Mystery shrouds Nepal inconsistency in identifying the number of disputed border areas with India

India and Nepal have been trying to resolve their border disputes (re-demarcation of the border pillars and negotiations over Kalapani and Susta disputed borderlands) since 1981. This is one of the major contentious issues, which has negatively impacted the bilateral relationship on several occasions.

The matter has been dragging on for over 40 years; perhaps it provides a readymade electoral issue for the left parties to garner public support by raising anti-India sentiments, which has been driven by the idea of Nationalism in Nepal by Prithvi Narayan Shah. With the adoption of the multiparty and democratic system in Nepal in the early 1990s, some left (including the Maoists) party leaders used this issue to grab public attention and become popular.

These leaders tactfully presented a distorted version of the facts related to the border issues, which easily enrages the public sentiment against India. For example, a large number of border pillars were displaced or destroyed due to either change of river course or non-maintenance of the pillars. But the left leaders presented it before the public to make it appear that India had displaced those pillars and encroached upon Nepali territory. The extra-regional forces, who are inimical to India, added fuel to this fire.

The issue has been once again used by Prime Minister KP Oli to regain his control over the Nepal Communist Party (NCP) leadership, which has been challenging his authoritarian style of functioning when it comes to the party as well as the government. Just six days (on May 2, the second NCP secretariat meeting) before the inauguration of the Lipulekh-Mansarovar route by Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, Prime Minister Oli managed to stave off demands for his resignation from the top five leaders of the NCP. He reportedly defused the crisis by declaring Bamdev Gautam as the next Prime Ministerial candidate and also relying on the Chinese advice to keep the party united.

While the Prime Minister was passing through turbulence, he manipulated the Lipulekh issue to divert the public attention and regain his control over the party.

Border Negotiation

In 1981, both the governments had agreed to set up the India-Nepal Border Joint Technical Committee to re-demarcate the boundary pillars. The committee worked for 26 years. In the middle of its tenure, the two Prime Ministers directed the Committee to complete its task by 2003.

“The Prime Ministers also directed the Joint Working Group of the Joint Technical-Level Boundary Committee to expeditiously complete its examination of the facts relating to the alignment of the boundary in the western sector, including the Kalapani area, and in other pockets, where there were differences in perceptions of the two sides,” said the India-Nepal Joint Press Statement issued during Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba’s visit to India in March 2002, when Atal Behari Vajpayee was the Indian Prime Minister.

The committee submitted its report in 2007 by signing at the technical level. The technical-level committee had prepared 182 sheets of maps of the India-Nepal border, barring the two disputed territories - Kalapani and Susta. In fact, Nepal’s then Foreign Minister Upendra Yadav announced that strip maps of the India-Nepal boundary were complete except for those around two disputed areas.

Yadav’s statement was strongly opposed by a group of lawmakers. The parliamentary Human Rights and Foreign Relations Committee in Nepal advised the government not to sign on the strip map unless the two disputed territories of Kalapani and Susta are resolved. The Nepal government in January 2009 declined to sign on the strip maps. Also, the then Home Minister of Nepal, Bamdev Gutam, made a statement that the Kalapani dispute was to be discussed in a tripartite meeting between India-Nepal-China. He made this statement in 2008 after meeting a visiting Chinese delegation.

Until July 2014, no negotiations happened on the border issues. Since both the countries had committed to resolving the issue bilaterally, the negotiation mechanism was re-opened by setting up a boundary working group (BWG) at the Surveyors-General level in order to settle some boundary issues - construction, restoration and repair of boundary pillars including clearance of ‘No-man’s land’ and other technical tasks - during a three-day official visit of India's External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj to Kathmandu.

During this visit, the Joint Commission (JC) “directed the Nepal-India Boundary Working Group to commence field works at the earliest.” Initially, the tenure of the BWG was five years, which was extended till 2022. The JC also “directed the Foreign Secretaries (FS) to work on the outstanding boundary issues, including Kalapani and Susta, receiving required technical inputs from the BWG as necessary.”

Interestingly, 11 months after the formation of the BWG and FS level mechanism to resolve disputes on Kalapani and Susta, Nepal in May 2015 opposed India’s bilateral border trade agreement with China on Lipulekh, which was not earlier officially listed as a disputed territory. Nepal claimed that the Lipu-Lekh Pass, which was mentioned in the joint statement of May 15, 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to China, is a disputed tri-junction in which Nepal has an equal share. The India-China joint statement states: “…The two sides agreed to hold negotiation on augmenting the list of traded commodities, and expand border trade at Nathu La, Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass and Shipki La.”

Nepalese media, academia, civil society and ruling and opposition party leaders had expressed concern over that development and demanded that China and India should withdraw the mention of Lipu-Lekh in the joint statement. They also argued that such a mention tantamounts to disrespect for Nepal’s sovereignty and a threat to its territorial integrity.

Then Nepalese Prime Minister Sushil Koirala lodged a formal diplomatic protest against section 28 of the 41-point India-China Joint Statement. The issue had intensified public debate in Nepal at a time when India and Nepal had agreed to resolve the existing border dispute amicably through bilateral mechanisms in July 2014.

The fact of the matter is that both China and India have been mentioning Lipu-Lekh Pass as one of their border trading points since 1954. The agreement on trade and intercourse with Tibet signed on April 29, 1954 states that “traders and pilgrims of both countries [India and China] may travel by following passes and route: (1) Shipki-La pass…(6) Lipu-Lekh Pass.”

But the subsequent flare-up over the border and the 1962 war and the freeze that it resulted in disrupted India’s trade with Tibet. The relationship took a new turn with Rajiv Gandhi’s visit to Beijing in 1988. During the visit, both countries agreed to resume border trade and sign fresh agreements in this regard. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) on Resumption of Border Trade was signed in December 1991 during Prime Minister Li Peng’s visit to New Delhi. In an effort to strengthen border trade through the mutually agreed designated trading routes, India and China further signed a Protocol of Entry and Exit procedure for border trade in July 1992. Interestingly, Lipu-Lekh pass was mentioned in both these agreements as a mutually recognized border trading point.

From 1954 to May 2020 (till this report was written), China did not claim the Lipu-Lekh Pass as a “tri-junction”. Had the Lipu-Lekh been a disputed territory or part of Nepal, China would not have signed these MoUs with India. Moreover, why did Nepal not raise the issue of the disputed territory until 2015? Only some Nepalese scholars argue that China considers the Kalapani area a disputed land. Lipu-Lekh Pass is close to Kalapani, as a disputed land located along the India-Nepal border in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand.

The Nepal government claims it had expressed its disagreement in 2015 through separate diplomatic notes addressed to the governments of both India and China over the Lipulekh issue, and India did not respond to that note while China responded to that immediately.

India perhaps did not respond to that note because, first, India has been fully convinced that Lipulekh is part of its territory. Second, in August 2014, Nepal did not mention Lipulekh as a disputed territory. Only Kalapani and Susta have been mentioned in the official notes as disputed territory. Third, Lipulekh was not a “tri-junction”. It is located four kilometers down south-east of the Nepal-India-China border meeting point called Om Parvat. Last but not least, in the post-2015 period, Chinese top leaders during their bilateral visits to India did not discuss with India about Nepalese concern over the Lipulekh issue.

The border dispute re-occurred on November 7, 2019 after India issued a new map on November 2. Nepal protested by perceiving the inclusion of Kalapani in the new map by releasing press statements. The Press statement was issued in the Nepal language. There was no reference for Lipulekh and Limphiyadura in the statement.

Five months after claiming only on Kalapani, Nepal again strongly and suddenly protested against India’s inauguration of Lipulekh-Mansarovar route on May 8, 2020. From the Indian point of view, the reaction was sudden and surprising as the construction of this route was going on since 2007. Interestingly, while the Foreign Minister of Nepal was aware of construction, the same was not in PM Oli’s knowledge.

In a press release, on May 9, 2020, Nepal claimed that it has “consistently maintained that as per the Sugauli Treaty (1816), all the territories east of Kali (Mahakali) River, including Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipu Lekh, belong to Nepal. This was reiterated by the Government of Nepal several times in the past and most recently through a diplomatic note addressed to the Government of India dated 20 November 2019 in response to the new political map issued by the latter”, while the November press release referred to only Kalapani.

Reportedly, on both occasions (2003 and 2008), Nepal indirectly hinted that China should be included in the negotiations. China has, however, not made any statement on the Nepalese proposal. Despite India’s assurance to Nepal to resolve the issue through bilateral mechanisms, Nepal has persistently requested China to make its position clear or support Nepal in resolving the issue with India.

The issue first came up during the China-Nepal border agreement in 1961. China responded to the matter by acknowledging it as a disputed land between India and Nepal. In May 2005, Nepal’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs once again brought the issue of the 2004 India-China agreement on border trade before China. According to the Ministry’s May 10, 2005 press release, China responded that Chinese side always holds the view that the problem of Kalapani between Nepal and India should be resolved through friendly bilateral consultation and the Chinese side fully understands the concerns of the Nepalese side and respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Nepal.

The Mystery

Mystery shrouds Nepal inconsistency in identifying the number of disputed border areas with India. It appears that Nepal’s position on Limphiyadura, Kalapani and Lipu-Lekh Pass could be politically motivated and pushed by external forces. It would be worth mentioning that the new map of Nepal (issued on May 19) did not mention Susta. This is perhaps because Susta does not have strategic relevance for the extra-regional forces. It could be publically motivated, because the leaders want to keep the issue alive for electoral and vote bank purposes as had happened in the case of the 1950 Treaty.

Border disputes with India are a major election issue and have often dominated the country’s foreign policy during the former CPN-UML and the Maoist regimes in Kathmandu. Further, ultra-nationalist groups on both the left and right of the political spectrum have been spreading anti-India sentiments and demanding a greater Nepal to gain political mileage. While India has agreed to resolve the issue amicably, Nepal’s ‘China card’ - emphasis on China to become a party to the dispute – has been one of the stumbling blocks in the progress towards holding the bilateral border dispute negotiations and unnecessarily brought stress on bilateral relations.

The border issue has been also to some extent pushed by extra-regional actors. The demand of a greater Nepal has reportedly been funded by external vested self-interest motivated groups, who want to disturb India-Nepal relations by supporting border disputes. For example, during the Madhesi protests at the borders from September 2015 to January 2016 and Nepalese protests against India over new border maps in November 2019, some Twitter hashtags were being operated from other countries. One media report suggests that in 2008 the Nepalese government officially requested a visiting Chinese military delegation led by Major General Ei Hujeng to extend support in resolving the Kalapani dispute with India. If this continues, then Nepal will not have a stable and peaceful relationship with India.

Way Forward

The bilateral relationship between Nepal and India is at its lowest ebb after Nepal issued a unilateral map by including three disputed territories. Despite India’s expression for holding a Foreign Secretary-level meeting after the two countries have successfully dealt with the COVID-19, Nepal has registered a case before the Parliamentary secretaries to bring amendments to incorporate the new map in the country’s Constitution. This step of Nepal could shut down the negotiation options.

Reviving the border dialogue mechanism at the FS level is the only way to find a solution to the border disputes. Provocative statements by the political leaders will widen unfriendly situations and create mutual suspicion. Since both the parties claim that they have lots of evidence, they need to process towards finding a mutually agreed date for the FS level meeting as soon as possible. Till then, political leaders, civil society groups, media, and common people should refrain from making any hatred remarks. They should understand that this relationship is not going to end here.

The writer is Research Fellow with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA)