960s. India had established 17 posts in Nepal in the wake of its conflict with China to watch China’s military preparedness and movements. In 1970, King Mahendra asked India to remove the posts. India removed others but retained Kalapani post. Since then this has been a bone of contention between the two countries. However, the dispute flared up whenever there was an attempt by any one of the countries to try to change the status quo while it was relegated to boundary settlement mechanism to decide upon the issue. Recently Nepal has set up a new border post close to Lipulekh manned by its paramilitary Armed Police Force (APF) (on the lines of BSF of India) following India’s inauguration of the new road. APF has been in charge of checking influx of Tibetan refugees. Hence China’s interest in APF.
India shares a strong bond of social and cultural affinity besides geographical contiguity with Nepal. Nepal essentially is an India locked country, India being on three sides and fourth side to the North bordering China being inaccessible due to high mountainous ranges. This millennia old bond makes India a natural friend of Nepal. Besides, a large part of youth of Nepal works and toils in India and is based here. There are also traditional Nepali speaking regions in India. Rather than basing on these bonds to forge mutually beneficial close relations with people of Nepal, Indian rulers have been adopting big brotherly attitude towards them. They in fact continue to look through the glasses inherited from British colonial rulers who viewed Nepal from the angle of safeguarding their Indian possession. Indian rulers have been insisting on Nepal not forging any links with China, at least not in military field. Indian rulers have always reacted whenever Nepal rulers made such attempts. Nepal rulers also understood their utility as a buffer state between India and China. Being a small country, they saw in the presence of two strong neighbours on their borders a safeguard for their independence. Forging closer links with both was not only in the economic interest of Nepal but also in the interest of its independence.
However, with development of technology, what was once practically impregnable is no longer so. Development of satellite imagery has reduced the need to maintain high altitude posts to watch deployment and movement of forces and their fortifications across the border. Roads have been laid down throughout Tibet right up to Nepal border. Though it is still not so viable as link through India but it has become ponderable in the event of need.
China has of course made efforts to befriend Nepal. Besides Nepal bordering Tibet Autonomous Region of China wherefrom dissidents cross over to Nepal and hence China’s desire to monitor it, China sees in Nepal an economic gateway to South Asia mainly India. Since long, Nepal has been a market for Chinese goods even when Chinese goods were forbidden in India. With China emerging a social imperialist power and main economic contender of US imperialism, befriending Nepal has been all the more important for China. As China’s influence is still limited, it does not appear to be as overbearing as India’s though that perception is also gradually changing with increase in Chinese economic penetration in Nepal which is transforming Nepal from an lndia-locked to a landlocked country. China has emerged a viable imperialist patron for sections of ruling classes in Nepal. Western imperialist powers on the other hand are increasingly relying on India for their influence in Nepal. Contention between these two sets is intensifying conflicts in Nepal and is also at the root of growing re-alignment and conflict among the ruling class sections in that country.
Growing influence of China has provided the necessary strength to sections who would fashion their nationalist platform on opposition to Indian domination. In fact this has been so since decades but the ruling class sections knew the limits of such exertions and would capitulate after extracting their pound of flesh. So it has repeatedly happened with politicians emerging as so-called firebrands and ending in Delhi durbar. However, this has to change with ruling CPN taking up that platform while in power. For itself, CPN, a conglomeration of revisionists of different descents and dispositions, has no plan to change the socio-economic structure of Nepalese society and has found in the present situation the way to redeem itself by an anti-India platform.
Indian rulers have not reckoned with this change. They are continuing to treat Nepal as an errant child who needs periodic disciplining for demanding undesirable things. India had in the past used such arm-twisting tactic to great effect with India as the dominant power in the region and imperialist powers too mainly relying on India. Most importantly, Nepal was dependent for supplies from India and through India. Relations with China has been one important trigger for retaliation by India. In 1989, when Nepal contracted some military purchases from China, Rajiv Gandhi govt. closed 13 out of 15 transit points for transport of supplies to Nepal, thereby causing severe shortages in that country. That blockade lasting for several months played its role in building up movement against monarchy which resulted in overthrow of the panchayat rule and ushered in multiparty democracy. Again, India did not take kindly to the then King Gyanendra supporting China’s inclusion in SAARC at Dhaka summit. Indian Govt.’s (UPA-I) opposition to Gyanendra egged pro-India forces to join the movement which led to ultimate overthrow of Monarchy in Nepal.
After the overthrow of Monarchy, the constitution drafting became a protracted business. First Constituent Assembly could not draft the Constitution as Nepali Congress and UML ganged up against CPN (Maoist) which had emerged as the single largest party. Elections were held again and UCPN(M) declined. By the time it had abandoned revolutionary path and had become a representative of the ruling classes. Constitution could be drafted. It did not accord to the interests of Madhesis, a large minority in Nepal and who shared a closer bond with India. By the time Constitution was drafted in Nepal, in India RSS-BJP had come to power. They had been supporting Monarchy. They were opposed to Constitution abandoning Hindu Rashtra and embracing secularism. For centuries, Nepal had been a Hindu state. RSS-BJP sought to use the Madhesis’ grievances against Constitution for their purpose. This led to total blockade of Nepal with Govt. blocking all passages, taking advantage of protests by Madhesis. RSS-BJP did not want redressal of Madhesis’ grievances but wanted to pressurize Nepal Govt. to abandon Constitution for its anti-monarchy secular framework. Serious hardships followed for Nepali people. But this time, then Prime Minister Oli stood firm and concluded an agreement for transit of goods through China, mostly for effect. Nepal Govt. did not bend so it was brought down. Prachanda was won over and was made Prime Minister in alliance with Nepali Congress.
However, the people drew the lesson that it was possible to stand up to India. In the coming elections, sensing the people’s mood, Prachanda led UCPN(M) made another somersault and formed alliance with UML jointly capturing two third majority. After the election they merged to form CPN, the current ruling party. As mentioned earlier, CPN has no intent to carry out any radical change in the socio-economic structure of Nepal. It has emerged as the main ruling class party. Rise of China and Nepali youth also going to countries other than India for earning their livelihood has given ruling classes options other than total reliance on India. CPN obviously does not stand for the change which can obliterate the need for youth of Nepal to have to go abroad for mere survival of their families and for them to participate in building a new, democratic Nepal. This change can only come through revolution and that can only be spearheaded by a real revolutionary party, and not a party communist only in name.
It is in the interest of the people of the two countries that this dispute should be resolved through dialogue. But for this to succeed, Indian Govt. has to draw a much needed lesson that the past pressure tactics need to be changed i.e. have to be abandoned. The dispute on Kalapani and also Susta area can easily be resolved if there is an agreement to respect the historical facts and not gain territorial advantage. For this Indian Govt. should abandon pressure tactics of disciplining Nepal but sit for dialogue in the spirit of resolving the dispute. This would be in keeping with traditional close bonds between people of India and Nepal. This would also be in the interest of the struggles of the toiling people of the two countries who have been close comrades in the struggle against imperialism and reaction. It will be in the interest of revolutionary movement and people’s struggles in two countries. And for this, we should mobilize the people to put pressure on Indian Govt. to take to meaningful dialogue and abandon its big brotherly attitude towards small neighbouring countries.