India-Nepal relations at a trijunction: China's role and the Kalapani issue

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with his Nepalese counterpart K P Oli in happier times. India believes Nepal is raising the Kalapani dispute at China’s behest
In June 1998, in an interview with Karan Thapar, then deputy chairman of the Planning Commission Jaswant Singh had said: “We have to recognise that map-making has to come to a stop in the subcontinent. If you are talking about a kind of cartographic, constant altering of the South Asian situation, that cannot take place. That is a reality.” The remark caused a furore and Brajesh Mishra, principal secretary to then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, immediately contradicted it on account of its implications for the status of Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir (PoK).

With 98 per cent of the India-Nepal border neatly demarcated and a unique open border arrangement in place, none thought the statement could impact their ties.

Now suddenly, India and Nepal are in the middle of a huge map controversy involving 2 per cent of the border that has been simmering since November 2019. To a flurry of questions on Nepal’s claim to Kalapani in a map released by that country's government, India's unexpectedly pugnacious statement last week was: “The revision is a unilateral act and it is not based on historical facts and evidence. Such artificial enlargement of territorial claims will not be accepted by us.” Earlier, the government had acknowledged there was a problem and said it would be sorted out once the two nations had vanquished Covid-19. But soon after the map, the Indian government advised the Nepal leadership to “create a positive atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues”. India’s tone went from friendly to frosty in a matter of days. What exactly is going on?

The current round of tension started with New Delhi releasing on  November 2 a new map of India following the Reorganisation of J&K Act, 2019, showing PoK in the Union Territory of J&K, and Gilgit-Baltistan in Ladakh. It also showed Kalapani in India, even as the foreign office spokesperson said: “The new map has in no manner revised our boundary with Nepal.” But in Nepal protests immediately broke out with allegations that India was trying to usurp its territory.

Experts say Kalapani is part of the disputed but strategically high-value real estate near the India-China-Nepal trijunction. The dispute has three inter-related components: The source of the Kali river, the sovereignty of Lipulekh Pass and the trijunction.

According to Nepal, the 1816 Treaty of Sagauli says: “Areas east of the Kali river belong to Nepal.” The origin/source of the river determines whether Kalapani area (around 35 sq km) lies in India or Nepal. Kathmandu claims the source of the Kali river is Limpiya Dhura and not Kalapani. If Limpiya Dhura is accepted as the river source, nearly 335 sq km of territory including Kalapani and Lipulekh Pass would go to Nepal.

But the Indian interpretation of the flow of Kali river puts the 35 sq km of Kalapani area on its side. The Indian Army says that ITBP posts at Kalapani patrol regularly up to Tinker Post near Lipulekh Pass. Nepal’s territorial claims emanate from the Kali river originating from Limpiya Dhura making Kalapani and Lipulekh pass theirs.

For India, the control of Kalapani is important and not just because of the claim that it is an Indian territory. Lipulekh, some distance from Kalapani, is one of the locations of an India-China Trading Post via a 2015 agreement. India also alleges Nepal and China had bilaterally shifted the Tinker-Lipulekh trijunction 5.5 km west towards Lipulekh, in other words, infringing on territory that is Indian.

How China comes into the picture?

The Nepali Congress president and three-term prime minister, Sher Bahadur Deuba, slammed the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP), alleging Kalapani had been occupied by India with Prime Minister K P Oli’s consent. The NCP’s executive chairman, Pushpa Kamal Dahal Prachanda, said India must vacate its illegal occupation of Kalapani. Oli told Kantipur TV no previous government took up the Kalapani dispute due to “weakness” and “inferiority complex”, and his government had already taken up the issue with India following an all-party consensus.

But the back story is: Indians believe Nepal is being put up to the dispute by China — to the point where the chief of Army staff, General M M Naravane, said publicly that Nepal was “acting at the behest of others”. This has incensed Nepal even more, as it implies the country’s political leadership is nothing more than a toy in the hands of India and China.

In the struggle for power between Oli and Dahal that has been going on since Oli became prime minister, China has put its weight behind him. This is manifest in a variety of ways. Chinese Ambassador to Nepal Hou Yanqi has steered masks, PPE sets, and hard cash Nepal’s way, though the country’s management of Covid-19 has been exemplary. PM Narendra Modi has offered all possible help.

The new chapter of problems between India and Nepal is not going away. It needs to be addressed as soon as possible, without waiting for “positive atmosphere”, because others are ready to step into the breach.

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