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Why is Nepal slouching towards Beijing?

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The destiny of Nepal has been intertwined with India from centuries. Present-day Nepal may have been unified by King Prithvi Narayan Shah (1779 – 1850), but the presence of Indian rulers began much earlier in Nepal. Lichhavis defeated Kirat kings in Kathmandu valley and ruled from circa 400 to 750. Lichhavis originated from present-day Vaishali in Bihar.

Notwithstanding, the leaders of Nepal taking cudgels with India for the furtherance of their own agenda, people of Nepal do not see India as being projected by their leaders. But subterranean anti-India feelings have begun, especially after 2015 blockade. People of Nepal blame India for the hardship that blockade caused to them. A lie told a hundred times may begin to look like a truth after some time.

Some Nepalis perceive India as a big brother bully in the region. The foreign policy of any nation must start with the neighbouring countries. As they say, you cannot change your neighbours in the context of countries. India helped Bangladesh in 1971 because the people of Bangladesh wanted separation from West Pakistan. In the 21st century, it would be unthinkable otherwise to do so by any country.

Nepal’s main grudge against India is its various Treaties which they now consider are unequal while dealing with a sovereign nation. Sugauli treaty of 1816 signed between the British and Nepal is over 200 years old. And if one sees the fine print of the treaty, one will notice that the treaty has not been signed by the king or the Prime Minister of Nepal but by their representatives, later ratified by the Government under duress. Even at that time – more than 200 hundred years ago, Nepal considered treaty to be disadvantageous to Nepal. And in all good wisdom, it needs to be reviewed. According to the treaty Nepal ceded all territories captured by it to the west of river Kali and certain territories in the south to the British Empire. For the discussion of this paper, we shall only touch upon the boundary marked by river Kali between India and Nepal and not discuss territories ceded in the east and the south.

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Main frictional point of the two nations has been the alignment of Kali river from its source to the point where it joins river Kali/ Sarda at Kalapani. Perception of both countries differ. Nepal thinks its origin is from the Limpiyadhura whereas India thinks it is below the Lipulekh pass. Because at the time of signing Sugauli treaty in 1816 there was no proper cartographic map of the area available and attached with the treaty.

Words play a big role in understanding the origin or the history of the place. Dhura in Nepali means a “RIDGE”. Word Dhura is suffixed by Nepali to name a place. There is no word as Dhura in Garhwali or Kumaoni of Uttarakhand which is immediately west of river kali. Limpiyadhura or Mangshyadhura (east of Limpiyadhura) therefore, to me, appears to have been named by Nepal forces when they were in occupation of Kumaon from 1790 – 91 till 1816. However, it will be worth mentioning that there does exist a village called Dhura in Garhwal, little short of Lansdowne. This village could have been established by Nepali forces when they were in occupation of Garhwal or the village came up during the time when Lansdowne was a Regimental centre of the 2nd Gorkha Rifles during the British time, needs to be verified. But there is a district named Dhadheldhura in western Nepal and a place called Khalasidura in Darjeeling. I will leave it to the readers to draw a conclusion.

Let us leave aside the names and conjectures and discuss the disputed origin of Kali River. Both India and Nepal agreed to set up the India-Nepal Joint Technical Level Boundary Committee to review the boundary issues in 1981- to find a reasonable solution. The Joint Committee has completed nearly 97 per cent of the work of 1850 Kms long land border between India and Nepal. Only two points of contention which could not be resolved by them were recommended to be dealt by the Foreign Secretaries/ Ministers of both the countries.

Nepal accuses India of not responding to their requests made three times since Nov 2019 to hold the Joint meeting to sort out the boundary issue. Therefore, Nepal took unilateral decision to assimilate territory up to Limppiyadhura (335 square kilometres) which was till now being shown as a part of Uttarakhand, India. Nepal parliament unanimously passed the proposal to do so and a new map of Nepal was published. This has created a tension in border districts in Dahrchula and Champawat areas. Trigger to do so is believed to have been 05 Aug 2019 decision to divide the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir into two Union Territories and publication of the new map of India in which all areas west of Lipulekh pass have been shown as Indian territory.

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The question to ponder is, could this situation have been avoided? And if so, who is to be blamed for the neglect of the issue, as important as border settlement? In my opinion, a large part of the blame lies in the door of India’s Foreign Ministry (Nepal desk). All neighbours of India consider India as a big bully giving scant respect to the sovereignty of their being. It is this attitude of India that neighbours like Nepal, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives wish to disengage with India. And China is ever ready to quickly fill that vacuum. Our foreign policy seems to have no clear vision whether in terms of neighbouring countries or the world. We do take some decision and sleep over it, unlike China which goes all out to take control of the situations. A recent case of losing development of railway line from Chabahar port to Zahedan is a case in point. We have not only lost a project but a trusted friend because of the lackadaisical attitude of the foreign office and the Finance ministry.

Way Forward

  • Lipulekh pass is important for India for its strategic reasons and has been in control of the area after Chinese aggression in 1962. India has built a motorable road to Lipulekh pass which was inaugurated on 08 Jun 2020.
  • Nepal claims it is her territory as per the Sugauli treaty of 1816 which demarcates the boundary between the countries based on the Kali river. However, the origin of the Kali river has not been defined and marked on any map in Sugauli treaty.
  • It is unfortunate that the situation has come to such a passé where new maps have been published by both countries. It could have been avoided.
  • A renowned team of hydrologists should have been consulted to establish the origin of the river Kali, like USGS (United States Geological Survey) and put the issue to rest once for all.
  • If the USGS verdict favoured Nepal, India could have bought/leased the area from Nepal and due consideration paid, or
  • There could have been suitable exchanges of areas by both the sides like it was done with Bangladesh where various enclaves were exchanged with the satisfaction of both the countries. For the long-term border solution, give and take policy needs to be accepted, like in the case of Bangladesh wherein she received 111 enclaves and India 51. Citizens were given a choice to choose their destiny with the country they like. Case in point is the area of Susta* which remains to be resolved with Nepal.

*(Susta — is an enclave east of river Gandaki/Natayani). Nepal considers Susta as a part of its west Nawalprasi district. Whereas India considers it to be part of West Champaran district of Bihar and it is presently administered by India.)

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Col Dr. Shiv Om Rana
Col Dr. Shiv Om Rana
Retired as Colonel in the Indian Army.


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