The Plain Truth: Why Nepal Stands To Gain Nothing From Belligerence Over ‘Territorial Dispute’ With India

  • Prime Minister of Nepal, K P Sharma Oli, is claiming those areas for Nepal which that country’s own political maps do not include in its territory.

    Belligerence over such a demand will neither get the Nepali government, nor Oli, much further.
  • Jaideep MazumdarFriday, May 29, 2020 11:32 am IST
    Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 
    Nepal’s Prime Minister K P Sharma Oli with Chinese President Xi Jinping. 

    Nepal has, for all practical purposes, painted itself into a corner as far as its dispute with India over possession of Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura is concerned.

    By altering the country’s maps to show these three areas that lie in Pithoragarh district of the Indian state of Uttarakhand, as Nepal’s territory, Kathmandu has adopted a stand from which a climbdown will only leave it embarrassed.

    Nepal, under Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, who is considered to be China’s acolyte, has hardened its stance on its demand for 335 square kilometers of land covering Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura that lies beyond its extreme northwestern border.

    The popular perception is that Oli took a strongly nationalistic stance in order to stave off a serious challenge to his position from powerful rivals within his own Communist Party of Nepal (CPN) and to divert attention from his mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

    Oli has faced a lot of flak in recent months for many failures, including the humiliating withdrawal of two controversial ordinances aimed against Madhesi parties (read this and this). Oli has not been keeping good health since his second kidney transplant in early March this year, and that has triggered demands that he step down.

    Thus, the inauguration of a 75.5 km road to Lipulekh, a high mountain pass that leads from India to Tibet, by defence minister Rajnath Singh earlier this month came in handy for Oli to up the ante and divert public attention from all his troubles.

    Protests first broke out in Nepal over India reissuing maps to reflect the changed status of Jammu & Kashmir (after it was halved into two Union Territories of Ladakh and Jammu & Kashmir) in India’s political maps in November last year.

    Though India’s international boundaries remained exactly as they were in earlier maps, Nepal claimed that India had included Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura (areas that Nepal claims as its own) in the new maps. New Delhi repeatedly clarified that international boundaries were not redrawn and Indian diplomats showed the new and old maps in support of this contention, but Nepal refused to accept it.

    The inauguration of the road to Lipulekh gave Oli an opportunity to reignite passions. And then he indulged in what many feel is grave and ill-advised brinkmanship by issuing new maps that show the three contiguous areas in Uttarakhand as Nepal’s territory.

    Oli had planned to bring about a Constitutional amendment earlier this week to alter the map of Nepal (to include the three areas in India) as shown in the country’s emblem. The ordinance has been deferred, and may be tabled next week in the country’s Parliament.

    India has termed the issuing of new maps by Nepal that show Indian territory within that country as “unjustified territorial assertion”.

    Incidentally, why Nepal has to alter its maps to include the areas it claims belong to it in the new maps is something that begets explanation. If Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura have always belonged to Nepal as that country claims, why have these areas never featured in the country’s political maps and even on the map of Nepal that is part of the country’s emblem?

    The issuance of maps by one country showing areas within a neighbouring country as its own is considered in diplomatic circles as a grave act of provocation. Among India’s neighbours, it is Pakistan and China whose political maps include Indian territories. By joining that anti-India league that New Delhi is deeply and understandably suspicious of, Nepal has only precipitated matters.

    Nepal has been clamouring for immediate foreign-secretary level talks to discuss this issue, but India has stated that such discussions will take place once both nations get a firm grip over the coronavirus pandemic. But such discussions, when they are eventually held, can never result in Nepal’s demand of India handing over Kalapani, Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura to it bearing fruit.

    There is simply no way India will hand over these areas to Nepal. They are far too strategically important for India--Kalapani is in the India-Nepal-Tibet trijunction while Lipulekh leads to Tibet--to part with. Kalapani and Lipulekh are vantage points from where activities like troop movements and infrastructure development by China can be easily observed.

    Handing them over to Nepal would amount to offering China a huge strategic advantage over India on a platter. Oli is close to Beijing, which even interceded on his behalf to stave off internal challenges to his leadership recently (read this). A grateful Oli, who has been known to do Beijing’s bidding would only be too happy to allow China access to Kalapani and Lipulekh to keep watch over Indian territory and troops.

    Since there is no way New Delhi will accede to Kathmandu’s demands to part with even a fraction of the 335 square kilometers of land in Uttarakhand, Nepal’s options are severely limited. Even trying to seek international support will be futile.

    Of course, Oli will be able to strengthen his position within his party and also in the country by continuing with the aggressive nationalist stance that he has adopted against India. But that will only be temporary. Non-resolution of the issue and India’s expected refusal to accede to Nepal’s demand for territories will boomerang on Oli by exposing his unnecessary brinkmanship.

    Oli has raised Nepal’s hopes of “getting back territories that India holds”. When people of Nepal realise that those were false hopes held out by Oli only to save his chair, popular anger will likely turn against him. Oli might also find his position with his party weakened even more and even his benefactors in Beijing may not be able to save him.

    Given all this, Oli would be well-advised to climb down from his hard stance and shed his brinkmanship. By being patient and allowing his diplomats to handle the issue, Oli will be doing himself and his country a big favour.

    India, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is committed to cementing ties with its neighbours. New Delhi can be, and has been, quite generous with Nepal. Kathmandu has a lot to gain by maintaining friendly ties with New Delhi and taking up contentious issues in bilateral diplomatic fora.

    Nepal has some genuine concerns and demands that remain unresolved. There is also the case for India stepping up its help and commitments to Nepal. But all that can come about only through cordial parleys between two friendly neighbours.

    Oli’s pugnacious aggression and anti-India statements (like this) will not accrue any gains for Nepal and will ultimately prove to be self-defeating.

    Also read—Explained: How the dispute with Nepal over Kalapani is a legacy of I K Gujral’s misplaced altruism

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