India and Nepal have successfully developed a cooperative mechanism to contain the Corona pandemic. They need to resolve border issues through peaceful diplomatic means as well
Amid the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, India-Nepal relations are witnessing a difficult phase as a long-time low-profile diplomatic row has now intensified between the two. Following Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh’s inauguration of the road section connecting Lipulekh pass with Dharchula in Pithoragarh, Uttarakhand, on May 8, social media went abuzz with hashtags such as #GoBackIndia and #BackOffIndia, with Nepal staking claim over the Lipulekh area. The new 80-kilometre link route developed by the Border Roads Organisation (BRO) in India is aimed at cutting down travel time for Kailash-Mansarovar pilgrims by almost 80 per cent. The newly-constructed road originates from Ghatiabagarh and terminates at Lipulekh Pass, the gateway to Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet.
Previously, Indian pilgrims had to undertake an arduous 90-km trek through treacherous high-altitude terrain running across the Indian State of Sikkim or through Nepal to reach the site. With the inauguration of the link road, travel time would be reduced by many days since the yatra will be carried out using vehicles. It is an engineering achievement of the BRO as the 80-km road spans altitudes between 6,000 and 17,060 feet.
Within 24 hours of the inauguration of the road, Kathmandu summoned India’s ambassador to protest against its inauguration. In a statement, the Nepal Communist Party (NCP), the country’s ruling party, said the road construction “violates Nepal’s sovereignty. [Our] serious attention has been drawn to the ‘inauguration’ by India of a link road to Lipulekh of Nepal via Nepali territory.” The statement was signed by the NCP’s chairman and Nepali Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli. Using strong language, it said, “In light of this development, the Government of Nepal calls upon the Government of India to refrain from carrying out any activity inside the territory of Nepal.”
The Indian side, too, pushed back Nepalese concerns, saying that the disputed region was “completely within the territory of India.” The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) stated, “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.” The MEA’s statement is in the same spirit as the one it made in November 2019 when India had again refuted Nepal’s alleged encroachment claims in the Kalapani region on India.
In fact, relations between the two countries had been strained since 2015 when India opposed Nepal’s newly-promulgated Constitution. What followed next was an economic blockade. Border tensions have renewed in the past six months. Particularly, following the abrogation of Article 370, which gave special privileges to the erstwhile State of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) and following the issuance of the Jammu and Kashmir Reorganisation Act, 2019, two new Union Territories of J&K and Ladakh came into existence on October 31.
With India releasing a new map, Kathmandu criticised New Delhi for prominently displaying Lipulekh in the border area of Kalapani. But despite its allegations that the new Indian map had wrongly depicted Kalapani as Indian territory, Kathmandu fell short of supporting its claims as the new map was no different than the previous one. It was the internal boundaries that were updated. No other changes were made in India’s international borders. Later, it had also come in the public domain that the officials of the Pakistani embassy allegedly held talks with the Nepalese politicians and even funded anti-India demonstrations in several parts of Nepal.
Time and again, Nepal has cited the Treaty of Sugauli as a legal document to back its claim in these regions. Surprisingly, the Archaeological Survey of Nepal and the MoFA have reportedly not been able to produce an original copy of the pact. Even after going through the document, there was no clear demarcation of the borders agreed between the then British Indian Government and the King of Nepal. It is only through the modern-day border management exercises that the two countries have demarcated the open border. A prominent Technical Committee formed in 1981 to resolve the border issues has already clarified 76 border points out of 78 and more than 180 strip maps based on Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have been established. In fact, most of the differences were identified and resolved in 2007. On the official front, India has stated that “strip maps pertaining to 98 per cent of the boundary have been agreed to and signed in 2007.”
Additionally, in 2016, the two Governments had constituted the Eminent Persons Group (EPG) on Nepal-India relations with a mandate to recommend measures and institutional framework with a view to elevate existing relations to a new height. The group has concluded its task and prepared a consensus report, which is yet to be made public. While Nepal has agreed with India that technicalities of the EPG report need to be worked out before it comes in the public domain, it is unfortunate that the Nepalese Government has failed to inform the same to its people and this is causing confusion.
In Nepal, it is a popular belief that it is a unilateral decision of India to not make the EPG report public. Meanwhile, considering the anti-India sentiment in Nepal, India is always depicted in a dark light. This may be paying off in the ruling Government’s political aspirations but is indeed not a wise act.
Notably, in the last 10 years, China has been attempting to manufacture artificial people-to-people relations with Nepal but it has failed tremendously. On the other hand, attempts are also being made to demolish the naturally existing people-to-people ties with India. In the long term, Nepal will have to realise the loss. Also, the Nepalese Government is well involved in the diplomatic exercises with India, including on border disputes. It has even gone on record to say that Nepal sees “diplomacy as the first and the last resort in mitigating any differences with India.” But had this been the case, a road inauguration in India would have been welcomed by it.
The 80-kilometre road construction was not an underground work that could be completed overnight without a close neighbour knowing about it, especially when there is an open border. The construction has very much been in line with India’s sovereign rights and a friendly neighbour like Nepal needs to understand this. To its right, Nepal has protested the road inauguration through an official statement. Still, the use of a strong language does not indicate the essence of the existing “special relations” between Nepal and India. Also, the use of common phrases and language in the statement issued by the ruling NCP indicated the involvement of the vested interest that aims to benefit politically on home ground.
To conclude, relations between India and Nepal are a product of the centuries-old deep-rooted people-to-people contacts of kinship and culture. They are neither artificially constructed nor based on distrust and blame-game. Hence, relations need to be cherished. And in case of differences, like every other close-knit family has, they need to be resolved through the diplomatic mechanism with a caution that even diplomacy should not hamper the demography of the “special relations” between the two countries.
It was a decade long war in Nepal which ousted centuries-old autocratic rule of the Shah kings that led to the establishment of democracy there. Therefore, as a democracy, Nepal has the best chance to interact with the biggest democracy in the world and use democratic tools to improve relations. It needs to critically introspect its diplomatic stances because in the worst of confrontations, countries have finally opted for reconciliation through diplomatic channels. With countries facing the COVID-19 challenge, India and Nepal have successfully developed a cooperative mechanism to contain it. The same needs to reflect in the border dispute mechanism as well.
(Writer: Rishi Gupta; Courtesy: The Pioneer)