India and Nepal have hit a stalemate with an official high level dialogue unlikely anytime soon. Rolling the ball into Nepal’s court, India has made it clear that it will be in no hurry to initiate a dialogue amid ongoing tensions over the border dispute.
It is also learnt that the political tempers could have been cooled following a scheduled phone call between Prime Ministers Narendra Modi and KP Sharma Oli on 20 May, but it was called off at the eleventh hour.
Nepal’s House of Representatives adopted the Constitutional Amendment Bill unanimously on Saturday, endorsing the country’s new political map in its national emblem. The Bill is expected to be adopted by the Upper House after discussion on Tuesday and receive the President’s assent to come into effect. The new map incorporates nearly 400 sq kms of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as Nepalese territory, including areas claimed by India.
“This artificial enlargement of claims is not based on historical facts or evidence and is not tenable. It is also violative of our current understanding to hold talks on outstanding boundary issue.”MEA spokesperson Anurag Shrivastava said on Saturday
‘Offered Foreign Secretary-Level Phone Call, Nepal Didn’t Respond’: India
Since then sources in India have claimed that New Delhi was willing to have a dialogue with Kathmandu and the same was offered even right before the amendment was moved in its parliament, but there was no response to the offer of talks.
Sources allege that PM Oli has not spoken the full truth to his country’s lawmakers. “Much before the Bill was tabled in the parliament, we offered foreign secretary-level phone call, video call and also the visits of the two foreign secretaries. However, the Nepalese side did not respond to our offer and then they ended up passing the Bill,” said a source in Delhi.
“We do not know why PM Oli and his government did not tell Nepalese people or parliament about our offer of the talks because we always keep hearing that we never offered FS level virtual conference or even calls. So this was offered,” added the source.
Kathmandu Rejects India’s Claims
However, sources in Kathmandu outrightly rejected India’s claims, calling it as ‘white lies’. In November last year, Nepal protested against the political maps re-issued by India following reorganisation of Jammu Kashmir and Ladakh into two union territories. It raised the red flag this year after Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated a new 75 km long road link in Uttarakhand’s Pitthoragarh from Dharchula to Lipulekh bordering China, aimed at reducing the Kailash Mansarovar Yatra by several days.
The Indian Ambassador to Nepal Vinay Kwatra was summoned by the Foreign Office in a sharp escalation and Kathmandu handed him a diplomatic protest note which also sought for urgent foreign secretary level talks on the border issue.
India in its official response on 9 May said, “Both sides are also in the process of scheduling foreign secretary level talks which will be held once the dates are finalised between the two sides after the two societies and governments have successfully dealt with the challenge of COVID-19 emergency.”
Sources in Kathmandu claim that since then India has not offered any talks – physical or virtual – and is lying about having made a proposal just before the amendment to endorse the new political map was moved in the Nepalese parliament.
Did Nepal Clear the Move in an Attempt to Negotiate From a Position of Strength?
However, in what is of crucial importance it is learnt that following Prime Minister Oli’s initiative, Prime Minister Modi was all set to ring him up on 20 May at 4pm. The conversation would have focussed on the broader bilateral ties and COVID-19 cooperation. It would have subsequently stressed on the FS level mechanism to resolve the border dispute. However, when the new political map was published and released by the Nepalese Land Reform Ministry at 2pm that afternoon, the conversation got derailed. Kathmandu was informed by the Indian Prime Minister’s Office after an hour that the scheduled call was being cancelled.
A question then arises as to why did the Nepalese ministry not hold on to the release of the map if Prime Minister Oli was on board for the conversation with PM Modi?
Did PM Oli clear the move in an attempt to negotiate from a position of strength?
Indian sources have accused PM Oli of politicising the boundary issue as a political tool to strengthen his hold over the communist party and government at a time when he faces internal criticism and domestic protests over his handling of the COVID-19 crisis.
“These actions do not reflect any seriousness on their part . These actions are myopic and self serving to further a limited political agenda,” remarked a source.
‘Not the Right Time to Talk’
“Nepal has encroached on Indian territory in Narsahi and Susta area in Bihar by settling its own population and through various construction activities. Government of Nepal has recently decided to form an expert team to ‘find and collect’ evidence to establish Nepal’s ownership in Kalapani and Susta areas after publishing a new map and passing a Bill in its Lower House to amend ‘Coat of Arms.’ This move has even surprised many in Nepal and shows that the map was hastily drawn without any basis or historical evidence,” added officials in Delhi.
India and Nepal have delineated around 98 percent of the boundary which has been initialled at the level of surveyor generals of two countries. The outstanding boundary issues were discussed in 1997-1998 and then in 2014 the committee was set up at the level of foreign secretaries.
New Delhi also says that in 2019, it indicated to the Nepalese side India’s willingness to move ahead on boundary matters but there was no response. Former Indian Ambassador to Kathmandu Ranjit Rae believes things need to cool down before any dialogue is possible.
“Passage of the Bill will make the issue more difficult to resolve , we cannot say when will talks happen. Both countries must eventually talk and resolve the issue through negotiation but now is not the right time to talk. A calmer atmosphere should prevail,” said Rae.
Prime Ministers Modi and Oli last held a telephonic conversation on 10 April this year. The Chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) – the external intelligence agency looked upon with much apprehension by the Nepalese – was also reportedly hosted for dinner by PM Oli in November last year, soon after the row over release of new political maps by Delhi indicating willingness to resolve matters through talks. India has also been supporting Nepal bilaterally as well as under the SAARC framework in providing support and medical assistance to fight the pandemic.
Territorial Claims of Nepal Will Become a Permanent Irritant in Bilateral Relations
But ties worsened with the road link inauguration in May and Indian Army Chief Gen Narwane’s veiled remarks alluding to possible role of China in the border dispute.
With the 20 May scheduled phone call between the top leaders cancelled by an upset New Delhi and KP Oli consolidating his domestic position by playing the nationalism - anti-India card, indications are that ties for now will remain in deep freeze. India has said the onus is now on Kathmandu to create a positive atmosphere for talks even as inauguration of bilateral development and connectivity projects remain on track.
“I do not know what is positive environment. It is an ambiguous statement. Nepal is very concrete on its agenda and wants to talk on border issue. So no precondition is needed in this India relationship as it will only hamper the dialogue,” said Bishnu Rijal, Central Committee Member of the ruling NCP (Nepal Communist Party) speaking from Kathmandu. He hoped that existing mechanisms as well as talks at the level of highest political leadership can be worked out soon.
For now the extended territorial claims of Nepal beyond Kalapani and endorsement of new maps along with nationalist rhetoric will become possibly a permanent irritant in the unique bilateral relations of neighbours with open borders. It will be wait-and-watch for India.
(Smita Sharma is an independent journalist and tweets at @Smita_Sharma.)