The border stretch, not a land of ‘Peace’: Indo-Nepal

By: Archita Srivastava

For the first time since the deterioration of ties over the Kalapani boundary dispute, India and Nepal were likely to meet previous week, via videoconferencing to review projects funded by the Indian government, but row border issues raised again.

The endless counts of peaks and valleys, the first thaw was expected to freeze previous week via a meeting, still awaited. Amid pandemic, the nation is well aware of its nearest neighbor’s deeds. Ceaselessly, Nepal has been trying to intervene to the borders on the other hand hurting sentiments by claiming out ‘Real Ayodhya in Nepal.’  The Himalayan nation has always been a silent watcher but was well aware that the border issue could blow up anytime. Among other states Nepal stretch covers the northern states, Uttar Pradesh sharing a 599.3 km long open border with it touching seven districts – Pilibhit, Lakhimpur Kheri, Bahraich, Sravasti, Balrampur, Sidhharthnagar and Maharajganj.

So was this always the same, or the bilateral politics and instigation of external forces that contributed to the severity of the India-Nepal crisis. In order to look ahead and to restore, amend and revive the bilateral relationship, we must first consider why and how this dispute has erupted. It will be tempting to start with a new slate, but future visions will remain hollow until both sides learn from past mistakes.

The treaty, who claims what?

India has been in effective possession of this territory for at least sixty years, although Nepal claims it conducted a census there in the early 1950s and refers to the 1815 Sugauli Treaty as legitimising its claims. But India’s new road, up to the Lipulekh pass, is not an unprecedented change in the status quo. India has controlled this territory and built other infrastructure here before, besides conducting its administration and deploying military forces up to the border pass with China.

The region is of strategic importance, and the new road is now one of the quickest links between Delhi and the Tibetan plateau. In a 2015 statement, China also recognised India’s sovereignty by agreeing to expand trade through the Lipulekh pass. Finally, this is also an important route for thousands of Hindus who trek across the border with China every year to visit the sacred Mount Kailash. Given recurrent military tensions with China, the future potential of trade, and the religious symbolism of the region, India will certainly continue to exercise civilian and military control.

The diputed ‘No-Man’s Land’        

On 8th May, India’s Defense Minister virtually inaugurated a new 80-kilometre-long road in the Himalayas, linking to the border with China, at the Lipulek Pass. The Nepalese Government immediately objected that the road crosses the territory it claims and accused India of changing the status quo without diplomatic consultations.

Among the many escalations that have taken place since then, Nepal has deployed police forces to the area, did open-fire injuring one after three men were shot dead by the Nepalese police near the Indian-Nepal border in Bihar’s Kishanganj, summoned the Indian ambassador to Kathmandu, and launched a constitutional amendment to formalize and expand its territorial claims over approximately 400 sq km.

 It was when, Nepalese citizens allegedly hurled stones at the Sashatra Seema Bal (SSB) team on a routine patrol in “no man’s land,” also build up around 20 wood and concrete pillars to set up a fence on the no-man’s land which is 10 meters on Indian side on India-Nepal border near Tanakpur in Champawat district.

The structures came up earlier after which the Indian forces intervened.  The Nepalese people were claiming the land is theirs contrary to the Indian claims that the area is in ‘No Man’s Land’.

Pithoragarh and Champawat are the two districts of Uttarakhand that share a border with Darchula and Kairali districts of Nepal. However, authorities from Nepal had assured their Indian counterparts that the pillars will be removed soon

The intervention of the Nepalese doesn’t seemed to be ending this soon, as notified by near reports, when they tried installing 360 degree CCTV in the No-man’s land, India objecting to the act, also carried forward by installing 200 new border outposts (BOPs) across the border on its side.

India has conveyed its openness to a dialogue but does not seem to share Nepal’s sense of urgency: its initial statement agreed to a dialogue that might take place this very week.

Ban on TV channels

In the initial week of July, Nepal’s cable operators imposed a ban on all private news channels from India. This move comes in the midst of major online channel criticism over their coverage of Nepal, which people continue to portray in a bad light as Nepalese leadership.

International television distributors Multi-System Operators (MSOs) gave a final call to block all news channels except for India’s largest news network, Doordarshan.

The decision came into effect after Nepal’s Information and Broadcasting Minister Yubaraj Khatiwada during a press interaction said, “Nepal may seek political and legal remedies and also mobilize diplomatic channels against reports of Indian media attacking Nepal’s sovereignty and dignity.”

Outrage against Indian media reports was witnessed in Nepal after some news channels reported that Nepalese leaders, including Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli, and the Chinese ambassador to Nepal, Ambassador Hou Yanqi, were subjected to character assassination.

However, no official order was issued by the Nepalese government in this regard.

Definitely, this move prompted sharp reactions from New Delhi and resulted in Kathmandu initiated a diplomatic dialogue to resolve differences between the otherwise amicable neighbors.

Discussions between the two countries

Post the intervention and fencing in the borders that is claimed to be Indian territory, India asked Nepal to prohibit its citizens from “illegally” entering the Kalapani, Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Gunji Indian territories.

In a letter to the Nepali administration, an Indian official earlier this month said that Nepalese people in groups wanting to “illegally” enter into these Indian regions would create problems for both the countries.

However, local people informed that they have not been stopped while crossing to the aforementioned areas.

In its reply, the Nepalese authorities said that the movement of its citizens in Kalapani, Limpiyadhura and Gunji areas is “natural” as the regions belong to the country.

The Nepalese Political Map– Nepal redrew the country’s political map through a constitutional amendment, adding the strategically important Lipulekh, Kalapani and Limpiyadhura regions that India maintains belong to it. This further initiated the border tensions between the two.

India had termed as “untenable” the “artificial enlargement” of the territorial claims by Nepal.

The Government of Nepal intended to send its recently updated map to India, Google and the international community by mid-August, the Minister said.

The China Factor

Although, it is unreasonable to blame China for creating the border crisis, the counter-factual is clear: even if we hypothetically imagined China away, Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli and Nepali nationalists would always have reacted negatively to the Indian road announcement. For many years, Delhi was well aware that the issue was prone to politicisation in Nepal.

Yet, it does not mean that Beijing has not supported or further instigated Kathmandu to take on a more assertive position, especially against the backdrop of the China-India military standoff in Ladakh. It is highly debatable about the China factor, and it is thus simplistic, if not outright harmful to call Prime Minister Oli’s government “pro-China” or reflexively “anti-India” because of his party’s communist credentials.

There is indeed no comparison between India’s relationship with Nepal and Nepal’s relations with China. It’s a difference of “nyano and chiiisho” (warmth and frigid cold) and “bistrit and sukshma” (widespread and tiny), as many Nepalese see it. Nepal and India are bound by spirituality, common culture, geography and a sense of belongingness.

But by buying into the propaganda of Nepal’s tilt towards China and China influencing Nepal’s politics, India is only exhibiting its own insecurities and undermining history, trade and culture.

If we sum up the Indo-Nepal relations have flourished in the past at four different levels, namely at the levels of the people, civil society, business and the Government. This was buttressed by an open border, which made Indo-Nepal relations unique from rest of the border disputes. The ministers of the nations are to meet soon and discuss the border issues. The recent informal meeting ended up by agreeing to ‘maintain status quo’ at the ‘No Man’s Land’ along the border in Champawat district of Uttarakhand.

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