Nepal, the South Asian country which shares its border with India and China has found itself in a scuffle with its south-western counterpart. This land-locked state which is sandwiched between two greater nations with China and the Himalayan ranges to the North can boast its strategic location. However, this has resulted in the country facing geopolitical tensions from its neighbors. While one cannot deny the reliance of Nepal on India, it is also true that Nepal has been making efforts to reduce the country’s dependency on its “big brother” in recent times.
On 21st June, the Nepal Armed Police killed one and injured two Indian nationals on the India-Nepal border in an incident where around 25-30 Indians breached the border and pelted stones at the Nepalese security forces. Thereafter, security measures have been fortified on the borders. The brawl was a long-time coming for the two since India had not prioritized a stable relationship with Nepal.
Matters escalated when on May 08th India inaugurated an 80km road leading up to China’s border and encompassing disputed Nepalese territory, namely the Kalapani region. Nepal swiftly protested this. It was quick to pass a constitutional amendment that pulled up a new political map of the country, and this one declared the Kalapani region as encompassed in Nepalese territory. The Nepalis celebrated the event in its capital, Kathmandu and Prime Minister Oli addressed the nation assuring the people that they would reclaim their land, at any cost.
Not surprisingly, India did not take kindly to this and stated that the constitutional amendment and the new map of the country are in violation of the promises of a peaceful dialogue that Nepal has requested, and India has agreed to in order to address the issue of the disputed territory. In reality, Nepal has been urgently calling for dialogue since the previous year, yet India has not shared its neighbor’s urgency on the matter until the situation got side-tracked on the onset of the Corona Virus pandemic. Nepal’s haste can be attributed to the fear that the India-China conflict will endanger Nepal’s territorial claims, and the country’s demands will be sidelined again.
What truly is the significance for India of this newly constructed road leading into the Himalayas at Lipulekh Pass? The Indian government has stated that this route will facilitate religious pilgrims who annually make their journey to Mount Kailash in China. Currently, the pilgrims have three routes that lead to the pilgrimage site, all of which are long and difficult. The new road will cut travel time by three days.
However, the route can also provide India with a military advantage amidst rising tension with China which calls for securing this route. While this will not be the first route leading into the Himalayas, it will link India to the Tibetan Plateau more directly. Tibet has been holding border trade with India previously. The route will also secure the possibility of future trade with China once matters settle down between the two neighbors.
So, where does Nepal’s claim on the Kalapani region originate from? India has displayed the region on the map as belonging to Indian territory for a long time and China has never questioned India’s claim on the land which can be seen by China allowing old trade routes to function in the region.
The India-Nepal border conflict is not a new one, it stems from British times when the origin of rivers was used to establish borders between regions. Nepal states that the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli which it entered with the British colonial rulers establishes the origin of the Mahakali river in Nepalese territory. Later, the origin of the river was to serve as the distinguishing point between the two countries. Since then, the British have changed their stance on the issue and the lack of dialogue between the three countries means that the Kalapani region remains disputed territory.
The constitutional amendment by Nepal is seen as a bold step undertaken by the small country against its larger South-Asian brother. And many see it as evidence that the smaller counterpart no longer requires the support of the other, in presence of possible reinforcement from a communist neighbor. However, at this stage, it may be too early for such claims. The smaller country is not unwise to assume that relations between the two South-Asian superpowers may possibly endanger Nepal’s territorial claims of the Kalapani region. Especially, in light of the way India has refused to prioritize dialogue with Nepal in the past year.
However, it is an unwise time to push for a tense stand-off in the region in the time of financial and humanitarian crises such as COVID-19. Nepal’s best bet is to use the tool it has wielded finest against its neighbor up till now, diplomacy.