The 1950 Indo-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship laid the foundation of the relationship between the two countries after independence. These accords cemented a “special relationship” between India and Nepal. The treaty also granted Nepalese the same economic and educational opportunities as Indian citizens in India, while accounting for preferential treatment to Indian citizens and businesses compared to other nationalities in Nepal. The Indo-Nepal border is open; Nepalese and Indian nationals may move freely across the border without passports or visas and may live and work in either country. However, Indians are not allowed to own land-properties or work in government institutions in Nepal, while Nepalese nationals in India are allowed to work in some Indian government institutions including the Indian military. Since time immemorial, people-to-people relations between Nepal and India have remained unique mainly because it is based on the twin pillars of an open border system and people-to-people contacts of kinship. Also, the over 80 % Hindu population in both countries integrate the people.
Given his Neighbourhood First Policy and the importance that Nepal holds in India’s strategic consideration, Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, visited Nepal four times during his tenure of six years, which reflects the priority that the Indian government accords to its relations with Kathmandu. Despite the close linguistic, marital, religious and cultural ties at a people-to-people level between Indians and Nepalese, all is not well between Nepal and India, at least at the government-to-government level.
The Genesis of the Problem
Kailash Mansarovar is a pilgrim’s paradise. The route to this site through the Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand is via Dharchula – Tawaghat- Lipulekh- Mansarovar. There was a proper road that existed from Dharchula to Tawaghat, but thereafter, it was a mule/foot track for 80 km till Lipulekh, running parallel and west of Kalinadi. From Lipulekh onwards there was a proper road/track till Kailash Mansarovar in Tibet/China. India started construction of the road along the same existing track alignment from Tawaghat to Lipulekh (a stretch of 80 km) in 2008 and the same was completed in 2020. In Aug 2019, India published a new political map after the abrogation of article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, which showed Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura as part of India. Subsequently, on 07 May 2020, India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh inaugurated the road of 80 km from Tawaghat to Lipulekh. This was the take-off point of friction between the two countries.
The construction of the road has reduced the travelling time of pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar from three weeks to one week. The road is extremely important to India not only for the movement of pilgrims to Kailash Mansarovar, tourism and trade but also has strategic significance for the logistic build-up and fast induction of troops against China.
Nepal Government has objected to this project claiming that the road is passing through its territory and the action of India is unilateral. This stance seemingly has the backing of China. There was also a growing discontent within Nepal against the Indian action. Therefore, to satisfy the hyper nationalistic ego of the domestic population and of the ruling communist party a resolution was passed in May 2020 by the Nepal government in the cabinet that Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura all are part of Nepal and should be taken back at all cost using the diplomatic and political means. Accordingly, a political map to this effect was also released by Nepal, showing these areas as part of their country. Nepal also claims that India has clandestinely shown these areas in their political map released last year. Indian troops are already stationed in the disputed areas for since long. Now, Nepal also has deployed Armed Police Force (APF) next to the Lipulekh border and has set up the APF border outpost at Kalapani and other border areas.
Whereas, the Indian Government firmly believes that the road in question is within the Indian territory and follows the same alignment of earlier existing track used by pilgrims visiting Kailash Mansarovar. India feels Nepal has never before raised any objection in the past when the road was being constructed for the last twelve years.
In the past, India and Nepal have resolved their border disputes in a friendly manner but their perceptions concerning Kalinadi, Lipulekh and Limiyadhura area differ. Both countries are claiming that Kalinadi, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura fall in their territory. Nepal cites historical evidence of the 1816 Treaty of Sugauli entered with British India in this regard. But India doesn’t adhere to the 1816 Suguali Treaty.
This border issue is not new, earlier in Jul 2000 talks were held between Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Nepal PM Girija Prasad Koirala. A field survey was proposed and a joint boundary committee was created. However, not much progress was made. In 2015, when India China signed an agreement in Beijing to make Lipulekh a trading post, Nepal objected. This is the second time in recent years that Indo-Nepal relations have witnessed a downswing. The first was in 2015 when the border blockade led by the Madhesi movement occurred. Within Nepal, India was blamed for being behind the blockade, whereas the reality was different. The relationship was recovering when the current stalemate arose.
Could we have handled the situation better?
It appears that India has not handled its smaller neighbours well enough, though China’s increasing influence in Nepal is a crucial factor. Some experts feel that India is “arrogant, complacent and indifferent” when dealing with smaller neighbours. India does not have an intimate engagement with the smaller neighbours, which would have enabled it to have its ear to the ground and deal with the issue before it became a crisis. “There is no early warning system”, and disputes “cannot be allowed to become a crisis.” “Nepalese nationalism is very robust” and that India has to be sensitive to Nepalese nationalist sentiment among the people.
But in its bid to reset the country’s relations with India, the Nepalese Prime Minister, K.P. Sharma Oli directly spoke to PM Modi on the phone to greet him on the occasion of India’s Independence Day on 15 August 2020. Subsequently, three senior-most dignitaries of India, including the RAW Chief, Army Chief, and Foreign Secretary, visited Nepal between October and December last year, to mend the differences between the two countries. Such visits re-opened the communication channels that had remained stalled for over a year.
Consequently, the air services between Nepal and India were resumed. Importantly, the Nepalese and Indian authorities reviewed an all-important gamut of bilateral issues in the Sixth Meeting of the Nepal-India Joint Commission (JC), co-chaired by Nepalese and Indian foreign ministers in New Delhi on 15 January 2021. Issues discussed in this forum ranged from COVID-19 vaccine(s) to boundary and border management, connectivity, economic cooperation, trade, transit, power, water resources, culture, and education. Set up in 1987, the JC happens to be the highest-level mechanism between the two countries to discuss bilateral issues. The two sides expressed satisfaction over the progress made in implementing different bilateral projects.
For quite some time, the trust deficit between Nepal and India largely affected the implementation of various Indian-aided projects in Nepal. At times, some of the Indian investment projects had been attacked. Indian notes of higher denominations such as INR 500 or INR 2,000 are still banned in Nepal, which causes difficulties for people while they travel to each other’s country. Besides, Indians are expected to possess a work permit to work in Nepal. Vehicles with Indian number plates find it difficult to operate in Nepal. Nepal has not yet opened its border with India that has been closed for nearly 10 months on the pretext of COVID-19. The growing rivalry between India and China to increase their influence in Nepal is also a problem in creating a healthy environment for investment in the country.
Immediately after the JC meeting, India provided one million doses of Covid vaccine to Nepal as grant assistance to generate goodwill among the Nepalese people. The Oli government, which has been struggling for its survival for quite some time due to the protests made by the rival faction of the ruling Nepal Communist Party and some of the opposition parties over the issue of dissolution of the Nepalese parliament, has appreciated India for this support. There is a feeling that India’s vaccine diplomacy gave a jolt to China, which was expanding its footprint all over South Asia, including Nepal.
India and Nepal have announced their willingness to resolve the issue through negotiations. India is open to engaging with all its neighbours based on mutual sensitivity and mutual respect, in an environment of trust and confidence. This is a continuous process and requires constructive and positive efforts. India- Nepal ties are far too deep-rooted to be broken because of the China factor.
India and Nepal share historic, religious, cultural and economic ties. Over 30,000 Nepali citizens serve in India’s Gorkha regiments;1.5 million Nepali migrants work in India’s informal economy; India pays a pension to 1,25,000 retired soldiers and civilians. Modi government follows the policy of ‘neighbours first’ and ‘shared prosperity’ concerning neighbouring countries.
India is often seen as an expansionist or a regional bully in Nepal. They fear that India is trying to occupy its territory illegally. There’s continuous rhetoric in India that Nepal is merely a satellite or proxy state – and recently a communist or pro-China state. Both countries need to avoid rhetoric and threats.
Both nations are aware that they cannot antagonise the other beyond a point or afford to nurture a volatile relationship. There are lots to gain from a mutually beneficial approach. The “me only” myopic approach of one-upmanship has never been beneficial and sustainable in any boundary dispute. Maturity should be shown by both sides. Both countries need to adopt an open and conciliatory approach respecting each other sensitivities.
How can India and Nepal come to a mutual solution?
India and its people have immense goodwill for Nepal. Indian diplomacy needs to be mature if it wants to get Nepal back on its side. Talk, talk, and talk. There is no better solution than to talk to each other while trying to find a solution and arriving at a negotiated settlement. However, that talk has to be based on finding a mutually agreed formula, not on one party dominating the agenda and conversation. Both countries have a lot in common: geography, history, culture, language, and religion. If they can’t talk and find a solution, who else can?
If India and Bangladesh can mutually agree to address most of their border disputes, why can’t India and Nepal do the same? By bringing in security forces and highly securitizing the issue, it will be difficult for the country to negotiate in terms of giving while talking. I think Nepal should first work towards employing all its political and diplomatic capital on a bipartisan basis in asking India to reach a comprehensive agreement on all bilateral border disputes.
If not, the next option is to approach the International Court of Justice and get a legal verdict. Nepalese claim is weak, and the historical and documentary evidence is strongly in favour of India, implying that India has nothing to fear if the matter goes before an international body. India has been tardy in rolling out the evidence that makes a strong case for India.
Other areas of Cooperation
Considering India’s economic and strategic importance for Nepal, cultural ties and people-to-people contact with India needs to be enhanced. It also needs to create a congenial environment in the country to enable India to complete its projects in Nepal on time. Nepal could further attract Indian investment in the hydropower sector in the Himalayan river system. Also, Indian companies in Nepal should be given adequate protection in the country.
Since Nepal’s dependence on India is more than India’s dependence on Nepal, it is all the more necessary to balance such relations. To increase India’s dependence on Nepal, it is necessary to place the increase in trade and economic activities at the forefront. Interdependence between Nepal and India is the secret to resetting the relations between the neighbours. Towards this end, the two countries could also build an international corridor along the 1,753-kilometre Nepal-India border region to facilitate greater movement of commercial vehicles between the two countries. The focus should be given to more air, road, train, and waterways connectivity.
India’s territorial security is increasingly being challenged from two fronts, Pakistan and China. Adding another front will not be in India’s interest. We should be live to the changing global and regional geopolitics. Mainland India can never think of developing economically as an island amid a sea of poverty and instability. Nepal and India’s relations have to be friendly and cooperative. There are so many areas for mutual gains. However, India has to play a very active role in keeping the relations that way. If India has the ambition to be a global power, it has to have a friendly neighbourhood.