A Himalayan Problem
A bold step
This past Sunday, Nepal’s lower house of parliament, the House of Representatives saw the Minister for Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Shiva Maya Tumbahangphe, table the historic constitution amendment (second amendment) bill. It seeks to alter the national emblem which contains the map of Nepal, to include a 335-square kilometre piece of land in the Pithoragarh district of India’s northern border state of Uttarakhand to now claim as its own, supposedly on the basis of historical fact. This follows the Nepalese government’s move on 20th May to release a new official map that included the areas of Kalapani, Lipu Lekh Pass, and Limpiyadhura in Nepal’s Darchula district. The bill is due to be discussed and voted upon after a maturity period of one week but is expected to pass almost unanimously. The government is currently seeking to expedite the process, seemingly to negotiate with India from a firmer, more resolute position.
Internal politics and growing affinity to China and animosity towards India are being seen as the primary reasons for this move from Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. The most recent trigger is the inauguration of an 80-km road in Uttarakhand, which connects close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC) by Indian defence minister Rajnath Singh on May 8th. This opens a new route for Kailash Mansarovar yatra via Lipu Lekh Pass at a height of 17,000 feet and significantly reduces the travel time for yatris from 21 days to 1 day. While he dedicated this road to his nation, Nepal objected to it, calling the move ‘Unilateral’ and said that it had ‘learnt with regret’ about the inauguration. The Himalayan nation maintained that by the treaty of Sugauli (1816), the area through which the road passed was Nepalese territory. However, according to Article 8 of the 1950 agreement between India and Nepal, all previous treaties between the British government on behalf of India and Nepal are void. It is also to be noted that in 1923, the United Kingdom and Nepal formally signed an agreement of friendship that superseded the Sugauli Treaty of 1816.
‘Peace and Friendship’
Let us dial it back a bit to the history of the region in the 20th century. In 1950, the two states signed the ‘Treaty of Peace and Friendship’ in Kathmandu. The agreement allows free movement of goods and people and vowed close cooperation in matters of foreign policy and defence. Close military and economical cooperation continued between the two governments for decades, even as Nepalis and Indians became key parts of each other’s demographics despite disagreements on many political issues including India’s 1975 annexation of Sikkim. Tensions. however, started to rise in the 70s and 80s leading to reduced cross border trade and the Nepali Rupee being decoupled from the Indian Rupee. However in June 1990, a joint Kathmandu-New Delhi communique was issued that essentially announced that the status quo would be restored, key border points would be opened and India would get key commercial benefits.
Relations between the two states further solidified from that point and in 1996, The Treaty on Integrated Development of Mahakali River or the Mahakali treaty was signed, which in essence gave India multiple - and unbalanced as viewed by some Nepalis - benefits in matters of water sharing. In 1997, the then Indian PM IK Gujral visited Kathmandu and came away with a joint statement which said that disputes over the border, including the Kalapani region, would be analysed by the ‘Joint Working Group of the Indo-Nepal Joint Technical Committee on the Border’, which then essentially stated India’s stance to be that the region was a disputed territory and the issue must be resolved. This is precisely why Nepal has been logically able to stake its claim to the same.
India continued to be involved in establishing peace between warring political opponents in Nepal eventually leading to the establishment of The Federal Republic of Nepal (earlier The Kingdom of Nepal) in 2008, heralding a new progressive age in the country’s tumultuous history.
When we stopped being pals with Nepal
Fast forward to 2015, when a series of events unfolded that has since put relations between the two countries in a permanent state of flux. In April, Nepal was struck with a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake that left thousands dead and even more displaced. While the Indian government gained respect for extending $1 billion in aid, the Indian media garnered excessive flak in what was seen as insensitive coverage and a seemingly large scale PR-op for India, with twitter trends like #GoHomeIndianMedia.
On 20th Septemeber 2015, Nepal, after many internal negotiations without much Indian involvement, adopted its constitution which will be amended only for the second time if current events reach their logical conclusion. Importantly, the constitution declared that Nepal’s territory would comprise those areas under its control at the time of the formation of the constitution. This was to be formalised as part of the national emblem. This is why Nepal requires an amendment to officially declare the Kalapani region as its own - the emblem has to be changed.
The constitution was barely acknowledged by India, and opposed by the Madhesis, a community comprising 20% of Nepal’s population, who had a number of unaddressed grievances. This included loss of citizenship rights to children not born to a Nepali father, redrawing of the country’s provincial borders, official recognition of regional languages, and increased representation in the National assembly. The first is critical as many Madhesis, owing to their region’s proximity to Bihar tend to have families with Indians, and this is why India is seen as having a soft spot for the community. In fact in 2015, India, via the Ministry of External Affairs, expressed its displeasure over the Madhesi issues. Soon after the promulgation of the constitution, violent agitations broke out in Nepal, including a complete halt of the movement of goods through the Madhesi-dominated region of Terai to Nepal. This broke the back of the Nepalese economy as this was a key route for trade between the two nations. PM Oli of the Communist Party of Nepal publicly criticised India’s active involvement in the ‘blockade’ (which there is no proof of, although India did not do anything to ease it) and amped up his affinity to China thereafter. While the ‘blockade’ was called off by the Madhesis in February 2016 on the government’s promise to resolve their issues, India’s relations with Nepal became permanently soured, paving the way for China to explicitly make its presence felt as a friend of Nepal, leading to the latter joining the One Belt One Road initiative in May 2017.
Internal party politics led to Oli stepping down as PM in mid-2016, only to return in 2018, and while New Delhi hoped for some repairs in the relationship, it was not to be. When Article 370 was abrogated in India, which split Jammu and Kashmir into two Union territories, India released a map in November that included Kalapani as Indian territory. It is important to note that India's borders, although disputed for a number of years remained unchanged from recent versions prior to this. Nepal was outraged but believed the issue could be resolved by talks, yet as mentioned earlier, they included it in their new map anyway.
Where this is all headed
This is where the internal politics of Oli’s party becomes an issue. He has increasingly faced a challenge to his leadership, along with some dissatisfaction over his administration among the public. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi held several meetings to resolve the rift in the ruling party, following which some stability was achieved, marking an uncharacteristic involvement in an ally’s internal politics from China. It is believed by many that Oli is turning up the heat on the border dispute with India to gain bipartisan support from political parties and to harness nationalistic fervour among the Nepali people for political gain.
On 15th May, Indian Army Chief Naravane remarked that Nepal was raising the Lipu Lekh border conflict at ‘someone else’s behest’. Nepal was again outraged and denied Chinese involvement in the issue. Indian diplomatic sources have since told many news outlets that India would look to amicably resolve the issue, a sentiment echoed by Nepal’s Foreign Minister Pradeep Kumar Gyawali who said India must accept historical facts, after handing over a letter of protest to India’s Ambassador in Kathmandu over ‘India's encroachment of Nepali territory’. PM Oli has since called India a ‘virus’ and all those who support him cling to the Treaty of Sugauli and Gujral’s stance by saying that India and Nepal hold the border as an outstanding issue that has to be resolved. They say the latter bit almost mechanically every time they are required to present this POV to Indian news channels.
While there is a lot more layered nuance involved in the internal politics of the ruling coalition, the role of India in the opposition of the Madhesis to Oli’s government and China’s backing of Nepal’s sudden nationalistic spirit , one thing is as clear as the air at the top of Nepal’s Sagarmatha.
A peaceful conclusion doesn’t seem immediately in the offing and it will take a long-drawn-out diplomatic dialogue between the foreign ministries of the two neighbours, if not the Prime Ministers themselves to create a picture somewhat resembling the friendly relations the countries used to share. It is imperative, as the Late Sushma Swaraj once said, for India to be Nepal’s elder brother and not the Big Brother in the region brashly bullying its smaller, dependent neighbour. The Modi government - for the benefit of all- cannot allow Nepal to build an image of being India-locked, as opposed to landlocked, and Nepal cannot be seen as cosying up to Chinese interests or risk being condemned by the West and India as being part of the rapidly growing Chinese bloc.
India needs a positive conclusion or risks losing the only buffer they have to China along the LAC, while Nepal needs a win for pride and as a display of their rising stature in South Asia. India will be hoping that China doesn’t end up being the biggest gainer out of this scenario because the land of Buddha’s Lumbini can very quickly become the fearsome land of the epic Gorkhas.
(Authored by Bharat Govind Gautam)