“The government is all committed to safeguarding every inch of Nepali territory,”
—Minister for Foreign Affairs Pradip Kumar Gyawali
“The encroachment of Nepali territory by the Indian side is deplorable, Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura fall under Nepali territory…entire Nepal is united against Indian move.”
—Subash Chandra Nembang, Nepal Communist Party
Nepal is facing an intractable border dispute with India arising from India putting out a new map that shows adjustments reflecting change in the status of Jammu and Kashmir. With this change, both of the territories and also Ladakh will be directly administered by Central Government, ending their autonomous status.
Roots of controversy
Nepal’s map in existence doesn’t mention specific points of its western border with India including the region of Kalapani which India’s updated map shows to the west of its border with Nepal. The placement of Kalapani inside India’s border contrasts with Nepal’s claim that Kalapani is a Nepali territory and has been so since Sugauli Treaty of 1816. In fact, Nepal holds that Kalapani territory and more land area to the north along with the Mahakali River falls within Nepal and that its territory extends to the China border in its Far-west.
The source of dispute between Nepal and India isn’t that Mahakali River forms the boundary between the two countries but the location of the river itself. Nepal counts Mahakali River originating way up to the north from Kalapani that also includes Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura regions, while India treats the start of Mahakali River near to a point from Kalapani.
The main point of dispute then is that India doesn’t accept Nepal counting of tributaries of Mahakali River originating from far north of Kalapani as bilateral border but, rather, the meeting place of the tributaries in Kalapani that places some 370 square kilometers of land area east of the tributaries inside India which Nepal claims has historically been its territory.
Surprisingly, Nepal’s political map has never shown Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura regions in the country’s map which has come to embarrass the bureaucrats at Nepal’s Foreign Ministry and it has now ordered re-sketching of the map showing Kalapani region as Nepali territory. This is an amusing omission by Nepali administration but India probably wouldn’t mind and may reconsider the border delineation if a compelling case for doing so exists.
The point India is making is that it always has used Chisapani as its defense post and has kept thousands of its military personnel at its joint border with China which now will become a trilateral border point if India accedes to Nepal’s demand for redrawing of the map. If that is done, then Nepal will also share a common border with China and may choose to station its own military force to ensure border defense. But, in that case, Nepal may tell India that it doesn’t have problems with China and there is no need for it to station its own forces at the border. India alone then will be manning the trilateral border that now also Nepal will share.
Failing on duty
Now whatever has been said above may partly be true and partly incorrect or, more possibly, speculative. The speculative part of the unraveling of India-Nepal border conflict is that Nepal didn’t ever consider this piece of territory under question with India as its own, shown interest in it, and considered its responsibility to administer, develop and defend. If it had done so, it would have set up at least a rudiment of work to develop the territory, install an administrative infrastructure, and place a token of military force.
Unfortunately, Nepal has done nothing like this and, instead, let people live their own lives, the way they had for generations. Additionally, with open access to each side of the border, people there hardly care if they are on the Nepali or Indian side of the border, whether they are Indian or Nepali citizens.
The evidence then is that, despite this trilateral border point being so much deserving of Nepal asserting its sovereign right to the region, its obligation to develop the region and provide some degree of relief to the population living in dire poverty, Nepal has not taken measures to do so. The western part of Nepal and especially its northwest region continues to be the most backward corner of the country, with an appalling human development index that has endured for generations.
The sole point of Nepal getting excited about claiming the ownership of the region is that it can now exact concessions from both India and China for having access to a strategic defense post at the Chinese border with India.
Looking at the recent history of discussions concerning bilateral border, Nepal for the first time had raised the issue of Kalapani with India in 1996, with the then Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba signing Mahakali Treaty with India. This Treaty probably didn’t include all of Kalapani region in Nepal’s western territory and also, more likely, the status of Mahakali River as a border point placing Kalapani inside Nepal wasn’t resolved.
The drawbacks of Mahakali Treaty were widely criticized by political opposition in Nepal, and the defects of the Treaty incited public demonstrations in Kathmandu for the alleged sell-out of Kalapani to India. The issue of Mahakali Treaty has been raised on several occasions afterward but nothing more has been done than the establishment of Border Demarcation Commissions and Foreign Secretaries and Foreign Ministers of the two countries holding discussions which, the record shows, haven’t accomplished much and, more surprisingly, their reports, if submitted, were never made public.
With such background of the status of Nepal’s western border, the current upheavals in the country over the so-called usurpation of Nepali territory by India has come as a surprise including, very likely, to the Government of India. Indeed, India has come up ahead of Nepal in proposing bilateral review of the Nepal’s ire over India’s re-drawing of its political map to show primarily the change in status of Jammu and Kashmir in which some of Nepal’s territory has, inadvertently I guess, been marked as Indian territory in part because, again, Nepal hasn’t considered this a useful piece of land except, lately, after the route to the ancient lake of Manasarovar to the northwest of the territory has opened up. So this region is likely going to become a major travel point to the lake.
Nonetheless, Nepal faces drawbacks in terms of coming up with some real money to develop the region. The region of the district—Darchula—along with adjoining Humla and Jumla are the left-out regions of the country where Nepal Government has almost no footprints, except for the posting of a few military and administration personnel. The main scapegoat of government failing the people there has been the region’s natural isolation from rest of Nepal because of its difficult terrains that render the task of putting upgraded infrastructure such as highways and railways an impossible task. Trade and travels are then done in a primitive way using trails and animals that also reach a very small part of the population.
Focus on development
The growth of tourism, infusion of defense spending money, and putting in place much needed infrastructure will help bring life to the region’s economy and raise living standards. More so, the presence of India next door should provide the main incentive for the upgrade of local economy, for it to develop and modernize. The rest of Nepal excluding its border regions to the north is surrounded by the poorest economic zones of India. This will not be the case for Nepal’s western regions that are bordered with India’s fastest growing regions. More likely, with the opening of trade and tourism routes, Darchula and its adjoining territories will have the promise to become an engine of growth for a much wider area that seldom gets registered in the country’s development map.
However, we can’t be all optimistic that such a scenario will materialize until the ongoing border issue with India gets settled amicably. For this to happen, Nepal will need to make some necessary adjustments in its current posture, that some of its demands may not be favorable to India. If Nepal gets realistic about the settlement of border issue, this will open up multiple channels of cooperation between the two countries to the enormous benefit of people on both sides of the border.