It’s fairly easy to analyse a conflict between hostile nations, say India and Pakistan, or two not-so-friendly neighbours like India and China. But when two friendly, nay, fraternal countries like India and Nepal which are extraordinarily close to each other get into a squabble with serious overtones, that is a tough nut to crack.
Since last November, when India came up with its latest political map that incorporated a small but strategically important Limpiyadhura-Kalapani-Lipulekh (L-K-L) region to the northwest of Nepal, the mood has soured in Kathmandu. From then until now, India has “not found the time” to sort out the issue leading to a situation where Nepal has come up with its map, which shows the same region as part of its territory.
The issue is therefore: who owns the disputed territory? Nepal has categorically asserted that the L-K-L triangle belongs to it under the 1816 Sigauli treaty while India throws up its hands in surprise saying it was always New Delhi’s and slots it within the state of Uttarakhand.
The region, all of 372 sq km, considered small as border disputes go, is strategically important for India as it comprises Lipu Lek, the overland trade route between India and China and also the way to the pilgrimage destination Kailash-Manasarovar.
What has complicated matters is that India, over the last seven decades since Independence, has largely moved from a nation that practised centrist, liberal-secular politics to one that is religion-oriented, conservative and right-wing while Nepal during the same period has shifted even more dramatically from a tight-knit monarchy to a liberal-secular, left-dominated republic. One commonality is the rise in nationalist ideas that dominates both nations, which makes a resolution to the dispute extremely tricky.
The preferred way would have been for the territorial dispute to be resolved by a give-and-take arrangement. But, the BJP government in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi is hardly a dispensation that will give up on territory given its obduracy on many other fronts, so too the Nepali government under Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli, unless both work out some way of convincing their supporters on the necessity of a compromise.
The extreme option, that of sealing the deal through a war, is ruled out given the intertwined and friendly relations between the two countries. The Indian Army employs Nepali nationals who form part of the Gorkha Rifles while the Indian Army Chief of Staff is a honorary general of the Nepali Army. The two have always enjoyed an open border stretching across 1750 km. Travelling from one to the other is as easy as visiting another state within the same country.
A third option, suggested by sections of the Nepal media, is for the two countries to approach external arbiters like the International Court of Justice with the intention of following through on any eventual judgment. This is expected to leave untouched the core friendship between the two countries.
The dispute can be traced to the time from India’s independence when Nepal was ruled by a monarchy. The personal equation between King Mahendra and the Congress-led government of the then prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru was so good that neither gave the issue much importance. In the aftermath of the Chinese military action in Tibet in 1950, the rattled ruling family in Kathmandu allowed India to set up 18 border posts along Nepal’s northern frontier. This remained in place for close to 20 years until all the posts were removed except one which, according to some analysts, is probably the cause of confusion today.
Indicating the monarchy’s disdain for the L-K-L territory and its sense of comfort with the Indian government, the country’s maps did not depict the L-K-L area though there had been no explicit accord between the two. As for India, it continued to operate in this region assuming it belonged to it, without bothering to firm it up in the form of a signed agreement. Perhaps neither foresaw a time when the ambiguity would turn into a bugbear. At the height of friendship how is it possible to imagine future enmity.
The seed of the dispute was sown earlier in 1816 when British India and Nepal signed the Sigauli accord to fix the boundary of the then Himalayan kingdom. As per this accord, the river Kali (then known as Kuti) was taken as the end point of Nepal’s western boundary. All area to the east of the river was Nepal’s and to its west was India’s.
Soon after, the British realised that an important trade route to China fell in Nepal’s territory because of the Sigauli accord. Nepali analysts point out how the British from 1860 onwards quietly changed the map to show the river running a different course. Under this altered map, the L-K-L triangle came into the territory of India enabling easier access to the Lipulekh corridor to China.
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Nepal’s contention is that the Kali river originates in Limpiyadhura, the westernmost point of the disputed region. The British in 1816 were apparently on the same page. This meant that the L-K-L area was to the east of the river. But the maps the British came up with in 1860 showed the Kali river as originating from Lipulekh, thus introducing a bend in the river. This diametrically shifted the L-K-L portion from the east of the river to the west of the river, and that meant Indian territory.
This is where the dispute stands today. Some sections claim that the Nepalese have been instigated by China to irritate India and push it on the defensive. While this seems conspiratorial since the dispute exists since the 1990’s, such a view also tends to undermine Nepal’s concern over the possible loss of territory.
After all, Nepal is no longer a monarchy. It is a full-fledged democratic republic where the government is accountable to its people. Those who believe religion is a binding factor may wonder why a Hindutva-propelled government in New Delhi would want to take on a smaller Hindu nation. One may recall that when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Nepal soon after coming to power in 2014, he found himself hugely popular in that country.
In September 2015, a debate broke out in Nepal over whether to incorporate secularism in its Constitution or to let it be a Hindu state. The RSS-led Sangh Parivar hoped a Hindu state would emerge. However, a majority of Nepal’s members in the Constituent assembly voted for secularism. This may have disappointed Hindu votaries in India’s ruling dispensation.
A few days later, during September, when the Madhesis (who mostly hail from India) protested against the manner in which new provinces were earmarked in the fledgling Constitution, the Modi government backed the protests and formally requested Kathmandu to reconsider the proposals. But Nepal’s government refused and for 135 days, the Madhesis blockaded essential supplies from India into Nepal. New Delhi was blamed for the blockade and it resulted in a serious strain in relations between the two countries. It pushed Nepal closer to China, as Beijing started sending supplies to the besieged country.
Since then, New Delhi and Kathmandu have not attempted, at least overtly, to reboot the relationship. And, to make matters worse, the territorial dispute in the Himalayas is taking the once-friendly neighbours into an uncharted and seemingly treacherous route that can only worsen the situation, something that both countries can do without.