India is largely responsible for the Nepal mess; New Delhi must show political will in resetting ties and give Nepal the ‘Brexit’ it seeks

Nepal must be made aware of the costs involved in pulling away from the partnership and allowed to reset ties.

Sreemoy Talukdar July 24, 2020 16:39:13 IST
India is largely responsible for the Nepal mess; New Delhi must show political will in resetting ties and give Nepal the ‘Brexit’ it seeks

India and Nepal’s “special relationship” is not only undergoing a spectacular implosion, but chances of a negotiated settlement are also becoming progressively complicated and slimmer. The latest turmoil in bilateral ties — that seems headed for the deep freezer right now — is largely the result of India’s bureaucratic inertia, inconsistent political engagement with a prickly neighbour and a critical lack of diplomatic resources that make it difficult for India to deal actively and coherently with all the issues that face a ‘leading power’.

Extraneous factors have doubtlessly contributed towards bringing the relationship to this precipice but the nature of the issue that plagues India-Nepal ties is structural — the Kalapani dispute is merely symptomatic — and it demands considerable political will. Will India be up for it? We shall come to that in a bit but let us first categorise the underlying issues in five broad parts.

1. India’s missteps

It would be misleading to take 8 May — the day Defence Minister Rajnath Singh announced the inauguration of the road link from Dharchula in Uttarakhand to Lipu Lekh Pass in Tibet border for the Kailash-Mansarovar Yatra triggering massive street protests in Nepal — as Day Zero of the trouble. The ensuing events certainly put Indian media’s focus firmly on Nepal, but the lingering trouble has been intensifying and required close and sustained attention. New Delhi either misread the signals or worse, is guilty of negligence.

Following the minister’s announcement of the completion of the project — the 80-km road is expected to minimise by at least a week the time it takes for Kailash pilgrims to reach Mansarovar and avoid the arduous and risky high-altitude alternative routes through Nepal or Sikkim — Kathmandu summoned the Indian ambassador to register its formal protest, established a border outpost and ordered its armed police to patrol the disputed spot. The escalatory spiral began.

The ferocity of the protests, the geopolitical fallout and Nepal’s escalatory steps leading to Kathmandu moving a constitutional amendment to claim 400 sq. km of Indian territory comprising Kalapani, Lipu Lekh and Limpiyadhura as its “own” through an unprecedented instance of cartographic assertion seems to have taken India by surprise. If it did, it must be marked down as a foreign policy failure.

Even a casual acquaintance with the history of Indo-Nepal border dispute would make it obvious that India’s new Dharchula-Lipu Lekh road — that originates from Ghatiabagarh and terminates at the gateway to Kailash-Mansarovar in Tibet — could be controversial if not handled carefully.

The BRO-constructed strip cuts through Kalapani — the strategic vantage point at the easternmost corner of Uttarakhand’s Pithoragarh district that falls within the trijunction of India, Tibet and Nepal and over which Nepal also claims sovereignty citing the historic Sugauli Treaty between British India and ‘Kingdom of Nepal’ in 1816. Kathmandu’s assertion rests on the treaty and some tax receipts.

India acknowledges the validity of Sugauli Treaty — that gives all land to the east of River Kali to Nepal with the condition that Nepal won’t have any claim to the lands lying to the west of the river — but it contests Nepal’s claim on the origin of Kali that demarcates the boundary line. These are contesting claims, and their basis lies on British surveys and maps that have altered with time.

Broadly, the dispute lies in the confusion over River Kali and its origin. Nepal contends that the river’s source lies in the “mountains near Limpiyadhura, which is higher in altitude than the rest of the river’s flow” — that would give the Kalapani to them, while India believes that source lies at Lipu Lekh.

According to scholar SD Muni, professor emeritus, JNU, and a former ambassador, “The maps issued by the British between 1816 and 1860 generally favour the Nepali position. But, the maps issued afterwards endorse India’s position. It is possible that the British administration changed this position through proper surveys or subsequently decided to manipulate this position… Independent India was handed over access to Kalapani and Lipu Lekh by the British… Blaming India for any encroachment is baseless… Nepal has endorsed India’s position for nearly 150 years. It used Indian maps showing Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Lipu Lekh in India.”

Worth noting that Nepal’s claim isn’t cast in stone. While it now swears by an early 19th-century treaty drawn up between Nepali kings and East India Company, prime minister Pushpa Kamal Dahal “Prachanda” reportedly called the treaty “irrelevant” and is known to have pressed for a “Greater Nepal going into the region west of the Kali.”

Jayant Prasad, former Indian Ambassador to Nepal, observes the shifting trend of Nepalese claims — Kathmandu now asserts that Kali river lies further west to the Lipu Lekh pass — and notes: “The British used the Lipu Lekh pass for trade with Tibet and China. The Survey of India maps since the 1870s showed the area of Lipu Lekh down to Kalapani as part of British India. Both the Rana rulers of Nepal and the Nepalese Kings accepted the boundary and did not raise any objection with the government of India after India’s Independence.”

While it is clear that both nations have historic and competing claims over Kalapani — an area that is of strategic importance to India and proved sensitive to New Delhi’s defence during the 1962 Sino-Indian conflict — India has always enjoyed sovereign, operational, civilian and military control over the region and undertaken construction activities in the past.

In response to Nepal foreign ministry’s statement that the road “passes through Nepali territory”, India has been categorical in asserting that “the recently inaugurated road section in Pithoragarh district in the state of Uttarakhand lies completely within the territory of India. The road follows the pre-existing route used by the pilgrims of the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra. Under the present project, the same road has been made pliable for the ease and convenience of pilgrims, locals and traders.”

India’s sovereignty over Kalapani and Lipu Lekh has also been endorsed by China in 1954 under the Peaceful Co-Existence Agreement and recently in 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China. Lipu Lekh’s importance as a transit route was reinforced in a joint statement through an agreement on the expansion of trade. The relevant paragraph in the MEA statement reads: “The two sides agreed to hold negotiation on augmenting the list of traded commodities, and expand border trade at Nathu La, Qiangla/Lipu-Lekh Pass and Shipki La.”

This raises the question that if India’s sovereignty and operational control has been established (notwithstanding Nepal’s competing claims) on the Kalapani region, and if it's changing of status quo through the construction of a road isn’t an unprecedented event, why is Nepal suddenly up in arms over it?

Worth noting here that though Kalapani as a disputed an unresolved border issue was subjected to the ebb and flow of Indo-Nepal ties, it came at the front and centre of Nepal’s electoral politics with the advent of democracy in the 1990s. While the Nepal-India Technical Level Joint Boundary Working Group — set up in 1981 to resolve all issues regarding delineation and demarcation of boundary — managed to resolve almost 98 percent of pending issues, the two disputed areas of Kalapani and Susta remained unresolved.

Importantly, Nepal’s claim over Kalapani never went below the surface and it has consistently raised the issue with India. Though committed to the dialogue mechanism to eke out a diplomatic and technical resolution, New Delhi’s interest to the cause has been inconsistent at best and dwindling at worst.

Nepal’s late prime minister Girija Prasad Koirala raised the issue during his 2006 visit to India with prime minister Manmohan Singh. Eight years later, then prime minister  Sushil Koirala picked it up during Modi’s pathbreaking visit following which foreign secretary-level talks were agreed upon, but the issue failed to register progress.

After Modi’s successful visit to Nepal in 2014, there was a drop in the level of follow-up political engagement, and the relationship turned decidedly icy a year later in 2015 when India was seen to be backing an economic blockade over Nepal’s promulgation of the new Constitution during Oli’s first stint in office as prime minister. India’s interest in resolving the border dispute dwindled further.

That very year, Nepal protested again when India and China issued a joint statement endorsing trade through Lipu Lekh Pass. Kathmandu interpreted it as an “incursion” on its territory, demanded a necessary correction from both nations and saw it as “a flagrant violation of the principle of sovereign equality of all states”.

As Kallol Bhattacharjee points out in The Hindu, “neither side consulted Nepal or sought its opinion before that agreement that boosted pilgrimage and trade to Tibet. Nepal’s then Prime Minister, the late Sushil Koirala, reportedly cancelled a visit to Delhi following this agreement.”

The issue erupted again when India revoked Article 370 in November last year and released a new political map denoting Jammu & Kashmir and Ladakh Union territories. The map, like the earlier ones, designated Kalapani as a district of Uttarakhand. This time, however, youth activists and students aligned to Nepal’s Communist Party hit the streets. Nepal called India’s decision “unilateral” and claimed that it will “defend its international border”.

According to reports in Indian media, since the 2019 flashpoint, “Kathmandu has made at least four official requests through diplomatic channels to settle the border dispute, but India was busy looking the other way.”

India should have noted the growing popular discontent in Nepal over the boundary issue, the willingness of the ruling Nepal Communist Party (NCP) in making it a political weapon and the increasing politicization of Nepal’s foreign policy. India should have doubled down on the dialogue process and smoothened out the rough edges of the sensitive issue. At the very least, before announcing the launch of the Dharchula-Lipu Lekh link road, India should have walked the extra mile to ensure that Nepal’s ego is not hurt.

The longstanding border dispute, India’s reluctance to engage in talks, reported refusal to meet Nepal prime minister’s special envoy to discuss the Kalapani issue last December and the diplomatic establishment’s penchant for dragging feet created a volatile atmosphere that erupted when India announced the completion of the project on 8 May.

As Brookings India fellow Constantino Xavier observes, it is not that India deliberately wanted to needle Nepal and trample on its rights (as Kathmandu arguably feels), New Delhi either didn’t even consider the Nepal factor while announcing the building of the road which was fashioned as a commitment to the border roadbuilding process and a bit of good news for pilgrims during the pandemic or decided to press ahead anyway hoping to brazen out Kathmandu’s outrage.

If it was apathy, it was an error. And if it was a failure in factoring in Nepal’s reaction, the mistake is graver. In Constantino Xavier’s words: “The timing of the announcement may have thus been reflective of miscommunication, lack of coordination or even different assessments by India’s defence, security and diplomatic establishments. It is also possible that an over-confident Delhi thought it would be able to “manage” Nepal and was then caught by surprise by the gravity of the anti-India uproar in Kathmandu.”

To add to the problem, India’s chief of Army Staff suggested that Nepal’s outrage was “at the behest of someone else”  — hinting at China. General MM Naravane later clarified his statement but by then the damage was done.

It is irrelevant here whether or not China’s meddling has hardened Nepal’s stance. It possibly has. However, the COAS’s statement was interpreted as dismissive of Nepal’s longstanding demands and an injury to Nepal’s pride. Along with Nepal’s provocative move to amend the Constitution and release a new map to claim sovereignty over the disputed regions, India’s missteps have made a negotiated settlement difficult.

2. KP Sharma Oli’s cynical politics

India’s blunders created the perfect opportunity for Nepal’s beleaguered prime minister to exploit. By the end of April, Nepal’s prime minister was firefighting factionalism in his own party and reportedly lost his grip on both the party secretariat and the Standing Committee. His seat was wobbling.

At the centre of the problem lay his worsening relationship with party colleague and former Prachanda, who saw in Oli’s dictatorial actions a betrayal of the internal arrangement that had been struck. Amid talks of an imminent split within the party, Oli has accused his colleague of being “an Indian agent” and Prachanda, who had let go of his turn as the prime minister in favour of a five-year term for Oli, later called it a “mistake”.

As columnist Yubaraj Ghimire writes in Indian Express, “Six months ago, Prachanda made a statement that he has agreed to let Oli continue for the five-year term, apparently after Oli assured him that he would function as party chief with all executive authority. However, Oli takes all major decisions and exercises the party chief’s duties, reportedly without informing Prachanda at times.”

Along with this inter-party crisis, Oli was also battling serious corruption charges over Chinese deals and mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis with youth-led protests rising in different parts of the country over administration’s botched response and incompetence. After claiming that Nepalis have “natural immunity” from coronavirus, Oli then sought to blame India for the fiasco.

Facing a revolt at home and within his party for his administrative failures, the bungling of the crisis, dubious Chinese deals and betrayal of party colleagues’ trust, Oli found in the Kalapani controversy a ready weapon to light the nationalism fuse, stifle public criticism, get his inter-party rivals on board and distract from his failures by rallying Nepalese people around the flag.

Each of Oli’s escalatory tactics, be it passing the Constitutional amendment for a new map that includes Indian territories, floating an outlandish theory that “Indian coronavirus was more lethal than Chinese, laying the cause for the pandemic in Nepal solely at India’s door, calling Nepal the “birthplace of Lord Ram”, and Ayodhya in India “fake”, or accusing Indian ambassador to Nepal of conspiring with Oli’s party rivals in NCP to unseat him — were aimed at playing the nationalism card by stoking anti-India sentiments to divert attention for his failures.

Achyut Wagle observes in Kathmandu Post: “Oli is using all possible tactics of threats, persuasion and political muscle-flexing to retain both his positions of prime minister and party chair. But this time around, the opposition seems determined not to spare him without making him sacrifice at least one out of the two positions. The accumulated inefficiencies of his government and latest unfounded rants like ‘India is plotting to oust him and his opponents are colluding to the cause’ have forced many of his earlier supporters to leave the sinking ship.”

Oli may have averted the crisis, for now, through his careful manoeuvring and pliability of Nepal president Bidya Devi Bhandari but anti-India card is a game of diminishing returns.

3. Rise of Nepal’s nationalism

Oli found it easier to whip up anti-India sentiments due to recent churns in Nepali politics. India’s alleged “interference” during Nepal’s constitutional process in 2015 — Indian media even circulated a ‘seven-point demand for amendments to the Constitution citing sources in external affairs ministry — and the economic hardship caused by the blockade (India denies involvement, but no one buys it) that came right after two devastating earthquakes that killed 9000 people made the mostly young Nepali citizens hostile towards New Delhi.

Here, India’s ‘special relationship’ with Nepal and the legacy of history has become a burden on New Delhi — making India appear as the hegemon out to stifle Nepal’s natural rise and resisting the aspiration of its politicians and polity to shake off ‘India’s protectorate’ status and chart an autonomous foreign policy. India doesn’t even need to ‘micromanage’ Nepal’s politics, the topographical claustrophobia caused by India’s proximity is enough to arise such sentiments among the new generation of Nepali citizens and elite who feel no ‘special affinity’ towards India.

4. Kathmandu’s balancing strategy

Nepal has been adept at playing the balancing game between India and China, and it is not a recent phenomenon coinciding with China’s meteoric rise. It was used by Nepal’s erstwhile monarchy as well as its politicians. The centrifugal force in Nepal’s politics is to create space for itself by untying the strands of “special relationship”, loosening the grip of India-Nepal 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship and chart a closer strategic, civil and political relationship with China, whose interest and influence in Nepal has grown steadily in Nepal.

There is, nevertheless, a subtle but perceptible shift in Nepal’s hedging strategy. While earlier the ‘China card’ helped Nepal obtain specific concessions from New Delhi, Beijing’s rise has opened up more options for Kathmandu while simultaneously forcing India to recalibrate its Nepal policy and double down on better and faster delivery of projects. In this, Nepal is not unique, but the trouble arises from Nepal’s growing ideological and political affinity towards Beijing, challenging India’s deep cultural, religious and economic bond.

To quote Bharat Bhushan in Business Standard, “Under Oli’s leadership of both the government and the party, closeness to China is being flaunted at an altogether new level. Ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Kathmandu in October 2019, the NCP organised a symposium on “Xi Jinping Thought”. CCP leaders addressed their Nepalese comrades in a “knowledge sharing exercise”. Nepal also voted in favour of the controversial Chinese security law being applied in Hong Kong as a member of UN Human Rights Council.”

Going by the Chinese strategy of using proxies in the neighbourhood to keep India tied down and preoccupied in South Asian theatre, it doesn’t call for a great leap of reason to deduce that Beijing may have been moving the pieces behind the scenes during the current crisis.

5. Chinese interference

This impression has gained ground all the more because of China’s recent and blatant interference in Nepal’s domestic politics. China is shifting its strategy in strategy in Nepal and has utilized India’s missteps deftly to position itself as a strong player. For instance, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Hou Yanqi, has been holding a series of meetings at different stages of the intra-party crisis with Nepal’s NCP.

During April-May, when factionalism threatened to rip apart the party along Prachanda and Oli factions, Hou sat down with the rival factions in a volley of meetings to persuade the warring groups to stay united. Often, Hou’s interference went beyond Nepal’s red lines, broke protocols and raised questions that were brushed under the carpet by both Chinese side and those in power in Nepal.

In May, for instance, the Chinese ambassador’s tête-à-tête was timed to precede crucial ruling party secretariat meeting, and the subject of the meeting was never divulged. “As per the diplomatic code of conduct, foreign ministry officials should be present at such meetings, but we were not informed,” Nepal’s Kathmandu Post reported, quoting a ministry official who added: “there are no institutional records of the meetings and we don’t know what the talking points were.”

These meetings again took place in July when NCP was on the verge of a split. Nepal’s media reported that “over the past days, Hou has met with President Bhandari, PM Oli, two senior leaders of the ruling party and former prime ministers Madhav Kumar Nepal Jhalanath Khanal and some government ministers.”

Interference in Nepal’s politics by its bigger neighbours isn’t new, but the way these interferences are received in Nepal is instructive. A former diplomat in Nepal, Lokraj Baral, was quoted as saying in Kathmandu Post “earlier, the Indian ambassadors would involve themselves in our internal affairs, and now it is the Chinese’s turn… When the Indian ambassadors did the same thing, we called it interference… But the same does not apply to the Chinese. Only the media have raised this issue, but the political leadership and public intellectuals have not thought about it that way.”

This is the result of China’s projection of soft power and careful positioning of its image as a ‘selfless benefactor’ in contrast with India’s dominant image of a bumbling, rude hegemon.

Give Nepal the ‘Brexit’ it wants

To break free of this structural issue in bilateral ties, India needs to revamp its approach towards Nepal, and show political will in removing the British-era deadwood that is dragging down and impacting bilateral ties. India needs to shift the lever of its approach towards Nepal from geostrategic and security-based to a relationship based on capacity building, connectivity projects and cross-border assistance. India has already been stepping in this direction, as Xavier elaborates in his essay for Brookings India, but these projects — be it new rail and road links, an electronic cargo system, inland waterway navigation plans — have not got proper advertisement.

Second, if Nepal wants a ‘Brexit’ from India and looks upon the ‘special relationship’ as a colonial tool to stifle its play, then India should show political will in dismantling the poisonous structure and thoroughly revamp the relationship, putting all issues on the table. If that means borders will become harder and it will be difficult for Nepalis to work in India, so be it.

As the National University of Singapore director C Raja Mohan writes in Indian Express, “If Delhi wants a normal and good neighbourly relationship with Kathmandu, it should put all major bilateral issues on the table for renegotiation — including the 1950 treaty, national treatment to Nepali citizens in India, trade and transit arrangements, the open border and visa-free travel.”

Nepal must be made aware of the costs involved in pulling away from the partnership and allowed to reset ties. That would address the reflexive anti-Indianism in Nepal’s politics, and reduce the space for cynical manoeuvering.

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