By Abrita Kuthumi
The South Asian neighbors, Nepal and India, are walking away from diplomatic ties as the long running saga concerning the 230-mile disputed territories of Limpiyadhura, Kalapani, and Lipulekh rises back to the surface. Although Nepal and India seemingly reached an agreement on 98 percent of the borders through the Nepal India Joint Technical Committee that was created in 1981, the 2 percent that comprises the three territories have yet to be decided.
In May, where the most recent clash took place, the Land Management Ministry of Nepal publicly announced a new map of the country that also included the northwest territories would be published as part of educational textbooks for school and be used for administrative work. The decision follows India’s creation of a political map, which included the controversial area as part of their country back in November 2019. Although the government of Nepal criticized India’s actions as unilateral and proposed the two countries fix the argument through diplomatic talk, the response was met with silence.
Then, in early May, the Defense Minister of India, Rajnath Singh, announced the inauguration of a road project that extends from India’s Uttarakhand State to Tibet’s Kailash Mansarovar. It would be a fast route for Indians to make the pilgrimage to Tibet and create better opportunities for trade between other countries in the region, such as China. This infuriated the Nepalese public because the roadway would interject Lipulekh, one of the contested areas that Nepal believes it owns, and thus, protests erupted in front of the Indian Embassy in Nepal. Also, the Nepalese saw themselves as being ignored once again. The Nepalese public put pressure on the Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli to take a bold stance on this geopolitical issue, resulting in Nepal issuing the new map; reigniting the argument. The government of Nepal also issued a statement to India, asking them “to refrain from carrying out any activity” on the territory that has been the center of the debate between the two countries.
The dispute between Nepal and India over the boundaries travels back to 1947 AD, when India gained its independence from Great Britain. To clarify the modern borders between the two, there was a treaty signed by Nepal and the British East India Company known as the Sugauli Treaty in 1815. It stated that Kali River, also known as the Mahakali downstream, indicated the western border of Nepal. Without a map attached and the Mahakali headwater source flowing from two different locations, it has left this issue unsolved. Nepal claims the start of the Mahakali to be Limpiyadhura whereas India claims it to be Lipulekh, which is further east.
Distraction from Covid-19?
Some are questioning the timing of this heated dispute for taking place during the coronavirus pandemic. Akhilesh Upadhyay, former chief editor of The Kathmandu Post, expressed that the Prime Minister Oli was using the territorial dispute to take away the negative attention from the underwhelming response of the government to the Covid-19. Asok Swain, Indian professor at the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Sweden’s Uppsala University, echoed the sentiment in India, stating that “The road inauguration was an attempt of the Modi government to divert India’s attention from [Covid-19] policy failures.”
China, the third-party
There have been claims from India that Nepal’s political move to draw up the disputed territories under their sovereignty had to involve China. Swaran Singh, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, reflects on Nepal’s new political map as reinforcing “allegations of Nepal becoming more emboldened to take a tough stand and use harsh language against India to please their Chinese friends.” Khadga KC, Head of Diplomacy at Tribhuvan University in Nepal has rejected that narrative, claiming “As a sovereign nation, Nepal does not need to drag another neighbor in between [...] in fact, Nepal become forced to reveal its new political map after India unilaterally built and inaugurated the road within its territory.” China, claiming neutrality, chimed in by choosing to opt out of the situation. Foreign Ministry spokesperson for China, Zhao Lijian, offered a statement, saying “We hope the two countries will resolve their differences properly through friendly consultations and refrain from taking any unilateral action that may complicate the situation."