Kalapani: An open wound
Nepal has decided to issue a new political map incorporating Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani that heretofore had been claimed by India and set in that country’s political map published last year. This decision has been hailed historic in Nepal while the Indian press has termed it a move carried out with China’s backing.
Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, who stood up to India’s dominance during the blockade in 2015 and earned the praise of nationalists, now seems further emboldened to take on the regional hegemon with this cartographic assertion. While speaking in the parliament on Tuesday, he even took a jibe at the southern neighbour by referring to its emblem of three lions and the line “Satyameva Jayate” (Truth shall prevail). He said, “I’ll ask India whether satyameva jayate or singha (lion) meva jayate.”
These kinds of statements do not serve the national interest and the PM seems to playing to the gallery. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is learnt to have been furious with Oli. Some nationalists have even suggested to militarize the issue and be ready to sacrifice lives to settle the boundary dispute. Shrill nationalist voices have drowned rational arguments for the issue to be settled through diplomatic channels.
However, this does not mean that India is all innocent. Overlooking the fact that Kalapani region belongs to Nepal, it unilaterally issued the map incorporating the areas after revoking special status of Jammu-Kashmir last year. It has been repeating the lies that those are its lands whereas historical evidences suggest otherwise.
The fresh dispute arose when on 8th of May the Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted that he had inaugurated the link road from Pithoragarh to Lipulekh as part of the Mansarovar road. Some 19 kilometers of this roadway go through Nepali territory. Nepal protested the Indian move and issued a diplomatic note asking India to halt all the activities in Nepali lands. India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a statement saying that the road is being built in India’s territory.
To understand this dispute regarding ownership of the land, we have to refer to the 1816 Sugauli Treaty signed between Nepal government and the then East India Company which was ruling India at that time. The treaty clearly stipulates that all the lands lying east to Kali River belong to Nepal. The 1827 map is one of the first to draw the boundary and it is taken to be authentic. This and subsequent maps have shown that Kali river originates from Limpiyadhura.
But the British India, realizing the immense importance of the region for commercial and geostrategic purposes, started to redraw maps towards the end of the 19th century showing different Kali River originating from Lipulekh. This cartographic encroachment has resulted in Nepal losing some 335 square kilometres of land as per the experts.
The plot thickened in 1962 when India and China fought a brief border war and India stationed its troops in Kalapani. King Mahendra was ruling Nepal at that time had an image of being anti-Indian as he had extended his hands to China. He did not want to exacerbate conflict with India and thus let the Indian troops temporarily settle there.
Later in 1969, the then Prime Minister Kirti Nidhi Bista managed to remove Indian troops from Nepal’s northern boundaries but Indian soldiers remained at Kalapani. Indo-Tibetan Border Police is stationed there now and this has given the excuse to India to claim the territory as its own. But if we go by the accounts of Nepali administrators at that time, we find that Nepal used to collect land revenue from the sparsely settled population in those areas. Unfortunately, the archival documents are lost.
After the restoration of democracy Nepali rulers have been asking India to withdraw its soldiers from Kalapani and settle all boundary disputes. These pleas, however, have fallen into deaf ears. Due to the military and geostrategic as well as commercial interests India doesn’t want to lose its grip on Kalapani area, “special relation” with Nepal be damned.
Aggravating the issue is Nepali leaders’ lackadaisical approach. There was not any serious intent on settling the dispute besides sending missives every now and then. Leaders and the locals in the borderlands have been crying hoarse about Indian encroachment and the need to build a motorable road from the district headquarters of Darchula to the border areas. There were no efforts to station security personnel in these areas, given the inclement weather and lack of proper roads.
This laidback attitude of Nepali leaders seem to have made Indians think that those remote areas are not of any importance to Nepal. It is galling that Indians have been building the road for two decades but Nepal officially protested just now. PM Oli even gave some irresponsible statements that nobody reported him about the road before. Another bitter fact is that political leaders have misused Kalapani dispute to garner nationalist votes to take power while being reluctant to settle the issue with India while in power. These kinds of attitudes of Nepali leaders have inspired India to take Nepal for granted.
The Kalapani area is a tri-junction among Nepal, India and China therefore the northern neighbour also has a stake on it. But China has been largely silent on the issue except issuing cosmetic statements that the dispute should be settled diplomatically and bilaterally. Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, in response to a question at a regular press briefing on Tuesday, said that Nepal and India need to settle the issue amicably and without taking any unilateral action. In fact, China has already made an agreement with India of developing the Nepali territory in Lipulekh as a trade and transit point in 2015.
Harsh reality is that China doesn’t want to hamper its lucrative trade relations with India for Nepal’s sake. At a time when the US is contemplating about decoupling with China and severing trade ties, China is looking for other feasible markets. India is a huge market and China wants to keep friendly relations to keep the money trail open. The border flare ups in Laddakh and Sikkim as well as India’s army chief MM Narvane hinting at China inciting Nepal to raise Kalapani issue are just for public consumption.
Even if Nepal takes the boundary settlement issue to the International Court of Justice as suggested by some people, the country cannot bank on China’s support. Given China’s history of rejecting arbitration by international tribulation, one cannot expect securing China’s backing in the dispute. Contrary to the belief of some nationalists, China does not deem Nepal to be its all-weather friend a la Pakistan. It may have played its role in the merger of the ruling party and may have saved KP Oli from being taken down last month but these petty political manoeuvrings cannot be taken as pointers of China’s assistance in settling of international disputes. Some analysts have pointed out the difficulties in taking the bondary issue to the international court and the risk of ceding more lands to India.
Geological location has put Nepal in a tight spot with very few alternatives to explore. Diplomatic solution is the best bet. The need of the hour is collecting and securing all the historical evidences that supports Nepal’s ownership of Kalapani region and talking to India at the highest level. Otherwise, the open wound of Kapalani will ache Nepal forever.
The writer is Op-ed Editor at Lokaantar.
Published on 20 May 2020