Talks with India over Lipulekh unlikely in near future given technical and political factorsWhile the Covid-19 is currently the prime delaying factor, analysts say that it is in India’s interest to bide its time and hope the issue fizzles out.
Amid protests on the streets and calls from the public as well as ruling and opposition leaders, the KP Sharma Oli government has reiterated its commitment to holding talks with India to settle the boundary row “soon”. Experts and analysts, however, say that there is little likelihood of talks in the near future, given technical and political factors, as well as the global Covid-19 pandemic.
The Oli government has ratcheted up its rhetoric after coming under immense pressure following India’s inauguration of a road via Lipulekh, a territory Nepal claims as its own, linking it with Kailash-Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
The latest controversy comes six months after India placed Kalapani, which Nepal also claims as its own, within Indian borders in a new political map published in line with New Delhi’s move of splitting up Jammu and Kashmir in two federal territories.
A ruling party leader himself ruled out any prospects of dialogue with India in the near future.
“I don't see talks between officials from the two sides in the immediate future,” said Bishnu Rijal, deputy chief of the ruling Nepal Communsit Party’s International Department. “The Indian side too has suggested talks once the Covid-19 crisis is over.”
In the wake of the Kalapani controversy, Nepal had proposed talks at the foreign secretary level, as mandated by the leaders of both countries, but there was no response from New Delhi.
In a statement issued on Saturday, Nepal’s Foreign Ministry said it had twice sought dates for talks and that it is still awaiting a response. Hours later, India’s Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement of its own, said that both sides are in the process of scheduling Foreign Secretary level talks, which will be held once dates are finalised after the Covid-19 pandemic has been dealt with.
Oli, however, is under pressure from political parties to hold talks with India immediately, starting at the very top prime ministerial level.
Rijal told the Post that pressure is mounting on Oli to initiate talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to address the domestic constituency’s demands and public anger that is spilling onto the streets despite the lockdown.
“A conversation between the two prime ministers can at least set the tone for future talks,” said Rijal.
Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali told the International Relations Committee of the federal parliament on Monday that Nepal is ready to hold talks at any level—foreign secretary or prime minister.
Officials based in both New Delhi and Kathmandu told the Post that they are awaiting a reply to the diplomatic note that Nepal has handed over to India regarding Lipulekh.
Nepal’s Ambassador to India Nilamber Acharya held a phone conversation with Bhagat Singh Koshiyari, governor of the Indian state of Maharashtra and coordinator of the Eminent Persons’ Group from the Indian side, to take stock of the situation, according a Nepali official based in Delhi who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Acharya too was a member of the Eminent Persons’ Group from the Nepali side and he shares a good relationship with Koshiyari, who is considered to hold significant clout in the Modi administration.
“But signals are not very encouraging for immediate talks, especially at a time when protests are taking place in Kathmandu,” said the official. “Acharya has already apprised Oli of the latest from Delhi.”
Foreign policy watchers say talks for such a sensitive issue require extensive homework. According to them, Kathmandu often makes a reactive, not proactive, move which can make it even more difficult to find an amicable solution.
Constantino Xavier, a fellow at the Brookings India think tank, said that amid talks for diplomatic steps, Kathmandu deploying security forces to Darchula on the border had raised eyebrows in India.
Nepal on Wednesday sent an Armed Police Force troop to Darchula’s Chharung, near Kalapani where Indian Army troops have been stationed since 1962.
“Even if it is intended for domestic signalling, [deployment] has naturally raised eyebrows in India, especially in the context of other border disputes flaring up between Indian and Chinese armies in recent days,” Xavier told the Post over social media.
Parliamentarians in Nepal have demanded that the Oli government pursue the issue aggressively, even suggesting that it move the International Court of Justice. But analysts describe such demands as simply nationalistic rhetoric and an outcome of a lack of understanding of how such issues play out.
“I have heard that some parliamentarians are demanding that Nepal move the International Court of Justice, but they seem to be unaware of how cases proceed at the ICJ,” said Sridhar Khatri, a professor of International Relations at Tribhuvan University.
According to Khatri, for the ICJ to take up any boundary issue, both conflicting parties should agree to present the case at The Hague.
“Taking up an issue with the ICJ is a serious matter and such rants need to stop,” he said. “Emotions and posturing only aggravate the situation unnecessarily.”
Nepal and India share special relations as neighbours but they have long been dealing with a number of perennial irritants, boundary disputes one of them.
Boundary disputes in Kalapani, Limipiyadhura and Lipulekh are not new, but they have remained unresolved for decades, largely due to Nepal’s failure to strongly raise the issue and India’s reluctance to recognise it as a problem, say analysts.
India on Saturday, in a statement issued in response to Nepal’s Foreign Ministry statement, refused to acknowledge Nepal’s claim that Lipulekh is Nepali territory. On Monday again, it did not acknowledge that Nepal’s Foreign Ministry had issued a diplomatic note to Indian Ambassador Vinay Mohan Kwatra.
In a tweet, the Indian embassy in Kathmandu just said Kwatra met Foreign Minister Gyawali and handed over a copy of the statement issued on Saturday by India’s Ministry of External Affairs.
According to Xavier, the status quo is unlikely to change with continued Indian control over the disputed territory, but in the long term, there could be space for informal negotiations towards a cooperative solution that satisfies both states.“India will likely seek to defuse the current crisis through background channels, even while seeking to delay discussion at the foreign secretary level, hoping that the issue will fizzle out again,” said Xavier. “This is no longer sustainable, as in the past. Kathmandu is likely now weighing options of whether to further push and politicise the issue at home, or conversely engage India. This depends on what Delhi is willing to offer, or whether it refuses to blink at all. To save face and conserve its already fractioned support base, PM Oli will likely insist on some political signal and assurance, possibly from Prime Minister Modi himself.”