In an unprecedented move, on 29 May, the Nepal Army released a strongly worded statement against two media reports in India that sought to press divisions between the Army and Nepal government over the border dispute with India. Stating that the two media reports titled “In a huge setback to PM Oli, Nepal’s new political map hits a road block” published in Hindustan Times on 27 May, and another by tfipost.com, “Oli ordered Nepal Chief of Army to rebut Indian Army Chief’s remarks, the Nepalese general said ‘No thanks’ were ‘woven with lies, innuendo and mischief’” – the statement said that nothing could be “farther from the truth” than these write-ups which claim that the Nepal Army chief refused to obey the instructions of the government to rebut the 15 May statement of Indian Army Chief General MM Navarane.
Nepal Army Directly Reacts to Indian Media Reports For the First Time
The General had said that the border dispute may have been caused at the behest of a third country – implying the role of China. The statement further said that, “Nepali Army regrets the reckless, mischievous and irresponsible write-up and its contents with scant respect to the truth and facts.” It said that the write-ups are clearly “intended to undermine the Nepali Army as an institution and its constitutional obligation.”
This is noteworthy, as it is for the first time that the Nepal Army has directly reacted to media reports in India.
Since the 15 May statement of the Indian Army Chief, some prominent media houses in India have resorted to Nepal-bashing over the Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura disputes, with one TV channel calling Nepal a “Chinese puppet”. This has led to huge public angst against Indian media in Nepal. Such media stories not only create an adverse environment in bilateral ties, but also have the potential to derail the long-existing friendly relations between the two armies, especially at a time when the Indian government is looking at “constructive and positive” efforts towards the settlement of the border dispute with Nepal. Even Defence Minister Rajnath Singh has sent a conciliatory message to Nepal.
Nepal’s Internal Politics Over Lipulekh
Following the inauguration of a new road towards Lipulekh, above Kalapani, on 8 May by the Defence Ministry, the Nepal government issued a new map on 20 May which includes a 335 sq km strip as claimed by Nepal as its territory, north of Kumaon in India. Soon a proposal for amendment to the Constitution was registered and the all-party meeting held on 26 May fully endorsed the government’s decision to update the map in Nepal’s national emblem.
However, on 27 May, the parliament did not take up the proposal, stating that the opposition, the Nepali Congress (NC), had sought more time to discuss the matter in its Central Working Committee. The NC, on its part, clarified through a statement that it is not delaying the amendment process and is rather, behind the government for the move.
The government of Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli now has the backing of all opposition parties, given the public sentiment in Nepal over a matter of territorial integrity.
In fact, Nepal has not ever witnessed such unity in its foreign policy positioning with India. The amendment proposal, now re-tabled in the Parliament, is set to go through sooner than later.
- Since the border blockade of 2015, which is still fresh in the minds of the Nepali public, this is the second time that India-Nepal relations have hit rock bottom
- For Nepal PM KP Oli, the tables have turned very quickly in his favour, as, not many weeks ago, he was facing an intense struggle inside the party.
- To call the Kalapani, Lipulekh crisis as one ‘motivated by China’ is far-fetched, for this has been a long-standing issue between the two countries.
- Beijing’s silence over the recent development should be an indicator that it treats this matter as a bilateral issue between Nepal and India.
- That the communication channels have been either put off or not given adequate importance is also clear from the fact that the Nepali ambassador to India has not even been able to talk to the MEA to express Nepal’s viewpoint.
To Call India-Nepal Border Row As One ‘Motivated by China’, Is Taking It Too Far
For PM Oli, the tables have turned very quickly in his favour, as, not many weeks ago, he was facing an intense struggle inside the party. There could have been a possible break-up in the ruling Communist Party of Nepal with two prominent leaders – Prachanda and Madhav Kumar Nepal – voicing dissatisfaction over the government’s failure at governance and the handling of the COVID-19 crisis. It was believed that the Chinese had played an active role in keeping the party unity intact. But to call the Kalapani, Lipulekh crisis as one ‘motivated by China’ by the Indian Army Chief and the media is far-fetched, for this has been a long-standing issue between the two countries.
Beijing’s silence over the recent development should be an indicator that it treats this matter as a bilateral issue between Nepal and India.
Nepal had also issued a strong diplomatic note in November 2019 when India published a map showing new union territories of Jammu and Kashmir that incorporated the Kalapani areas in it that Nepal claims as its territory. Thus, the new map, along with the inauguration of the new road and the Army Chief’s statement, has created public resistance in Nepal.
Background of India-Nepal Border Dispute
The issue of boundary dispute is an emotive one. Nepal’s claim over this territory dates back to the Sugauli Treaty of 1816, which clearly demarcated the Kali River as the boundary between the two countries. However, the dispute has been mainly over the source of the river. While Nepali experts claim that the origin of the river is Limpiyadhura, the Indian side puts it at Kalapani. The former monarchs and oligarchs of Nepal maintained status quo on this issue, but it came to light after 1990 when Nepal truly turned towards democratic polity.
Maps issued by British India after the treaty show this region as Nepal’s territory, but by 1860, some manipulations could be noted.
The dispute is also often referred to the fact that post 1969, India withdrew all its military posts from Nepal set up in 1950 in the wake of China coming into Tibet, except the one at Kalapani. Many requests from Nepal to withdraw from there have subsequently not been accepted by India. In 2000, GP Koirala and Atal Bihari Vajpayee agreed for field survey, but troops were not withdrawn. In 2015, the then government of Sushil Koirala took strong objection over the India-China agreement on Lipulekh pass to use it for trade between the two countries. In fact, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Nepal wrote to both China and India expressing its dissatisfaction and claiming the Kalapani region as Nepal’s land. But in absence of any written agreement between India and Nepal on the boundary, the entire debate dates back to the 1816 Treaty which forms the basis of the boundary demarcation.
Nepali Ambassador to India Is Important – India Must Respond to Him ASAP
Since the border blockade of 2015, which is still fresh in the minds of the Nepali public, this is the second time that India-Nepal relations have hit rock bottom – so much so that India did not even send Republic Day greetings to Nepal on 28 May. It is clear that bilateral mechanisms have not worked in the best interest of the two countries, even when such a mechanism existed – that too at the foreign secretary level.
India displayed a certain amount of hesitation to hold talks even though it was agreed upon during External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Kathmandu in August 2019.
That the communication channels have been either put off or not given adequate importance is also clear from the fact that the Nepali ambassador to India has not even been able to talk to the MEA to express Nepal’s viewpoint. He is an important point of contact, and he must be given a response without delay. Experts from both sides have called for de-escalation of the situation, and are opting for dialogue as the only meaningful way forward. India and Nepal must heed this call. Neither country can afford to let the situation worsen further. Talk, they must.
(The author is a Nepali journalist, researcher based in New Delhi. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)