The India-Nepal Dispute: What, and Why Now?

10 Jul, 2020    ·   5703

Yash Vardhan Singh argues that there are clear indications suggesting that Beijing is leveraging its relationship with Nepal to place indirect pressure on India

The India-Nepal territorial dispute around the Kalpani-Limpaidhura-Lipulekh trijunction area stems only in part from the ambiguity around the original boundary settlement. The present flare up is a result of a combination of factors: India’s strategic concerns; deterioration in India-Nepal relations; Beijing’s steady inroads into Nepal; and deteriorating India-China relations.

A Brief Overview of India-Nepal Border Issues
The India-Nepal border was originally delineated by the 1816 Sugauli Treaty, which established the river Kali (Sharda, Mahakali) as the boundary, with territory east of the river going to Nepal. The Kalapani-Limpaidhura-Lipulekh trijunction territorial dispute centres on the source of the River Kali. Nepal’s stance is that that the river originates from a stream north-west of Lipulekh, bringing Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, and Lipulekh within its territory. India’s stand is that the river originates in springs below the Lipulekh, and therefore the area falls within Pithoragarh District in India’s Uttarakhand state. Both sides have British-era maps to assert their positions.

Recent Flare-Up
India recently inaugurated the Darchula-Lipulekh pass link road, cutting across the disputed Kalapani area, which is used by Indian pilgrims travelling to Kailash Mansarovar. The Nepalese government protested this move, pointing out that the construction of the road amounted to territorial encroachment. Kathmandu subsequently released a map displaying the tri-junction area as Nepalese territory. India responded by releasing maps that supported its position, and called for talks for a resolution of the impasse.

However, Nepal granted constitutional validity to its stance through the introduction of a constitutional amendment, and began tightening border security measures. Two days after the inauguration of the link road, Nepal’s foreign minister said that the country plans to increase border security posts along the India-Nepal border, which according to him were inadequate in comparison to India’s. This is a departure from the status quo, and points towards a hardening of this international boundary.

China Factor
The tension over this territorial dispute stems from the fact that it is a strategic trijunction between India, China, and Nepal. The Kalapani area is under India’s control with Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) observation posts. Increased connectivity in border areas is critical for border patrolling and quick mobilisation, and New Delhi views it as being crucial for dealing with “difficult neighbours.”

Control of the Kalapani trijunction enables India to position itself at a physically strategic elevation, allowing Indian posts to monitor the Tibetan highland passes, which could prove crucial in the event of a Sino-Indian conflict. This consideration was vindicated in the 2017 India-China military standoff in Doklam, during which Chinese officials stated that China’s Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) could enter India with ease through other border trijunctions like Kalapani or Kashmir. In 2020, following the inauguration of the road by India, Nepal’s Armed Police Force (APF) set up a new border post close to Lipulekh. The APF is a paramilitary wing in which China has invested heavily.

Recent political developments in Nepal, with the National Communist Party (NCP) coming to power, has increased China’s influence in Kathmandu. Beijing has been involved in managing rifts within the NCP—the most recent one was in May 2020—which is indicative of Beijing’s influence on the country’s politics. Increasing Chinese investment in physical infrastructure like the trans-himalayan railways, and Nepal joining the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), etc. point to Beijing’s growing economic influence as well.

On the other hand, despite the long history of bilateral relations, the India-Nepal relationship has often run into problems in the past decade. For example, being a landlocked country, Nepal depends considerably on India for access to essential goods. The alleged ‘unofficial blockade’ of 2015 by India, which led to disruption of essential fuel supplies during the Madhesi protests in Nepal, further dented bilateral trust. This incident spurred Kathmandu to strengthen its alternative to India, thereby intensifying its tilt towards China.

Big Picture
There is possible correlation between Chinese strategic objectives and the revived Nepalese claim on Kalapani, despite Nepal’s Prime Minister Oli stating that “everything we do is self-guided.” To illustrate, despite frictions, New Delhi and Kathmandu have already made substantial past strides towards the resolution of the border dispute. The two countries had established a Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee to delineate their common borders and resolve territorial disputes. By 2007, this joint initiative led to 98 per cent of the 1850-km border being delineated. The two sides have also used high-level bilateral channels to keep border disputes from flaring up in the past.

In the big picture of deteriorating China-US relations, Beijing is increasing pressure along borders to deter India’s alignment with the US, and to assert itself as an ascendant power in the post COVID-19 world order. The possibility of Chinese influence over the Nepalese government to exhibit hostility towards India also fits into the wider pattern of Beijing’s aggressive posturing vis-à-vis Hong Kong, Taiwan and the South China Sea. The spike in India-Nepal tensions coincides with India’s rising border tensions with China in Ladakh and Sikkim. Overall, there are clear indications suggesting that Beijing is leveraging its relationship with Nepal to put indirect pressure on India.

Yash Vardhan Singh is a Research Assistant with the Centre for Internal and Regional Security (IReS), IPCS.