Indo-Nepal Tiff: Why are the Two Brothers Fighting?

Author Name: Maham S Gillani      15 Jun 2020     Regional security/Region

India and Nepal have historically close ties and share more political, cultural, and traditional commonalities than any other two South Asian neighbors. The two states also have a 1,800km (1,118-mile) open border, allowing free movement of people who can reside, work or study on either side without a visa or official permit. However, India’s regional hegemonic ambitions are driving a wedge between them.

Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani Saga

In late May, Nepal published a new political map that showed a sliver of land – including Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani – as part of its territory. Padma Aryal, Land Management Minister of Nepal hailed the occasion as "historically pleasant" for Nepal and its people. New Delhi bristled at the development, and outrightly rejected the map – labeling it as a “unilateral act” not based on historical evidence. However, a glimpse at history reveals another tale.

Nepal lays claim to the territory based on an 1816 treaty – Treaty of Sugauli – with the erstwhile British East India Company, whose successor state is the Republic of India. The treaty sets the Kali River as its western boundary with India and includes the land lying east of the river as part of its territory. The British East India Company maps of 1816 and 1856 also vindicate Kathmandu’s claim by depicting the disputed region as part of the Kingdom of Nepal.

Nepal’s Map Compulsion

The veracity of the claims of both the states to the region can only be established by employing the lens of international law to study the genesis of the dispute, what poses a bigger question is: why did Nepal take this contentious measure landing it in the eye of the storm? An overview of the developments unfolding between the two neighbors in the past months reveals that there could be several reasons behind this.

India and Nepal’s border dispute has a back story. India issued a new political map in November 2019 that included Kalapani as part of its territory – an area Nepal lays claim to. The map sparked controversy in Nepal and led to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) outrightly rejecting the inimical move, “The Nepal government firmly believes that the Kalapani is a part of Nepal.” This unilateral, and in the eyes of many – illegal – action rubbed salt in the wounds that were still fresh from India’s 2015 unofficial economic blockade against Nepal. It is in this context that ties between India-Nepal are on a slippery slope for the last few years.

More recently, in early May, the Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a new road to Kailash Mansarovar – Lake Manasarovar on Mount Kailash in the Himalayas is believed to be the seat of Lord Shiva. In addition to Hindus, it is also a major pilgrimage site for Buddhists and followers of the indigenous Tibetan religion of Bon. The road goes through Lipulekh – a territory claimed by Kathmandu – reigniting long-running concerns in Nepal about India undermining its sovereignty. The road project also spiked anger and fanned anti-India sentiment in Nepal insofar as people took to Twitter to decry the move with the trending hashtag #BackoffIndia. Members of the parliament and student groups also built intense pressure on Nepal's communist Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to stand up to its larger neighbor’s bullying.

Enter China

New Delhi is highly skeptical of the growing thaw in relations between Kathmandu and Beijing. Many Indian policymakers posit that Katmandu is doing Beijing’s bidding. Indian Army chief Gen Manoj Mukund Naravane accentuated this concern by conjecturing that Nepal was acting at “someone’s behest” – a clear insinuation to China. Moreover, Indian policymakers have also drawn parallels between Beijing’s alleged incursion into Ladakh and Kathmandu issuing a new political map – glossing over its own aggressive posturing against its neighbors.

The writing on the wall is clear for the small and landlocked Nepal – it cannot continue to overwhelmingly rely on India for, inter alia, trade and connectivity, and needs to diversify its options. It is in this context that Nepal is developing close ties with China – the only country in the region that could serve as a counterweight to India. The fact of the matter is that this intricate rebalancing of ties is not unique to Nepal; many other countries in the region such as Bangladesh, Maldives and Sri Lanka are also seeking to hedge their bets.

Going forward, it is imperative for India to pause its rhetoric on territorial nationalism, depict political expediency, and engage with its smaller neighbor. A dialogue where both sides display more openness and sensitivity towards each other is the only way to resolve the dispute. Nonetheless, the greater burden of responsibility falls on India’s – a major regional power and the world’s largest democracy – shoulders to mitigate apprehensions about its regional hegemonic ambitions and find an amicable solution.

 

- The writer is research at Centre for Aerospace and Security Studies (CASS). She can be reached at cass.thinkers@gmail.com

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