Redrawing the mapTerritorial issues between countries are as challenging to resolve as claims over land ownership between squabbling siblings.
In the title of one of his most memorable poems, Bhupi Sherchan (1936-1989) bemoans—“Galat lagchha malai mero deshko itihas” (I think my country’s history is a lie). Considering that history is often little more than the idealised version of the past, lamentations of the tormented poet are understandable. Were Bhupi alive today, he would probably say something similar about the country’s geography.
At least four generations of Nepalis have begun to discover that the maps they learnt to draw in school were all wrong. All textbooks and official maps since geography began to be taught in the schools of Nepal in the 1950s lacked a knife-like protrusion stabbing into the Kumaon-Garhwal mountains.
Born in 1946, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba can be categorised as one of the last politicos of the Veterans’ Generation that grew up after the overthrow of Ranas in 1951 and benefitted from the expansion of school education. He probably learnt to draw the map of Nepal from Indian publications back in Dadeldhura.
Premier Deuba must have then travelled to Kathmandu through the Indian territory for further studies. He definitely knows more about the ground reality of Lipulekh and Limpiyadhura than all self-styled experts put together. His silence on the border issue is more eloquent than the cacophony being played in the public sphere.
KP Sharma Oli is much more than merely the Opposition leader in the Pratinidhi Sabha. In addition to being the ethnonational chieftain of Khas-Arya across party lines, Supremo Sharma Oli is the representative figure of the Lost Generation born after the overthrow of Ranas but was brought up in the high noon of the authoritarian Shah regime.
Supremo Sharma Oli spent his formative years in Jhapa at the easternmost frontiers of the country. Just across the Mechi River in Naxalbari, the hotbed of left-wing extremism in the early-1970s in West Bengal. He caught the bug of Maoism from across the border early on and got involved in beheading ‘class-enemies’ campaigns.
Naxalbari has since done an about-turn and become the epicentre of a right-wing resurgence in the region. Sharma Oli has also discarded his egalitarian dreams and become an unapologetic nationalist of the saffron variety. He probably didn’t have much interest in bourgeois education like his Naxalite counterparts and never learnt to draw the map of the country in the classroom. Like most neo-converts, he chants nationalist slogans more often and in a higher pitch than the radical rightists of the Greater Nepal campaign.
The boundary of the Gorkha Empire was extended by Prince Bahadur Shah during his regency (1785-1795) and began to unravel soon afterwards due to the maladministration of the newly acquired territory. The Treaty of Sugauli (1814-1816) with the East India Company transformed the erstwhile empire of the Gorkhalis into a barely independent and excessively bitter country perpetually worried about its sovereignty.
After the royal-military coup of 1960, King Mahendra initiated a three-pronged disinformation campaign to justify his authoritarian takeover. Fears of the middle-class were fanned with supposed risks of ‘expansionist’ designs of India upon their identity. Apprehensions of the elite were fed with the threat of being overwhelmed by purportedly cleverer Madhesis. Proletariats were told to take pride in the glories of the past when the territory of their country spanned the entire mountain region between the Teesta River and the Fort of Kangra.
The Mahendramala Generation of Nepalis, born after the putsch of 1960 and the call of King Birendra that his realm be declared a ‘Zone of Peace’, consumed the propaganda of the Cold War era as a part of its education. This cohort continues to wallow in the puddle of the political cant that sovereignty, jingoism, chauvinism and xenophobia are somehow higher values than the humanitarian agenda of advancing equality, fraternity, liberty and secularity in society. Maverick politico Upendra Yadav and an unrepentant ‘Oliar’ Pradeep Kumar Gyawali are exemplary nationalists of the Mahendramala Generation.
Even though seeded in the 1960s to manipulate the aimlessness of the Lost Generation, the delusional rhetoric of the Shah regime gained its full force in the 1970s. The water-sharing arrangement of Kosi and Gandak Treaties pulled out of the geopolitical context of the 1950s, was made the touchstone of Nepali nationalism. The sigh of Susta was falsified as the collective cry of the borderlands.
Bishwa Prakash Sharma and Gagan Kumar Thapa—popularly-elected and relatively young general secretaries of the antiquated Nepali Congress party—are children of the 1970s. They grew up in the political milieu of the Referendum in 1980 that allowed the people to doubt the propaganda being served in the name of nationalism by the royalist regime. Kalapani and Mahakali were markers of jingoistic fervour for the Referendum Generation born between the 1970s and 1980s that came of age in the 1990s.
The Individualistic Generation born after the 1990s found aggressive chants of ‘Buddha was born in Nepal’ more captivating than border rows and entreaties for the revision of ‘unequal treaty’ between India and Nepal. Chauvinism holds more appeal for the ‘I, me, mine and myself’ generation than xenophobia. Bigoted politics, however, can’t survive on the strength of excessive nationalism alone; it needs to fan the fear and hatred of the ‘other’ to thrive.
Supremo Sharma Oli rediscovered the fatal charm of ‘expansionist India’ slogans of his youth in May 2020 and revised the map of the country that had remained more or less the same for many decades. Premier Deuba knows better, but his party can’t allow Jhapalis of the 1970s and the Maoists of the 1990s to monopolise the slogan of cartographic nationalism. The Indian Embassy in Kathmandu precipitated the government’s assertion that Lipulekh, Limpiyadhura and Kalapani are ‘integral parts’ of Nepal.
New coins with revised maps have been minted without melting old ones in circulation. Textbooks are being issued to include the extended territory. At least one more generation is likely to waste itself tilting at the windmills of ‘sovereignist’ fantasies.
In a long-form piece, Sam Cowan elaborated the complexities of border row at the India, China and Nepal tri-junction in 2015, but the government had more pressing issues to settle with New Delhi. Even today, people along the banks of the Mahakali River have to rely upon the goodwill of Indian security agencies for their livelihood. The road to Tinkar is still incomplete.
Territorial issues between countries are as challenging to resolve as claims over land ownership between squabbling siblings. Forceful annexation (Tibet) or expiration of occupation (Hong Kong) are natural options of the dominant power. Geopolitical manoeuvrings (Sikkim) sometimes succeed in acquiring complete control. Outstanding issues can be sorted out (Bangladesh and India) in the spirit of giving and taking. Historical evidentiality or cartographic adventures are proven ways of prolonging a dispute.