Indian officials’ snub to envoy Acharya in New Delhi does not bode well for talksNilamber Acharya has been trying to speak to senior bureaucrats in the Indian capital to discuss holding talks regarding the boundary dispute but has had no luck so far.
As pressure mounts on both Nepal and India to initiate talks at the diplomatic level over the recent boundary disputes, Nepal’s Ambassador to India has been having a difficult time getting in touch with any official at the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. This could be a sign that India has hardened its position, following Nepal’s release of a new political and administrative map that includes all disputed territories, including Limpiyadhura, Lipulekh and Kalapani.
While officials in Kathmandu have said that Nepal is pursuing all channels, both formal and informal, to create an environment conducive for talks between Kathmandu and New Delhi, Nilamber Acharya, the Nepali ambassador in New Delhi, has failed to make any headway, according to two diplomatic sources at the Nepali embassy.
“Ambassador Acharya’s failure is not for a lack of trying,” a diplomat at the Nepali embassy told the Post. “Indian officials refusing to meet with him has created a very difficult environment in which to hold talks.”
Acharya said that he is initiating talks through both official and unofficial channels.
“I cannot tell you at what level but we are talking through different channels,” Acharya told the Post over the phone from New Delhi. “But we have yet to ascertain when we will sit for talks. Though the situation is difficult due to Covid-19, we have to find a way out, and the only way out is through diplomatic talks.”
Though Nepali ambassadors in New Delhi tend to enjoy outsize social clout among the political, academic, media, and business communities, Acharya’s failure to gain facetime with government officials does not bode well for talks, say diplomats.
The boundary row between Nepal and India has escalated since the former’s release of a new political and administrative map that incorporated all territories disputed between the two countries. The map was issued in response to the Indian inauguration of a road that passes via Lipulekh to connect Kailash-Mansarovar in the Tibet Autonomous Region of China.
Since then, both sides have been trading barbs, with Indian army chief MM Naravane pointing to third-party instigation and the India media squarely blaming China for the dispute.
According to the officials, Acharya has repeatedly been attempting to either meet in person or hold a phone conversation with Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla and Joint Secretary (North) Piyush Srivastava, who is in charge of the Nepal-Bhutan desk, to no avail.
Shringla, the Indian Foreign Secretary, is supposed to lead talks over the boundary at the Foreign Secretary level from the Indian side while Srivastava is a key person at the External Affairs Ministry in charge of the Nepal-Bhutan desk.
A lack of formal communication from South Block officials either portends a hardening of position or reflects the Indian bureaucracy’s ongoing fight against the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a statement on May 9, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs had intimated that it is ready to hold formal talks once the Covid-19 crisis is over.
However, a former Nepali ambassador to India told the Post that the Nepali envoy always has leverage in Delhi and that all efforts need to be made to translate that clout into meaningful action.
“The ambassador must be active and needs to build access," former Nepali Ambassador to India Durgesh Man Singh told the Post. "We might not always gain access via bureaucratic channels so we have to step up and build clout at the political level. The Nepali ambassador in Delhi can always mobilise their social standing."
Acharya, however, is in a delicate position as he has not been able to meet people in person due to restrictions on public movement and social distancing norms.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has also instructed Acharya to reach out to senior Indian officials and open other possible lines of communication to quell the rising anti-Nepal rhetoric in the media and in public, according to the embassy officials. This hasn't happened either.
Developments in Kathmandu are not very encouraging either, as Foreign Secretary Shanker Das Bairagi met with Indian Ambassador Vinay Mohan Kwatra at the end of last week to discuss the possibility of holding an early meeting at the foreign secretary level. India did not respond positively, said officials at the Foreign Ministry.
“It seems India’s position has not changed yet and it is sticking to its last statement issued on May 20 where the ball was thrown in our court,” said one Foreign Ministry official.
In its May 20 statement, India’s Ministry of External Affairs had said that it hopes that the Nepali leadership will “create a positive atmosphere for diplomatic dialogue to resolve the outstanding boundary issues.”
“Our position is also to seek a diplomatic solution to the current standoff,” said Rajan Bhattarai, foreign relations advisor to Prime Minister KP Sharma Oli. “There is no alternative to talks. A positive environment towards this end is in the making and attempts to reach out via informal channels are taking place.”
According to the Foreign Ministry official, Nepal is in the process of writing a note to the Indian side to pile pressure to sit for talks. New Delhi has yet to respond to the diplomatic note handed to ambassador Kwatra by Foreign Minister Pradeep Gyawali on May 11 protesting India’s inauguration of the link road in Lipulekh. Delhi has not even acknowledged the receipt of the note.
As tensions continue to rise on both sides, former diplomats say that the role of an ambassador is crucial in times like this. All Nepali officials in New Delhi and the political establishment in Kathmandu must keep the issue alive, they say.
“To keep the agenda alive, we have to provoke India. Without provocation, the issue will break down and never see a conclusion,” said PB Shah, a former ambassador and career bureaucrat who spent a long time at the Foreign Ministry’s India desk. “Our position is strong and we have enough evidence to claim our land. I do not know how much proof India holds but for sure, ours is not any weaker than theirs.”