Janus-facedBorder disputes may happen among friends, but India’s reluctance to hold talks shows insincerity.
The border tension between Nepal and India has, once again, come to the forefront. In a recent development, India inaugurated a link road from Dharchula to Lipulekh, in its attempt to facilitate easier trade with China while offering better road service to pilgrims on the way to Mansarovar. But in doing so, it has purposely brushed aside Nepal’s claim to at least a portion of Lipulekh. Some unnecessary border disputes between neighbouring countries, especially ones that share an open and fluid border like these two countries do, is inevitable. However, in the case of the Kalapani, India has repeatedly encroached upon Nepali territory and has repeatedly rebuffed or ignored Nepal’s wish to sit down for talks to resolve the matter. This act is unbecoming of a good neighbour and friend, as India claims to be.
The dispute goes back to Nepal’s 1816 Treaty of Sugauli, agreed with the British Raj, which delineated the border between Nepal and what is now India. This treaty has, for the most part, guided the border issue—only supplanted slightly by the 1992 Mahakali Treaty. In these documents, the Mahakali river (sometimes named Kali, among others) as it flowed during the treaty signing has been set as the de facto border, with India holding all territories to the West (including the river bank) and Nepal the East. The contention arises from the movement of the river since then; more importantly, what is considered to be the starting point of the river. The Mahakali river comes into being from a confluence of streams and tributaries, feeding off a watershed. Nepal claims the watershed, and therefore the river, begins at Limpiyadhura. India believes it begins nearer Kalapani, which it has also occupied illegally for decades now.
The issue here is not the encroachment itself; we can suppose even the closest of friends may have communication errors from time to time. The serious problem here is the dualism in India’s approach. Upon receiving Nepal’s open statement ‘regretting’ the inauguration, India’s noted how it is in the process of resolving these disputes through diplomatic channels. Yet, at the same time, numerous approaches by Nepal to find a solution bilaterally have fallen on deaf ears; the southern country has simply been ignoring all recent requests to schedule meetings. The move to further develop the disputed area, while ignoring government to government talks, goes against modern international norms.
This dualism shows that India is actually not willing to negotiate. It aims to bully the smaller neighbour into forgetting the issue, even as time allows it to solidify developments, and therefore its claim, on the disputed territories. This is shameful of such a large country that claims to be a friend and leader in South Asia. The open border and strong cultural and diplomatic ties between India and Nepal would ensure India’s continued access to China through the trijunction. But the world’s seventh-largest state, by area, seems discontent with its massive holdings. It has failed to draw lessons from its own embarrassing loss of disputed territory in the past, and aims to keep what Nepal claims without so much as a discussion.
India would do well to realise that it needs friends in the region. Public image plays an important role in helping strengthen or weaken future ties. What the public in Nepal sees is a country that claims to be a bigger sibling but then moves unilaterally, without attempting discourse.
At the same time, the government in Nepal too must now project a stronger stance than it has in the past. While a small nation may have few practical options, Nepal has been hesitant to exercise all of them. Publicity vehicles, such as the recent open statement by the Foreign Ministry, are good in the short term. However, if India is truly resolved to ignore legitimate calls for talks, perhaps the time has come to register a formal disagreement through the appropriate multilateral medium. It should also be noted that the recent developments in Lipulekh could not have occurred without China’s consent. The current government, which claims such strong ties with China, must raise this issue with the northern neighbour as well.
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