Why Nepal cares about its land so much

Published On: May 13, 2020 06:57 PM NPT By: Mahabir Paudyal

For Nepal, the land is much more than just a mass of earth and rocks. Land represents our emotion, attachment, sovereignty and identity.

Officially Nepal has always stood for resolving the encroachment issue through bilateral negotiations and diplomatic means. Where do you get a neighbor, whose land has been encroached on and yet who pleads for peaceful and amicable solutions?

Nepal is in rage and resentment against India after Indian Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, on May 8, inaugurated the road linking Dharchula of India with Lipulekh of Nepal. The road had been built without Nepal’s consent.

How come the government is unaware of road construction by India inside its (Nepal’s) territory? Was this happening in collusion between leaders of the two countries? Why have Nepali leaders never taken land encroachment seriously?

The rage is directed toward Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli as much as against India. The resentment bred by inclusion of Kalapani, Lipuekh and Limpiadhura (estimated 385 square kilometres in areas) in official map of India in November last year has been reignited. The purpose of this article is to set a historical context of how Nepal fought for land for over a century and send a reminder to leaders in India and Nepal why Nepal cares so much about it, why the two countries must jealously protect their frontiers without encroaching upon each other’s and why encroachment issue should be resolved once and for all.

The battle for land

Land has been at the core of Nepali politics for over two centuries.As a matter of fact, up until 1920, one major focus of the state was to ensure that we get back as much land that we were coerced to lose, or at least we do not further lose an inch of it. Some rulers of the past used all tactics—foresight, wisdom, guile, modesty, even submission—to protect the land. The existing territory of the country is the outcome of the Nepal-East India Company War (1814-1816). But the war itself was the outcome of Nepal’s ambition to secure more land for itself and its people.

Most historians have attributed arrogance, outrage, treachery and encroachments from Nepali state as the main cause for British India to foist war on Nepal. But a major consideration, as Ludwig F Stiller writes in The Silent Cry, was land. The war could have been avoided only if, Stiller argues, Nepal agreed to the British condition whereby “everything in the plains would belong to the company and everything in the hills would belong to Nepal.” The British had actually “wanted to annex all of the Tarai land up to the Churiya range of the hills.”

Papers Regarding the Administration of The Marquis of Hastings in India (1824), a collection of letters and dispatches between commanders on the ground, ministers and officials in Nepal, and officials in Calcutta and London during 1814-16 war, provides a picture of how the British officials were solely focused on taking land of Tarai plains and how Nepali negotiators tried so hard to avoid that prospect.

Lord Moira, the Governor General of British India, writes to Secret Committee in London on August 2, 1815, that he will not come to terms of peace without Nepal conceding Tarai. He is also “contemplating permanent annexation of Tarai under the British dominions” before starting the talks for peace. As such he has instructed Major Paris Bradshaw to make “cession of low lands throughout the whole extent to the common frontier” the precondition for peace.

Kathmandu tries to appease the Governor General. Both the king (GirbanYuddha) and Prime Minister Bhimsen Thapa invoke “kindness and friendship” of the “lordship” to “establish the former relations of friendship” between Nepal and British India. At the same time, Chandra Shekhar Upadhyay and Gajaraj Mishra have been instructed to be polite, even servile in their dealings, but not to concede the cession of land.

While Nepali side is preparing this way to save its land, British side is also prepared to coerce Nepal to give up. Secretary of the British Government writes to Bradshaw how to counter- argue if Nepalis do not concede. “The cession of the whole of the low lands may be resisted by the government of Nepal on the ground that the possession of some part of that country is necessary for the support of the inhabitants of the hills,” he writes to Bradshaw. In that case you have to insist that “British Government cannot relinquish any portion of the low lands.”

Apparently, the British also know Nepal will object to this proposition given the interdependence between hills and plains. “His Lordship understands that it is the habit of the people of a great part of the hilly tract immediately beyond the forest, to resort to the plains at particular seasons of the year, chiefly for the purpose of grazing their cattle, retiring to the hills at others,” Bradshaw is reminded. “This may be urged as an objection to the cession of the whole of the low lands to the base of the hills” but “the objection cannot be admitted.”

Nepali courtiers then plead. Rudheer Bir Shah, the brother of Chautara Bam Shah, tries to convince Edward Gardner by telling him that “the cession of that part of its possessions would never be consented by the Nepaul Government, as it formed the foundation of its existence, and included the only valuable lands it possessed.” Shah “urged various reasons and objections against ceding that tract of country” and rested his “hopes principally upon the generosity of the British Government,” informs Edward Gardner to the government secretary.

None of such efforts worked. The war fought to expand and secure the land resulted in the loss of huge swath of land to Nepal's east, west and south. Nepali rulers then made restoration of lost land the cause to pursue. Bhimsen Thapa even played ‘China card’ to restore much of the lost lands.

Give back my land

Dr Henry Ambrose Oldfield, who served as the doctor in British Residency in Nepal from 1850 to 1863, admits that Nepal agreed to the British conditions of permanent residency for the sake of land. In Sketches from Nepal (Vol I), he writes: “At the point of the bayonet they [Nepal] were forced to yield to the establishment of a British Resident at their Court. But they would be as delighted now as they would have been immediately after the war, if they could dispense with the presence of that functionary among them.They know, however, that the withdrawal of the Resident would be immediately followed by the resumption of the Terai lands, and the probable conquest and annexation of their country.”

Actually, Brian Hodgson, the longest serving British Resident to Nepal, evoked this threat to mellow down Kathmandu’s demand for restoration of more land. Bringing back the lost land becomes a chief agenda in Kathmandu in 1840. Soldiers are even ready to pick a fight with the British for this. Ludwig F Stiller’s Letters from Kathmandu offers a complete picture in this case. The exchanges between the mutineers and the king (Rajendra Bikram Shah) are revealing. The king says to the mutineers: “The English Government is mighty, abounding in wealth and in all other resources for war... I am bound by a treaty of friendship and have no excuse now to break it. Nor have I money to support a war.” The troops are not satisfied.

They respond: “The war shall support itself. We will plunder Lucknow or Patna; but first we must be rid of the Resident... if the English want peace and are your friends, as you say, why do they keep possession of half your dominions? Let them restore Kumaon and Sikkim. These are yours. Demand them back, and, if they are not given, drive out the Resident.” Hodgson, on his part, uses the prospect of usurpation of Tarai to force Kathmandu to serve British interests. He even raises the “combined possibility of seizing the Nepal Tarai, hampering Nepal's India trade, and forcing Nepal to finance the British troops posted on the Nepal border to convince the King that he must submit to the Governor General’s demands.” He tells the king “I might soon be compelled to remind His Lordship that Nepal's tenure of the Tarai was not absolute, nor her commerce with the Plains beyond the reach of our control.”

Hodgson writes to the government how this veiled threat “produced a beneficial effect upon the Raja.” “His manner at once became more serious and even anxious. I then told him that the one thing he must do without quibble was to permit and enable the new Premier to proceed without delay to the formation of a Cabinet.”

The British were aware of Nepal’s desperation to bring back the lost land. This is perhaps why they wanted to give Naya Muluk to Nepal in return for Junga Bahadur’s military assistance to suppress 1857 mutiny. In British India’s Relations with Kingdom of Nepal Asad Husain mentions that British Secretary of State in a secret despatch (dated March 17, 1858) to the Governor-General had written: “It is better that we should frankly offer it [the land] than that His Highness should ask for it.”

Husain also writes about how Junga Bahadur appealed for land with the British: “I ask nothing for myself individually but I desire that it should be handed down to posterity that during my Ministership I obtained for my country, from the British Government, an extension of her dominions, however trifling that may be.”

Ranaudip Singh was also keen on getting back some of the lands in return for lifting restrictions on recruiting Nepalis for the British Army. Andrian Sever writes in Nepal under the Ranas that during his visit to Banaras in 1883 he wanted “some small grant of territory” to enhance his popularity and prestige throughout the Kingdom. But during the negotiation, “his request for an addition of territory, however, was passed over in deliberate silence.”

In return for providing military support to the British India during the First World War, Chandra Shamser asked for restoration of lost land. Leo Rose writes in Strategy for Survival that Chandra Shamsher in 1919 “proposed the restoration of those sections of the Terai that had been ceded to the British in 1816 and had not been restored in 1858” which the viceroy rejected as “clearly impossible” demand.

An unverified story is that before the British handed over power to India in 1947, Lord Mountbatten, the last viceroy, had proposed Nepal to take back the territories lost to British India in 1816 but Nepali side declined the offer by saying Nepal simply won't be able to handle such a huge territory. There is no documented evidence to prove this though. For Nepal, thus, land is much more than just a mass of earth and rocks. Land represents our emotion, attachment, sovereignty and the sense of who we are. It must be so for every country.

Era of apathy

Despite hordes of shortcomings on their parts, these rulers—from Bhimsen Thapa to Chandra Shamsher—were really serious about the matters related to land. Why did their successors, especially those who ruled after 1950, fail to protect the territories so jealously and fiercely guarded, even expanded, by their predecessors?

It’s more than a decade since border experts like Buddhi Narayan Shrestha came out with the findings that thousands of acres of Nepali land have been encroached upon, in several places from Indian side and in few places by the Chinese side as well.

Why did Nepali rulers not care much about land in Susta, Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura?

In post-1950 politics, the question of land becomes secondary in Nepal's intercourse with independent India. The 50s were in fact the times when Nepali politics was virtually guided by India in almost every sphere. The government of the day allowed Indian military posts in northern border points. In the era of India-guided politics, in which New Delhi was a decisive factor in who would be appointed prime minister in Nepal, Indian occupation of some places, including encroachment, could simply have been ignored.

The mystery is why B P Koirala and King Mahendra, two most influential political figures of the 50s and the 60s, could not do much about it? Both Koirala and King were instrumental in finalizing boundary issue with China. The conversation BP had with Chairman Mao during his China visit of March 1960 over the boundary matters is cherished by scholars and commentators alike. It could even be argued that Koirala paved the way for Mahendra to seal the boundary treaty with China.

After returning to Nepal from his China visit, on October 5, 1961, King Mahendra presented boundary treaty as a big achievement and announced “Nepal has gained 300 sq miles and I feel that all the Nepalese will experience a sense of glory when I state that Sagarmatha, on which the eyes of the world seem to be focussed, continues to be as it has been ours and within our territory.”

Simple solutions

China has long been viewed in Nepal as a non-interfering benign power always emphasizing Nepal's territorial integrity and independence in official statements. But since 2015, when China agreed to open trade route to India via Lipulekh, without taking Nepal onboard, without even securing Nepal’s consent, the image of ‘benignity’ is being questioned. Regarding road to Lipulekh from Dharchula, many in Nepal think India can't have built it without consent from China. Surely, China owes an explanation regarding 2015 agreement and this issue as well.

But the resentment is more against India: We need to deploy our military to take back Kalapani and Lipulekh, fence the border with wire and internationalize the case. These are the buzzwords in Kathmandu.

Nepali leadership has refrained from allowing rage to kill reason. Officially Nepal has always stood for resolving the matter through bilateral negotiations and diplomatic means. Where do you get a neighbor, whose land has been encroached on and yet who pleads for peaceful and amicable solutions?

Nepal and India do not have a separate border treaty. Sugauli Treaty has defined our borders and it clearly shows Kalapani-Lipulekh-Limpiyadhura (KLL) as Nepali territories. Let’s not pretend ignorance on this. The moment India recognizes Kali river as Kali river, which actually demarcates the boundary between Nepal and India, we will reach a solution. Nepali side may have failed to pursue this issue effectively but the standoff won’t break unless India shows the willingness.

The land that we call a country is the result of struggle and risks few people took in history for us. It is so for Nepal. It is so for India and China too. Every country should fiercely protect its territory but without infringing on other country’s right to protect what is legitimately theirs.

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